Leake supports father after tragic accident

Father of Cardinals starter paralyzed after fall in 2013

June 15th, 2017
Chris Leake, left, and his son, Mike, bonded over design and construction throughout Mike's childhood.

ST. LOUIS -- The log cabin sits unfinished on a Montana lot. Chris Leake hasn't been back to see it in two years. He never plans to again.
The scars from that summer day four years ago -- when Chris, working atop the roof of a home that was supposed to be his retirement retreat, suffered a catastrophic fall -- are permanent. At times, the struggle to get through each day seems so, too.
He's stubborn, he'll tell you. "A fighter," says his son, Cardinals starter Mike Leake. And it's helped that Chris hasn't had to fight alone.
In the days leading up to Father's Day, both Chris and Mike described how their family bond has strengthened amid the trials of an unwanted circumstance.
:: Father's Day 2017 ::
"It opened many more eyes than I thought I had," Mike said. "I thought I only had two eyes, but I've been able to take a drastic thing like that and realize how many people get affected by the actual injury, and what the ripple effect kind of causes."
Their relationship is different now, but the lessons Chris once prioritized as a father remain relevant. When his love of building and hiking were instantly taken away by an accident that left him paralyzed from the waist down, Chris found himself challenged by what he had once dispensed as advice to his sons.
"I don't know if I have the right to feel sorry for myself sometimes, because I don't believe in that," Chris said. "I used to think that everybody should be strong. Well, I don't feel so strong right now."
Baseball and building were the two endeavors that Mike, now in his second year pitching for the Cardinals, and his dad had long bonded over. Baseball came first, with Mike following his older brother, Ryan, to practice before finding his way onto the field as well.
Chris nurtured his sons' athletic pursuits, which, for Mike, were split among baseball, basketball and soccer. Chris was both father and coach, which led him to realize early (when Mike was 9 years old, Chris says) that his son possessed the sort of talent that could take him far.
"I guess I knew at a young age that he was athletically gifted, but I was always pleasantly surprised at his success," Chris said. "As you know, as kids get older, there are more things that try to get in their way. And he just kept rising. It was amazing. A joyful surprise."
In many ways, those were much simpler days for the Leakes.
When Mike was young, Chris ventured into the construction business. He was self-taught, and delegated little, preferring to be hands-on from the design through the build. Sons Mike and Ryan often tagged along. Chris laughs when he recalls how Mike spent most of his time supervising his older brother.
But Mike was also curious and perceptive, and what he absorbed watching his father then has stuck with him. He still dabbles in design.
For Chris, the career didn't merely tap into a passion. It also provided the freedom for him to set his own schedule. That way, being a dad could take precedence.
"I would never have replaced it," said Chris, who estimates that he completed 30 houses in his career. "If I had to close up to go to a national tournament somewhere, that's what I did. It was perfect because [the boys] did provide a heck of a lot of fun."
In coaching both boys into their teenage years, Chris became their motivator, encourager and critic.
"He didn't like pouting, and that was probably one of the more difficult ones for me to get over," Mike said. "If you started swinging like a [wimp], you either got yelled at, or told it was time to go home. I guess you could say it was his bulldog mentality."
But there was a sensitive side, too.
For instance, take Chris' actions the handful of times Mike got tossed from a Little League game.
"I would go out, get in an argument with the umpire because I wanted to get thrown out, too," Chris said, chuckling. "I didn't want him to have to go sit by himself. I didn't want him to be alone."
Together, they'd sit in the car until the game ended.
Now, it's Mike's turn to sit alongside his dad.
Mike, who had pitched seven strong innings in a Reds win earlier on that day in August, 2013, was heading for an evening walk with his wife in downtown Chicago when the call came from his mother. His father had been in a bad accident and Mike needed to come home.
So, Mike and his wife, Catherine, rented a car, drove back to Cincinnati and then flew to Montana, where they found his father immobile in a hospital bed. Chris had sustained multiple injuries, the most permanent of which led to paralysis.
Mike remained with his dad for a few days before returning to the Reds, who needed him for eight more starts that season. As Mike pitched amid the distraction, Chris faced the reality that life would never be the same. Four years later, he still hasn't accepted it.
"I hate it every day," Chris said. "I just want to go for a walk. And then the pain thing, you can just never get away from it. They say, whoever they are, that you get a new normal. I just don't see it. I don't like it. But I translate that into never giving up. I still have not ever given up that something good will happen."
It changed Mike, too. Though he often shied away from talking too much about baseball with his family, nothing else was off limits. Conversations with his dad were raw, sometimes emotional and real.
"Different people in my family reacted to it differently," Chris said. "Michael never showed any fear in it. So in a lot of ways, we've grown closer because I know how much he loves me. I know the type of person he is deep down that other people don't see, because of the way he reacted toward my misfortune. It just shows that he has a very strong love in there. It makes a parent happy when your child is capable of doing that."
Chris and Mike don't see each other as often as they'd like. The neuropathic pain Chris deals with is unrelenting, and it makes travel tough. When he visited St. Louis earlier this year, Chris was too ill to come to the ballpark on the night his son pitched. He hopes to make another visit in July.
In the meantime, Chris keeps himself occupied by still dabbling in construction. It's smaller projects now, ones he can accomplish solely with his hands. He's taken to making furniture, picture frames and stain art. He might try metalworking in the future. Mike offers design ideas and support.
Chris calls it his therapy.
"I'm very proud of my son, but baseball has very little do to do with that," Chris said. "He's done incredibly well, but the other stuff he's shown me has been so much more important."
Mike feels the same about his father, who is living the lessons that he once tried to instill upon his young boys: Don't give in, never give up, be stubborn and never let life's circumstances take away what you love.
"He's a guy who wants to enjoy his life and wants to get the best out of every moment in life," Mike said, with tears in his eyes. "It has all just made me not take the game so serious. I do my best to try and learn, and enjoy this game in a different way to make me want to be here."