ELKO — Jim Leyritz became famous as a Major League Baseball player, but his story reaches far beyond the fields of Yankee Stadium or Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium.
Leyritz’s fame grew immensely — thanks to incredible postseason performances — while playing for the most notable baseball team in the history of the world, winning two World Series with the New York Yankees.
What many people do not know is what makes up the man.
His journey is one of fame, tragedy, redemption and faith.
Going from a World Series hero, Leyritz then went through a failed marriage, a custody battle for his three boys, a DUI in which a woman died, a renewed faith in God, got remarried and now lives in Orange County, California, and does charity work in his old stomping grounds, New York.
For his MLB career, Leyritz batted .264, hit 90 home runs, tallied 387 RBIs and scored 325 runs.
Pretty modest numbers for someone with his stature in the baseball world.
What made Leyritz famous legendary was the timing, significance and clutch value of some his biggest plays, which also happen to be some of the plays that dictate the history of the game.
Starting with failure.
In 1995, the Yankees — one of Leyritz’s six teams he played for (Angels, Rangers, Red Sox, Padres and Dodgers) and seven stops in the league — lost in Game 5 of the ALDS to the Seattle Mariners, Ken Griffey Jr. scoring from first base on a walk-off, two-RBI double by Edgar Martinez in the bottom of the 11th inning for a 6-5 victory and the series win.
What many people do not know, is Leyritz was behind the plate on the renowned play.
“I still have the ball that was thrown from the outfield to my glove,” he said. “That was the year after the strike. Cal Ripken’s streak of consecutive-games played and that series against the Mariners saved baseball, or at least baseball in Seattle. They wrote a book about it.”
Also, casual fans do not remember that New York opened a 2-0 lead in the series — winning both home games at Yankee Stadium — before falling in the series with three straight losses.
The Yankees built the 2-0 lead on a yard job Leyritz, nailing a two-run homer off Seattle pitcher Tim Belcher in the bottom of the 15th inning in Game 2, a contest in which Leyritz caught all 15 innings.
“Winning two World Series was incredible, but individually, hitting a walk-off homer at Yankee Stadium in the playoffs is as good as it gets,” Leyritz said.
The next season, the Yankees hit the field without former manager Buck Showalter and played for newly-hired manager Joe Torre — the rest is history.
New York won its 23rd World Series in 1996 and the first for the Yankees since 1978, Leyritz playing a huge part.
“Buck Showalter is the best manager I have ever played for. Nobody knows more about the game of baseball than he does,” Leyritz said. “Torre was a great manager of people. He may have talked to us in official meetings like six or eight times all season, but he got the superstars to buy into the team concept and let some of the veterans — like David Cones and myself — police the clubhouse.”
Facing the Atlanta Braves in the ’96 World Series, New York was crushed at home — losing each of the first-two games by scores of 12-1 and 4-0 — bouncing back with a 5-2 win in Game 3, in Atlanta.
In Game 4, the Yankees fell behind 6-0 and were in grave danger of falling behind 3-1 in the series, likely spelling the end for New York and the champagne bottles for the Braves.
With the score 6-3, Leyritz ripped a three-run homer down the line in left field off Altanta closer Mark Wohlers, all tied up 6-6.
The Bronx Bombers went on to win the game 8-6 in 10 innings — claiming the series in six games — beating the Braves 1-0 in Game 5, in Atlanta, slamming the door with a 3-2 victory on Game 6, at Yankee Stadium.
In 1997, Leyritz was dealt to the Anaheim Angels and then traded to the Texas Rangers.
He opened the ’98 season with the Boston Red Sox, catching for the likes of Pedro Martinez and Tim Wakefield.
“We had some great veteran pitchers, but (pitching coach) Joe Kerrigan wanted to call every pitch from the dugout,” Leyritz said. “I was a veteran catcher and knew how to call a game from the plate, how to throw to different batters and what pitches to call in which situations — for the batter and who we had on the mound.”
Saying “it was like high school or college,” Leyritz asked for a trade and was granted his wish.
“I wasn’t going to look to the dugout for every pitch, so they traded me to the San Diego Padres,” Leyritz said.
Little did he know, he was going to embark on another magical postseason run.
In the ’98 NLDS, Leyritz batted .400 and tagged three home runs with five RBIs against the Houston Astros, breaking a 1-1 tie in the seventh inning of Game 3 with a solo shot against Randy Johnson for a 2-1 win.
“Randy Johnson was probably the toughest pitcher to face in the league, but I looked forward to it and tried to do my best every time I stepped in against him,” Leyritz said.
The Padres took Game 4 by a score of 6-1 for a 3-1 series win.
In the ’98 NLCS, Leyritz drilled another bomb off Denny Neagle in the bottom of the sixth inning of Game 4 in an 8-3 loss the Braves, but San Diego won the series in six games — setting up a meeting against a familiar foe in the World Series.
The Yankees awaited, New York looking for its second championship in three seasons.
“I received a standing ovation in Game 1 at Yankee Stadium as an opposing player, which was insane and really cool. Then, they introduced Wally Joyner, and the fans booed him like crazy. He turned to me and said ‘that ended real quickly,’” Leyritz said. “I went 0-for-10 in that series and the Yankees swept us.”
After starting the ’99 season in San Diego, Leyritz was traded back to the Yankees, making another trip back to the World Series, New York’s third in four years.
“In ’99, there was more pressure; just going to the World Series was not an accomplishment anymore,” he said. “We were there to win, and we were expected to win.”
He dealt with an injury, one which was serious enough Leyritz said he couldn’t even “hit the ball out of the infield.”
“I told (Derek) Jeter and (Chuck) Knoblauch that if I got a chance, I was going to hit one out,” Leyritz said.
He didn’t lie.
In the bottom of the eighth with the Yankees up 3-1 and leading the series three games to none, Leyritz took Braves pitcher Terry Mulholland for a pinch-hit, solo ride to left field.
The homer capped New York’s 4-1 victory and a series sweep, giving the Yanks their third World Series in four seasons.
Leyritz played for the Yankees and Dodgers in 2000, the final season of his MLB career.
In 2003, Leyritz had the opportunity to play for the Padres once again on a $1 million offer, but he was in the midst of a custody battle for his three boys, his youngest 2 years old at the time.
“My wife was addicted to drugs, and I was told by the judge that if I went back and played — despite her drug problem — that she would receive custody of the boys,” Leyritz said. “I asked my dad what I should do and he told me that he knew how he raised me but that it was my decision. My 2-year old was in his crib next to my bed that night and woke up screaming with a nightmare and I held him against me and I knew what I had to do. My career was over. I told my dad that I was done playing, and he said ‘that’s how I raised you.’”
Legal troubles and changed life
On Dec. 28, 2007, Leyritz was involved in a car accident — one in which a woman in a different vehicle lost her life — Leyritz arrested for drunk driving and vehicular homicide.
What was not widely reported by the media was the fact the woman was also intoxicated, more so than Leyritz.
“I was guilty of the DUI (.14 blood alcohol level), but the woman had a .198 blood-alcohol level, there was cocaine in her system, she was driving with her headlights off, speeding and went through a red light,” he said. “Nobody ever knew those things. All they heard was that I killed a woman. She was actually an acquaintance of some people that I knew and hung out with. It was really unfortunate and was a terrible thing.”
During the lead-up to the trial, Leyritz struggled with his future, uncertain of the outcome of his pending hearing and where his life would lead.
He said reading a book changed his life.
“I read ‘The Purpose Driven Life: (What on Earth Am I Here For?)’ by Rick Warren. That book really changed my life,” Leyritz said.
Elaine’s, the now-closed, once-famous bar and restaurant in New York, also referenced in Billy Joel’s song “Big Shot,” was often visited by celebrities — actors, authors, movie stars and professional athletes.
For Leyritz, Elaine’s is special because it’s where he met his now-wife.
“I knew a bartender there that was trying to set up a meeting with this woman — who is now my wife —and myself. He told her he knew a great guy who was going through some problems, but that he felt like she should meet me,” Leyritz said. “I ran into her there and I bought her a birthday drink. I told her I wasn’t drinking because of some legal issues I was going through. She didn’t know me as a baseball player, but she figured out who I was from the talks she had with my friend and she told me that ‘I seemed really normal’ and that she wouldn’t haven’t guessed I was a professional athlete.”
Michelle Caruso and Leyritz started dating long distance, with her living in California.
“She had two daughters, and I had my three boys,” Leyritz said. “We decided to try to make it work.”
Leyritz and his boys moved to California, Caruso living with her daughters.
“We attend Saddleback Church, and the pastor is Rick Warren. I really wanted to meet him, but it was just after Christmas and he was supposed to be out for a few weeks. Leading up to Christmas, he tried to raise $200,000 for the church — there’s like 40,000 members — and they raised like $2.4 million,” Leyritz said. “We were at a service, and he came out to thank everyone for their contributions. I went to the front and spoke with a man that Michelle said she knew, and I told him I used to play for the Yankees and really wanted to meet the pastor. The guy said he remembered me from playing for the Angels. He had prayed with Michelle and he said she had been praying for her boyfriend and the things he was going through, but he didn’t know it was me because she never said my name.”
Long story short, Leyritz got his wish and met Pastor Warren — who also prayed for him.
“He prayed and asked God to give me strength during my trying times, but he also prayed that whatever happened, that I see it through to the end,” Leyritz said. “That really stuck with me.”
Approaching the trial, the judge would not allow any of the damming evidence against the deceased woman — her inebriation, drug use, speeding, driving without headlights or running the red light.
“My lawyer told me that he could get me a plea deal — 10 years of probation, no license for five years but no days in cell — and I told him no. I said I felt very strongly the outcome was in God’s hands and that I was supposed to see it to the end,” Leyritz said. “My lawyer told me he respected that but still thought I was crazy. I was looking at 15 years.”
During the trial, the facts started to come out — Leyritz describing it as “God’s hand.”
“They threw out the case in 30 minutes. It was so obvious that I did not cause the wreck,” he said. “I was guilty of the DUI but not the accident.”
“In January 2013, Michelle and I set a date to get married in February 2014,” he said. “Right before the wedding, her grandma was put in the hospital. We went to say our goodbyes, and Michelle’s mom had an aneurism. We lost her grandma and her mom in a matter of 48 hours. It was tough.”
The wedding date got pushed back to 2016, landing a day of extreme significance for Christians.
“My wife is an amazing interior designer and she has worked for a lot of wealthy people. One of them told her they had a beach house that we could use for our wedding. My wife called and told me and asked what I thought and I said that we should do it,” he said. “The only day that was open in March was Good Friday. One of Michelle’s friends took photos and the reflection from the sun on the pool looked like a cross. It was perfect.”
Jim and Michelle do a lot of charity work, much of which is based in New York, where he still spends 10-12 days a month.
“I am a spokesman for PinkTie.org, which provides money for different charities that need financial assistance,” he said. “It was started eight years ago by 1st Equity title, and we have been a part of it for the past five years. The biggest thing is that the money stays where it’s raised, so everyone knows it goes back to the community. They have gas stations where one cent per gallon is automatically donated to charity.”
Leyritz said one his biggest projects is through the Teen Project.
“It rescues young women who have timed-out of foster care, many of whom have been victims of sex trafficking,” he said.
The Teen Project provides drug treatment at no cost to the recipients and even offers transitional housing for free, focusing on “sobriety, education and housing.”
Alternative Maintenance Solutions owner Harlan Bellander is a big baseball fan, a huge fan of the Yankees.
In the past, Bellander has brought former Blue Jay and Yankee Jesse Barfield and former Yankee pitcher Tanyon Sturtze into town for youth baseball camps and the Elko Mining Expo.
This year, he brought in Leyritz.
Bellander has frequently gone to the Yankees Fantasy Camp, in which campers get to play with former Yankees each January, in Tampa, Florida.
“I met Harlan about five years ago at fantasy camp and we have become great friends over the years,” Leyritz said.
On Tuesday, Leyritz went to little league practice in Spring Creek and spoke to players about his experiences, baseball strategies, batting stances, lessons he learned from greats of the game and offered tips for making everyone the best they can be.
“He’s a great dude,” Bellander said.
Leyritz greeted and signed autographs Thursday and Friday at the AMS booth during the Expo, where his signed Yankees jersey and batting helmet — also including the signatures of Don Mattingly and Wade Boggs — were given away in a business card drawing.
The story of Jim Leyritz could be made into a movie — an unlikely hero on the grandest stages of his sport, making mistakes, fighting through struggles, redeeming himself through love and faith, living life and moving forward with the best of intentions.
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