Leiters relish connection with Phillies
Father, son able to share joy of playing for team they rooted for as kids
Sometimes there were organized field trips for the kids in Toms River, N.J., journeys on buses to see the Phillies play. Mark Leiter can still remember the sense of awe and wonderment and excitement that filled him as the bus came over the crest of the Walt Whitman Bridge and Veterans Stadium came into view.
Here's the thing: Years later, as a veteran Major League player, he felt exactly the same way after signing a two-year, $3.3 million free-agent contract with the Phils.
"When I was a kid, I'd say, 'There it is! The stadium!' And I got to come over that bridge as a player, and I'd think the same thing. 'That's where I work now!' That was a thrill for me," Leiter said. "It really was. Every day, through the good periods and the bad periods, I absolutely loved that."
"I only played here two years in my career. And it was the biggest thrill. I say this, and people laugh at me. But I don't think there was a guy who loved playing for the Phillies more than I did. I know there are guys who played here for so many years and were so great. But to grow up as a kid coming here and dreaming about being on the field at the Vet someday and then getting to do it? That was amazing."
In June, a neat postscript was added to this story. His son, Mark Leiter Jr., had the opportunity experience a similar sensation after being drafted by the Phils in the 22nd round out of New Jersey Institute of Technology in June.
"It was easily one of the biggest thrills of my life. Because we're Phillies fans. And he absolutely loves the Phillies," Leiter said. "So, deep down, that was the dream, to get drafted. And then for it to happen and it was the Phillies -- it was very emotional. He felt the same way, believe it or not, as I did when I got to sign with the Phillies. It was a thrill. It was a dream."
Like his father, the namesake Leiter is a right-handed pitcher. He finished his first pro season with a combined 4-0 record, with a 1.20 ERA for 16 games (four starts) between the Gulf Coast League Phillies, Clearwater Threshers and Lakewood BlueClaws, a club located in his back yard. He ended the season making three starts (2-0) in Lakewood and didn't allow a run in 16 innings.
Senior has been a hands-on coach from the start. And while he said never pushed his son, he laughingly remembered putting a brand new baseball and glove in his crib after he was born.
Dad only let him throw fastballs and changeups while his arm was developing. Once his son got to college, selecting NJIT in part because it gave him an opportunity to go into the rotation as a freshman, he encouraged him to develop a wide repertoire.
"When he got to college I told him, 'Learn it all. You never know where your velocity is going to be at.' Unfortunately, velocity is always the thing that scouts are looking for. But I told him to pitch first. You never know if you're going to be a hard-thrower," Leiter explained. "He throws everything. He can throw a cutter, splits, curves, sliders. He's got a great changeup. So he's a pitcher. He learned to be a pitcher and not just a guy to reach back and challenge everybody."
It wasn't just the mechanics of pitching that Leiter Sr. tried to impart. He's talked about the mental part of the game as well.
Leiter played for eight big league teams. He had more success in other places than he did in Philadelphia, where he went 10-17 with a 5.67 ERA in 1997. Leiter had better success when moved into the bullpen the following year, earning 23 saves with a 3.55 ERA for the Phillies. At the end of the '98 season, the Phils picked up his option and traded him to the Mariners for Paul Spoljaric.
Leiter admits that he didn't handle adversity as well as he might have.
"One thing I wasn't good at: I beat myself up too much when I struggled," Leiter said. "I've always told [Mark Jr.] it's all right to beat yourself up. But then think about the positives you did in that game. Because even our worst games, we did something good.
"For me, I would be upset for days. And you can't do that. Because if you're going to struggle for a month, it's going to be a long month. So it's good to beat yourself up. But then remember to say, 'You know what? I did get ahead of most of the hitters today.' Or whatever it may be. Take something positive out of every game and just keep trying to get better."
Leiter also preaches work ethic and to focus on the present.
"I've always told him, 'Don't let anybody work harder than you. Whatever the coach tells you to do, do double. Because everybody else is doing that. You've got to work hard,'" Leiter said.
"And try not to give it too much thought. I look back on my career, and there were times when I'd think like, 'Boy, what a mountain that is to climb to get to the big leagues and survive for a long time.' And if you think about it while you're trying to do it, it's going to seem impossible. And that's why you just have to say, 'I need to just pitch good today and I'll worry about tomorrow, tomorrow.' It's just being consistent, the same thing we all have to learn when we're playing. Be consistent, do your job and keep getting to the next level."
Leiter likes to say he was a baseball fan long before he was a big league player, and it runs in the family.
"I'm happy [Mark Jr.] loved baseball the way he did," he said. "He's a student of it. He knows the history of the game. He loved collecting baseball cards, reading everything he could. It's like we were my family when we were kids. He started young, fell in love with it."
And even though Leiter is long retired, he still retains his passion for the game. In fact, if you see a 50-year-old man with a baseball glove in the bleachers during batting practice at Citizens Bank Park, trying to catch a ball hit into the stands, it could well be him.