Jim Leyritz (right) takes in the sights alongside the likes of Alex Rodriguez at Saturday’s Old-Timers’ Day. Photo: Charles Wenzelberg
He never reached any 3,000-hit milestone, 3,000 hits to his reputation, perhaps. But Jim Leyritz, all the way back in the Yankees family at last, knows he has more in common with Alex Rodriguez than the No. 13 on their pinstriped backs.
“I understand what the word redemption is,” Leyritz said, on his field of dreams for the first time in eight years on a day that lately has been Cold-Timers’ Day for him but was Old-Timers’ Day again at last.
“I was humbled during the accident, and I think Alex was humbled by his suspension. I haven’t had a chance to see or talk to him, but I can tell you this much: if he was as humbled as I was, you get a new start.”
Jim Leyritz never could watch Yogi and Whitey come in from the outfield on a cart from the dugout, could never could feel the rumble of the great roar inside Yankee Stadium for the Bucky Dents and the Reggie Jacksons and the Lou Piniellas. He could only watch from the suites, where he would sign autographs and meet and greet corporate sponsors, or sit behind homeplate in Mitchell Modell’s seats, on the outside looking in.
“Last year was the first year I didn’t come at all because I just said, ‘You know what? Let it go.’ Usually when you let things go, they happen,” Leyritz said.
Old-Timers’ Day for Jim Leyritz happened because Jenny Steinbrenner, George’s daughter and a Yankees General Partner, made sure it happened all those agonizing months and years since his 2010 acquittal for DUI manslaughter in the tragic 2007 early-morning crash in Broward County, Fla., when his Ford Expedition collided with a Mitsubishi Montero driven by 30-year-old Fredia Ann Veitch, a mother of two.
“When you’re involved in something like that,” Leyritz said, “whether it’s your responsibility or not, which obviously we proved it wasn’t, but you never forget it.
“There’s not a day goes by that I don’t say a prayer for her and her family and her kids.
“It was a one-time circumstance that I was involved in. I should have never been drinking and driving. That was the one mistake I made. And I said from the beginning, I’ll take a DUI, that’s what I was guilty of that night. But I wasn’t guilty of causing the accident, I wasn’t guilty of causing her death.”
And so there on this Old-Timers’ Day was Leyritz, 51 now, on a day when a classy Yankee co-Captain from Brooklyn named Willie Randolph and a courageous Mel Stottlemyre, fighting cancer, were honored with their own plaques, on a day when Whitey was there without his 90-year-old Yogi, there was Leyritz, a Yankee monument to forgiveness.
“As you could imagine, the closing of Yankee Stadium, the old stadium, the opening of this one, all of these other memories that I could have been a part of I wasn’t allowed to be,” Leyritz said. “But even more than that, the toll it took on my children — waiting every day not knowing whether their dad would be there to watch them grow up, watch them go to their dances and graduate from high school.
“As much as it was tough on me, how much tougher it was on the other family because the woman had passed. So there was never a time that I felt sorry for myself. I just felt very fortunate that I didn’t pass away that night, because it could have been me.
“It’s all in the past. This is the beginning of a new beginning. I thank God for having this opportunity, and the Yankees for having me back.”
He was in New York at the start of the season when his wife, Michelle, called from their Orange County, Calif., home.
“My wife called me from California and she said, ‘Are you sitting down?’ And I said, ‘Why, what happened?’ I thought something happened to my mon and dad, or something happened to my kids,” Leyritz said. “And she was crying and I said, ‘What’s wrong?’ And she said, ‘I just came home and found an envelope at the front door, thought it was one of your checks for one of your appearances, I opened it up,’ and she said it was an invite to Old-Timers’ Day, ‘You’ve been invited back.’ She knew how much it meant to me to be back with these guys.”
He was a little boy again, free again to mingle with his Yankees family members again, even crush a few batting-practice home runs to left.
“I wasn’t going to cry today, but Pat Kelly almost made me cry,” Leyritz said. “Pat came in with a glove that I gave him in 1992 when I got sent down and he got called up. It was a second baseman’s glove. And he brought it in today.”
There was Leyritz, basking in a forever moment in time even more joyous and memorable for him than the dramatic three-run, game-tying home run off Mark Wohlers in Game 4 of the 1996 World Series in Atlanta, trotting out to that sweet old sound of cheers from his old fans before he caught and batted seventh for the Bombers against the Clippers.
“The homer off Wohlers, … I couldn’t really enjoy it because all I could think about is, ‘If we don’t win this game, it doesn’t mean anything.’ I take more pride in Game 5, catching Andy Pettitte in that 1-0 game. To me, that’s my greatest game that I’ve ever been a part of,” Leyritz said.
No home run off Wohlers, likely no Joe Torre Yankees Dynasty.
“These fans have never forgotten what that ’96 team and that ’96 homer did for everybody,” Leyritz said.
He is rebuilding his life as National Director of Development for Rollie Fingers’ charity, The Greatest Save, to prevent child sex trafficking and abductions. He spent 13 years in the Yankees system, and they used to call him The King when he played, in part because he had a Pete Rose cockiness about him right from the beginning, in part because he once called a first-pitch home run in Baltimore off Rick Sutcliffe. Never more than Saturday, when he felt like a king once again, finally.
“Somebody asked me the other day, ‘What would you change in your life, if anything?’ ” Leyritz said. “And I said with all the hardships and all the glorified things that I’ve gone through — the good and the bad — I would not change anything except for that one moment that woman passed away.
“And that’s the only regret that I have in my entire life.”