Brian Koonz: Ex-Yankee Leyritz brings his redemption to Bridgeport

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Brian Koonz: Ex-Yankee Leyritz brings his redemption to Bridgeport

By Brian Koonz

BRIDGEPORT — In less time than it took to knock back a shot, two hulking SUVs and two fragile worlds collided at a dark intersection in Fort Lauderdale in 2007.

It was barely three days after Christmas and Jim Leyritz, the 1996 World Series hero for the New York Yankees, was drunk.

Really drunk.

The legal limit in Florida is .08 and Leyritz was sloshed at .14 after vigorously celebrating his 44th birthday, the police said.

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The other driver, Freida Ann Veitch, a 30-year-old mother of two, was in worse shape at .18, more than twice the legal limit.

Veitch, who wasn’t wearing a seatbelt, was thrown from her Mitsubishi Montero and pronounced dead an hour later. Leyritz, the fireplug catcher with the permanent fist pump rounding first base, was looking at 15 years in prison.

When the case finally went to court in 2010, and a yellow light helped get a manslaughter acquittal, the jury gave Leyritz his life back. But he was hardly intact, a man living with a night that went terribly wrong, a night when booze won and everyone else lost.

“I’ll take a DUI because that’s what I did. I was drinking and driving,” Leyritz said Thursday in Bridgeport. “But I did not contribute to her death that night. I did not cause the accident, but yes, I was drinking and driving. I’ve taken responsibility for that all along.”

The transcripts talk about Veitch’s headlights being off and her cell phone being on. The distractions and the liquor killed her, the defense attorneys said, even as Leyritz had no business getting behind the wheel that night.

It was selfish. It was irresponsible. It was the worst decision he ever made and Jim Leyritz will tell you so a hundred times.

During a window between batting practice and signing autographs, Leyritz took his redemption road show to The Ballpark at Harbor Yard for a charity baseball game to benefit the homeless, especially veterans.

Leyritz insists he is a changed man, a convert of Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif. The 11 seasons he enjoyed in the majors, including two World Series championships with the Yankees, are the conversation starter for a brand-new message.

There are plenty of pews at the tabernacle of forgiveness. The pulpit is always open here because the spirit of contrition is always open inside Leyritz.

“I’m trying to change lives by sharing my story,” Leyritz said. “Sometimes, you can feel like the whole world is against you. I went from World Series hero to World Series zero. That’s basically what I went through.

“Even before the accident, I was the kid who wasn’t drafted and still made it to New York. I hit the home run that everyone remembers.

“I tell people that I left behind a baseball legacy, but what I wasn’t doing was leaving behind a life legacy. That’s what I’m trying to do now with my new wife, Michelle, and our five kids — my three boys and her two girls.”

When Leyritz stood before the judge at sentencing in December 2010, he was given a year of probation, a suspended license for six months and a $500 fine.

The big contracts with the Yankees were gone. The $450,000 broadcasting gig to talk about the game he loved was gone, too. Jim Leyritz was cut off from baseball’s money train.

The man who gave Game 4 of the 1996 World Series to the Yankees with one swing of his bat, the kind of swing that crushes one team and anoints another, is the stuff of legend.

It’s all the fans wanted to talk about Thursday as they pushed baseballs and programs and pictures in front of Leyritz to sign.

The moment endures because the big ones always do.

Joe Torre waved his finger and Leyritz waved his bat. He pinch-hit for Joe Girardi with a brand-new bat he borrowed fromDarryl Strawberry. A three-run homer became his defining moment as a ballplayer.

But at the end of the day, professional baseball is fantasy and entertainment. Jim Leyritz was an overachieving catcher who rose to the moment in Atlanta, but stumbled badly when the drinks went down too easy and a Ford Expedition cranked even easier.

There are those who say Leyritz got off with a slap on the wrists, that he lawyered-up and bought his freedom with hot shot attorneys wearing a different set of pinstripes.

Don’t count Leyritz among them.

“The jury decided this case in less than 30 minutes because it was so clear cut,” said Leyritz, who still signed off on a $350,000 wrongful death settlement to Veitch’s family. “Again, I take full responsibility for drinking and driving that night. I deserved to get a DUI. I made a bad decison, but I wasn’t responsible for her death.”

The color of a traffic light changed Jim Leyritz’s life forever, even as an intersection in Fort Lauderale was never darker.

Leyritz is here to tell you he’s sorry, that he wishes that night never happened.

Other nights, like one in Atlanta in 1996, are meant to live on.

Brian Koonz is the group sports columnist for Hearst Connecticut Media. Contact him at [email protected] or @briankoonz on Twitter.