Saturday, July 29, 2006

Featured Player: Jim Leyritz

James Joseph Leyritz (born December 27, 1963 in Lakewood, Ohio) is a former catcher and infielder in Major League Baseball who played for the New York Yankees (1990-1996, 1999-2000), with whom he debuted on June 8, 1990. He also played for the Anaheim Angels (1997), Texas Rangers (1997), San Diego Padres (1998), Boston Red Sox (1999) and Los Angeles Dodgers (2000), pinch-hitting more extensively toward the end of his career. He batted and threw right-handed exclusively in the majors, but was known to switch-hit in the minor leagues. He was best known for his 3-run home run off Atlanta Braves closer Mark Wohlers in Game 4 of the 1996 World Series. That homer was significant, as the momentum shifted towards the Yankees from then on. "The King" is also known for hitting the last home run of the 20th Century in Game 4 of the 1999 World Series. He attended Turpin High School in Cincinnati, Ohio.

Idiosyncrasies at the plate
Leyritz was known for using an awkward, unusual batting stance which involved keeping his front leg (left leg) straight and stiff while his back leg (right leg) behind him considerably bent at the knee. He did this while circling his bat around behind his head while waiting for the pitch. After each pitch that Jim did not put into play or strike out on, Leyritz would grab the bat by its center and twirl it at his hip almost like a baton. This style did not lead to a great deal of overall success.

Playoff Reputation and Exploits
Despite being a mediocre hitter throughout his career, Leyritz was known for hitting numerous significant postseason home runs that either won, tied, or changed the momentum of any given series.

In Game 2 of the 1995 American League Division Series against the Seattle Mariners at Yankee Stadium, Leyritz hit an opposide field 2-run home run to right-center into the rain in the 15th inning to win that game 7-5 for the Yankees and provide them with an ample 2-0 series lead in the best-of-five series. The home run came off of Mariners pitcher Tim Belcher, who was famously involved in a profanity-laced and threatening incident with a cameraman covering him walking through the Yankee Stadium tunnel after giving up the home run. However this was a lead the Yankees would eventually squander by losing the following three games in Seattle's Kingdome, the final two of which were decided in highly dramatic fashion. (The Mariners won Game 5 6-5 with 2 runs in the bottom of the 11th inning.) As a result, this Leyritz home run is not as well known because it ultimately did not change the series outcome.

In Game 4 of the 1996 World Series against the Atlanta Braves at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, Leyritz hit a 3 run home run to left center in the 8th inning to tie the game at 6 and cap an improbable 6-0 Yankee comeback which did not begin until the 6th inning. This homerun came off Atlanta closer Mark Wohlers and led to the Yankees eventually winning the game 8-6 in 10 innings with future Hall of Famer Wade Boggs 2-out bases loaded RBI walk off pitcher Steve Avery providing the winning margin in the top of the 10th. After the Yankees lost the first two games of the series at home, and narrowly winning Game 3 in Atlanta, this game appeared to be going to the Braves, which would have given them a significant 3-1 series advantage. Instead, Leyritz homerun shifted the game's momentum and the Yankees won to tie the series 2-2. New York would win two more hotly-contested 1 run games to clinch the series over the heavily-favored Braves in six games. Leyritz's Game 4 home run remains the trademark of that series and of his career. It should also be noted in this series that Leyritz was the starting catcher in Game 5 of this series, a 1-0 pitcher's duel between Andy Pettitte and John Smoltz. While Leyritz did not contribute offensively or defensively in this game, he was calling the pitches for Pettitte's remarkable 8 1/3 innings shutout performance and guided Andy (as well as closer John Wetteland) through perilous 6th and 9th inning jams.

In 1998, Leyritz had since left the Yankees and caught on with the San Diego Padres, who made the playoffs that year as winners of the National League West. Leyritz hit a number of unlikely playoff home runs and clutch hits, the most dramatic of which was an opposite field home run to right off the foul pole in the top of the 9th inning in the Astrodome that tied Game 2 of the National League Division Series against the Houston Astros. However, the Astros would later win the game in extra innings. Ironically, Leyritz's Padres would go up against his former team, the Yankees in the World Series. The Padres were swept in four games by a 114-win Yankee team widely considered to be one of the greatest teams of all-time, and Leyritz did not record a home run or RBI in any game.

In 1999, Leyritz had rejoined the Yankees and hit a solo home run in the bottom of the 8th inning of Game 4 of the World Series, another Yankees sweep, this time in a rematch with Atlanta. The homer made the score 4-1 to give the Yankees some extra breathing room going into the 9th inning. NBC commentator Bob Costas remarked incredulously about Leyritz after the home run "You could send this guy to a resort in the spring and summer, as long as he comes back for October." This was the home run known as the last of the 20th Century since it was the final Major League Baseball game of the 1999 postseason.

Amphetamine use
On June 9, 2006, while doing an interview on the Opie and Anthony show on XM Satellite Radio, Leyritz admitted to using amphetamines during his rookie season in 1990. The statement came in the wake of an admission by pitcher Jason Grimsley that he used performance enhancing drugs throughout his career

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