Ex-Yankee Leyritz paved own road to majors

Published May 17, 2017 at 4:10pm

What do you do when you’re expected to be drafted in the Major League Baseball draft right out of high school? You take a longer road and pave your own path.

That’s exactly what former two-time World Series champion with the New York Yankees Jim Leyritz did.

Leyritz was the speaker at the Legends of the Diamonds dinner on Tuesday night at the Beeches. The dinner was put on by the Rome Lions and Lake Delta Kiwanis clubs.

“I was signed as free agent out of Hayes, Kansas,” Leyritz said. “I was playing in a tournament Wichita in the Jayhawk League, and one of the Yankee scouts saw me hitting and catching and asked me, ‘Why didn’t you sign?’ I said I was never drafted,” Leyritz said.

Leyritz was supposed to be taken out of high school in the 1982 draft.

He and former Cincinnati Reds shortstop Barry Larkin were ranked the No. 1 and 2 players in Cincinnati. Two days before the draft, Leyritz broke his ankle playing tennis.

The team that wanted to draft Leywritz was the Atlanta Braves, but once his father told them about his broken ankle, the Braves passed on the young catcher.

“The joke with the scout in Cincinnati and my dad is that if they would have taken me, you probably could have changed history and not killed the Braves,” Leyritz chuckled.

The scout then told Leyritz that he wanted to take a chance on him.

Leyritz, who had a full scholarship waiting for him to the University of Kentucky, said that he could be persuaded. Leyritz’s father then flew out, and talked with both the Yankees and the Kansas City Royals, and ultimately, Leyritz signed with the Yankees due to the fact that they would pay for him to finish his education.

Leyritz had an invitation to spring training in 1986. Then Yankee manager Bucky Dent wanted Leyritz to switch hit, but he wanted to just hit right-handed. Dent then told Leyritz that if he wasn’t going to switch hit, he would be let go.

“Fast forward to spring training 1990, who’s the manager of the Yankees but Bucky Dent,” Leyritz said. “There was probably no chance in hell that I was going to make that team no matter what I did and I hit .350 in the spring.”

Dent was fired as manager of the Yankees in June 1990 and Leyritz was called up to the big leagues two days later with Allan Mills.

“The Yankees don’t do this often,” Leyritz said referring to the organization giving young players a chance then. “If we went in there and did well, we would open the door for a lot more other guys. Gene Michael was giving the minor leaguers a chance. I went in there and hit .350 right off the bat, Mills saved a few games. We finally got our chance.”

Besides his game-winning World Series home run, Leyritz says his walk-off 15th inning two-run home run over the Seattle Mariners in the 1995 American League Division Series is his fondest memory. “I caught all 15 innings that game and before I came up to bat, I was told that I needed to do something because I was getting pulled the next inning,” Leyritz said.

A year later in the 1996 World Series against the Braves, Leyritz got to play the role of hero again. Leyritz hit a game-tying 3-run home run to help the Yankees come back and tie the game and eventually win the series. Leyritz also caught Andy Pettitte’s Game 5 gem of the ‘96 World Series.

On that 1996 World Series team was a rookie by the name of Derek Jeter.

Growing up, Jeter had always worn No.13. Leyritz was wearing No. 13 with the Yankees, and recalls wanting to wear No. 14 in honor of Pete Rose.

“Derek could have had 13 if he asked,” Leyritz said. “I actually didn’t know that he wanted it until I read something in the paper last week.”