'Family affair': Father's Day at CWS for Leiters

June 20th, 2021

The father-son interviews have been happening a bit more frequently these days. And they’re only going to increase.

“I get it,” said. “It’s Father’s Day. I played 19 seasons in the big leagues, and my son’s pretty good.”

Al, of course, did pitch in the big leagues for nearly two decades, winning a World Series ring with the Blue Jays in 1993 and the Marlins in '97. His “pretty good” son, , is the No. 2 starter on a Vanderbilt team playing in the College World Series, and could very well be the first pitcher taken in the 2021 Draft, ranked No. 3 on MLB Pipeline’s Top 250 list.

The Commodores began play in Omaha on Saturday with a 12-inning, walk-off win against Arizona that lasted nearly five hours (the fourth-longest game in College World Series history) before Vanderbilt took it, 7-6.

Vandy has an off-day on Sunday, with Leiter getting the ball Monday against North Carolina State in the winner's bracket. Al and the Leiter family will be there, making what might be Jack’s only trip to the CWS the ultimate Father’s Day gift.

“When you put it like that, it really is a special couple of days,” Jack said. “It’s really just about enjoying Father’s Day, thanking my dad a ton for everything he’s done for me, how he’s helped mold me into not just the player I am today, but the person I am. After the day is over, I’ll go to bed that night with a clear mind and go to the field like I would for any other start.”

“The day before his College World Series start! How cool is that?” Al said, warming to the subject. “We are so blessed, lucky, grateful. This is a family affair. His sisters are so proud and into it; everybody’s watching. It’s really fun for me to observe all of this. And it’s thanks to Jack. It’s the gift that keeps on giving.”

Al was a second-round pick of the Yankees in the 1984 Draft, and he decided to sign out of his New Jersey high school rather than head to the University of Florida. Anyone who has spent time with the MLB Network analyst will confirm he’s not one to carry regrets. Things certainly worked out for him over the course of his very long career, but he has definitely wondered what it would have been like to have the college experience, especially since his older brother Kurt pitched for Oklahoma State twice in Omaha, facing Roger Clemens in '82. And now, Al's in the position of many “regular” dads whose kids are premium athletes: He gets to live vicariously through his son.

“I always thought that would’ve been cool,” Al admitted. “That was always in the deep back of my mind. Once it looked like this was real for him, I was happy to be able to be in the position that it wasn’t a money decision, it was a life decision. This was always the school he dreamt of going to. I am, and he is, so thrilled to be in Omaha right now.”

“Just as much as I’ve dreamed of this, he dreamed of this for me,” Jack said. “This is why you come to Vanderbilt. Of course, there’s the academics and the culture that’s been built on and off the field. You come here to compete and you can’t make it at a top program if you don’t want to compete.

“It’s two right answers, signing out of high school or going to college,” Jack continued, likely referring both to his father’s choice and his own decision to forego a significant bonus to sign as a high schooler himself in 2019. “I came here to pitch in some high-leverage situations where inning is the most important thing. In the Minor Leagues, that’s not always the case. You come to Vanderbilt to be here in Omaha. I’m really happy, not just for my dad -- yes it’s Father’s Day -- but my whole family has come along for the ride because it’s been a fun year so far.”

Al will undoubtedly be a bundle of nerves when Jack takes the mound, and probably throughout the entire Series as he has come to know most of the kids on Vanderbilt’s roster. Jack, perhaps taking after his mom, is a little bit more even-keeled than dad, though the Leiter goofiness shows up off the field. The biggest challenge for Al is finding the balance between just being Dad and being the guy with a boatload of pitching experience to pass along.

“It’s a real question,” Al said. “When I watch, first and foremost, I’m watching as a loving father and proud as hell. But then, I can’t help it. I played, participated, watched for 23 years, in the booth 12 years, TV, etc. I look at it in an analysis way. I did that for my own career, and not only for Jack now. I watch a lot of SEC games, I look at every single kid, I intently watch, I observe whoever is on the mound. ... But I’m not psycho.”

Jack would agree, at least that’s what Al thinks he’ll say.

“Honestly, that would be good for you to ask him,” Al said. “I hope he says no. I’m just goofy enough, I have a method to my madness how I keep it fun.”

He wasn’t wrong, mostly.

“I think there were times when I was younger, I was still figuring out my passions and what sports I wanted to play, and he encouraged me to play all the sports and find out what I loved,” Jack said. “But when I was working about baseball, it would get a little excessive for a 10-year-old in terms of mechanical adjustments. I just saw him as dad at that point and didn’t really comprehend who he was. I’ve grown to appreciate it more, and as I gain more knowledge, we can bounce things off each other.”

That dynamic will likely continue to grow when Jack closes this chapter and moves on to pro ball. Al sees in Jack a different level of know-how and maturity than he had at that age.

“He’s way better than me when I was at his age,” Al said. “I’m not saying that as his dad at all. His delivery, his demeanor, his presence -- all better than me. I 100 percent know that as fact. I was a ‘hair on fire’ kind of guy. I finally figured it out when I was 28 years old. His completeness now, it’s not even close.”

That should serve Jack well for what Al thinks his son wants to accomplish at the next level.

“He probably won’t admit it, but he wants to have a better career than his dad,” Al said, “which I love. But I did win 162 games, played 19 years, won a couple of championships, so he has his work cut out for him.”

For once, Al is wrong about his son. Jack doesn’t mind admitting it at all.

“As a competitive pitcher, you want to be the best pitcher there is,” Jack said. “You look at whoever the best guys there are, you want to compare yourself to those guys. That’s the best way to do it.

“I respect my dad’s career on such a high level, and I know he accomplished so much. You shoot high, and if you don’t get there, it’s not like you failed. But of course I want to have a better career than my dad.”