Last Friday I was invited down to the MLB Network studios in Secaucus to look at their operation, and while I was there I had a chance to speak one-on-one with two-time former Yankee and current YES Network/MLB Network broadcaster Al Leiter. We talked for nearly 20 minutes and mostly discussed his career, but we also touched on Andy Pettitte’s comeback, Michael Pineda’s missing velocity*, and the 2012 Yankees in general.
* The interview took place before Pineda’s shoulder tendinitis was diagnosed.
Leiter is every bit as entertaining in real life as he appears on television, so needless to say it was a pretty awesome experience. Here’s the full interview, beginning with a question straight out of left field…
Mike Axisa: In Game Seven of the 1997 World Series, you threw a first pitch curveball to Omar Vizquel (to start the game). What was the thinking behind that?
Al Leiter: “Because I got peppered in Game Three, in Cleveland, I knew I had to throw a curveball. I went back and looked at two left-handers, and it was the Yankees series against Cleveland. David Wells did well — Boomer was fastball-curve — and I watched every pitch. And then I looked at Andy Pettitte’s game; Andy Pettitte got peppered a little bit. Andy was more fastball, curve, cutter, slider, and I said forget it. You know what? It’s gonna be a [bad] game if I don’t use [my curve].
“So my side day with (then-Marlins pitching coach) Larry Rothschild was like ‘I gotta use my curveball.’ I throw it 15% of the time, maybe 20, I said I gotta throw it more or it’s gonna be a bad game. So the whole time I’m working on it, and then prior to Game Seven — packed house, warming up — (catcher) Charlie Johnson comes down (to the bullpen), and I’m throwing like … of my 75 (warm-up pitches), 35 of them are curveballs. And I’m bouncing it, I’m casting it, balls everywhere. I already told him first pitch of the game, it’s gonna be a curveball.
“Sure enough, (umpire) Eddie Montague was behind the plate … play ball … curveball. Now Omar Vizquel, first of all he’s going to take the pitch, and he’s not a guy who’s going to hit the ball very far. Boom, called strike. And I said … it was so weird, I was like ‘okay, this is going to be good.’
“That was a concerted effort on my part to realize — looking at what I did, watching David Wells, watching Pettitte — I have to throw him a curveball.”
MA: So that was the biggest game of your life?
AL: “Um (four second pause) yeah. Yeah.”
MA: What about your debut? Your first ever game as a big leaguer?
AL: “It’s funny you say that because whenever I talk to my mom — or family members growing up — my mom will go back to my debut. I went against the Brewers, I went like six innings I think, whatever it was a good game. But the fact of all the work us players do to get to the big leagues — I grew up in New Jersey, grew up a Mets fan, signing with the Yankees (out of the draft), three and a half years out of high school I’m teammates with (Ron) Guidry, Tommy John, and (Don) Mattingly and Dave Winfield — it was really cool.
“But with that said, everybody has a debut. Not too many people get to [start] Game Seven of the World Series. So yeah, that was … that was a good game. The 163rd game with the Mets (in 1999), I think of that. Anytime there’s a moment in which, you know, there’s going to be somebody crying, there’s going to be somebody pouring champagne … those are great games. That’s why, one-game playoff, everybody likes it.”
MA: Do you like the new (playoff) system?
MA: No? I feel like … I like the idea of rewarding the division winners, but I feel like they went a little bit too far.
AL: “My problem is with a one-game playoff — and everybody says ‘well tough, you should win the division’ — we will see, and it might happen this year, the second-best record during the marathon season — that we are all very proud of and talk about that it’s the unique sport, that no other sport can compare to 162 games, they play everyday, they got an off day once every 17 days — that we will have a team that wins 104 games this year or whatever, the division winner won 106, they play a one-game playoff against whomever in some other division that was the fifth best record, who had at 86 wins, and they face some hot pitcher with a great split that day, and they go home.
“So then you could say ‘well big deal.’ But then you say no, we’re not saying the second best record in the league, we’re saying the second best record in baseball, and it’s a one-game playoff. You know what? On a given night, a Major League club facing University of Florida with some stud on the mound, could beat that club. You’re trying to telling me the University of Florida Gators are better than a Major League team? For that one night, they had some kid who was throwing 95, he had a great slider. They won one game.”
MA: As a baseball fan, I think [the drama and excitement] will be great.
AL: “I get that. Television, you know everybody involved … that’s what you want. You want that compelling moment. That Super Bowl. And that’s Game Seven.”
MA: Early in your career with the Yankees — when you were a young pitcher coming up — the Yankees traded all of their young pitchers in the 80s. When you were down in Triple-A or whatever, before you made your debut, were you thinking “that could be me … the Yankees might not have a spot for me and I could end up in say, Toronto?”
AL: (nodding) “Sure, sure. It was a volatile time for the Yankees. Mr. Steinbrenner felt the competition with what was going on over in Flushing, the fact that the Mets had won the World Series in ’86, they were very competitive and playoff team in ’87, ’88, ’89, making the NLCS in ’88, and I got to the big leagues in ’87, right in the middle of that. So I think part of that and George always tried to put together a winning team — whether it was the best signings or not, that’s debatable — by going out and trying to get the Jack Clarks and the Steve Saxes, Andy Hawkins or whoever the latest best free agent was. He always did that, and part of that process was we weren’t winning enough and being a young player in the minor leagues with knee-jerk reaction decisions — which happened often — your top prospects were not untouchable.
“I was in that window with Roberto Kelly, Hensley Meulens, Jay Buhner and myself, it was kinda that ’86-’87 window to where we all got traded. And then luckily for what took place after that — luckily I say for Bernie Williams, Andy Pettitte, Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, (Jorge) Posada, that next wave — they allowed Buck Showalter to develop, they allowed Stick Michael to do his thing, and it became more of ‘let’s do player development.”
MA: That’s when George was suspended.
MA: So then fast-forward a whole bunch of years, you came back to the Yankees in 2005. After the regular season you went to the bullpen in the playoffs. What was that like after starting your entire career?
AL: “It was actually a good experience. Being a starter my whole career — other than when I first got back to the big leagues and I was a Major League pitcher but the Toronto Blue Jays didn’t have a spot, so I was kind of a swingman/reliever/starter and it was just a matter of time, they were buying until I could eventually get back into the rotation — so the majority of my games in the big leagues were as a starter as you just said.
“First of all … back up. When I was playing with the Marlins — I left the Mets went to the Marlins (in 2005) — I was awful. I just never got it going. I was asked to go down there and kinda be a mentor to Josh Beckett and A.J. Burnett and Dontrelle (Willis) and then ‘you’ll be our fifth starter and all you have to do is win ten games.’ I stunk. Right after the All-Star break I get traded to the Yankees which was a godsend and a thrill because I got back to New York and back to where it all started. I had the one, my first game…”
MA (rudely interrupting): Fenway.
AL: “In Fenway. I was really oblivious — I had my own problems — I was oblivious to what was going on with the Yankees but at that time I didn’t realize the significance of that four-game series. The first game they lose, I think (Mike) Mussina pitched, and then the second game they had a couple guys who just flew in from Triple-A, they lost. And then they were going into Saturday … I forgot what it was, they were either three or four games back. Randy Johnson pitches Saturday, they win, and then the Sunday night ESPN game we win and it was a swing of like, either four to three or three to two games back, whatever it was, but there was some momentum turn. I didn’t know any of that. All I knew is that I was sucking. I had to turn my season around.
“And … wow, what a thrill. For that moment — and your first game back — the reason why it was so thrilling, when the trade was made (Brian) Cashman called me on the phone, I said ‘look Cash, I’m fine, my arm’s fine.’ I said ‘I’m off, I need some work.’ There was a guy — at the time he was the Triple-A pitching coach who was also my first pitching coach when I signed professionally, Gil Paterson — Gil was the pitching coach in Oneonta, he was the Triple-A pitching coach, I tell Cash you know what? After the All-Star break, I’ll fly to Columbus. Let me work with Gil for a week or whatever, just to get it right because I’m there, I’m just … off. You know, it’ll be great. Yeah yeah yeah, it sounds like a good idea. So you’re gonna fly to … Friday you’re going to fly to Columbus.
“I have my flights. Friday before I get on the plane, my agent calls and says ‘hey look, they really want you in Boston.’ I don’t know really what’s going on, but [I figure] I’ll fly in Saturday sometime. Okay, fine. Cash calls back and says ‘get up there before game time (today). We want you to be with the team, get with the pitching coach and all that cause you’re pitching Sunday night. Sorry.’
“I just went from going to Triple-A for a week or two to yeah just come on up, they’re not sure what they’re going to do with you. Just fly in whenever. You gotta get up there before the game on Saturday because you’re starting on Sunday. So it made the moment even much more special because now I’m the starter, winning the game, then realizing what it meant.
AL: “I’m sorry. So getting into the relief stuff. When eventually I realize — Chien-Ming Wang came back, I was kinda holding spots for I forgot whoever was not doing well or what hurt — and Joe (Torre) put me in the ‘pen. I kinda saw the writing on the wall, I was deserving of it. I was very hot and cold, couple good games, a bad game, good game … and he started using me, kinda fifth inning kinda thing…”
MA: I remember (during the ALDS), it was like you were the Darin Erstad specialist. It felt like every game you were facing Darin Erstad.
AL: “I got the last win in 2005. Darin Erstad, double play ball in the seventh inning, in Game Four of the Division Series.
“So I started digging it. You know your role in the bullpen, cause you know, the phone rings in the fifth inning, you and Al, get up. You throw a scoreless, I throw a scoreless, and now all of a sudden, sixth inning. Phone rings and get up. And then seventh inning and then eighth inning, and it turned out where he was getting me and I guess it was either Tanyon Sturtze, I forgot who was doing kinda the eighth inning stuff, and depending upon who was coming up the next inning, I was pitching eighth innings, and I was kinda getting into it.”
MA: Did you start to think, I could maybe stick around a little longer doing this?
AL: “No. You know what … I just, I didn’t wanna … I lost it in my heart. I trained in the winter time to hopefully get on that first [World Baseball Classic] team in 2006. I think Billy Wagner got hurt, and CC (Sabathia) didn’t go, and whoever. There were like, six lefties that eventually said no, and I said ‘I’ll go!’ So I went, which was cool. That was kinda my whole intention, was to go to camp, go to the WBC, and come back and retire. Which is what I did.”
MA: So it’s…
AL: “But, but … that moment. So I come back, and Joe never did this cause I went into Torre’s office and was like ‘Joe, thank you for the opportunity, but I’m retiring.’ He said you sure? Everyone’s like, you sure? Cause I was actually throwing the ball well, and my curveball was back. So I asked him ‘how do we do this?’ He goes ‘I dunno honestly Al, (when) someone’s coming in I’m either trading them or sending them down or releasing them. They never come in and say I’m retiring. That’s like an offseason thing.’
“So I said let me go out and pitch an inning. Randy Johnson hit his pitch count … he gave me an out, and it was Eduardo Perez. Eduardo Perez in my career actually hit me well. With the Indians, he was a young kid, he was all over the place. And I faced Eduardo, threw it and got a ground ball to A-Rod, over to first. Guidry was the pitching coach, my teammate, comes out … and if there was ever a moment where it was like, just sad. I was walking off — I already knew I was retiring — I was in Tampa, Florida. I was like man, not that I’m a Hall of Famer or anything, but yeah oh [wow], this is it. And there was a moment like ‘oh wait a minute no, I change my mind!’
“So everyone came over and hugged. Gil Paterson was there because he was the Triple-A pitching coach, he was my first pitching coach, talk about synergy. Guidry comes over, Guidry hugs me. He was my teammate when I first got to the big leagues. It was like … oh my God, I’m really doing this?”
MA: After going through all that and seeing Andy Pettitte coming back — he said the same thing, he said it wasn’t in his heart — what do you think that’s going to be like after the year off?
AL: “You know what? I’m very curious to watch closely because one, Andy’s … 38?
MA: He’ll be 40 in June … May or June.
AL: “I was 40 when I retired, so that would be like … take a year off and come back, I couldn’t have done it. You know depending on Andy and what he’s feeling, it’s not that easy — for one just to get big league hitters out — so I think this is going to be a great story to watch. I hope he does great. I love Andy, I think he’s a great guy. Obviously a great Yankee, a pitching great, one of the greatest they’ve ever had. I don’t know. I don’t know, I just … you know you still gotta have zip on the ball, your slider’s gotta break, you gotta pitch.”
MA: He said his arm is fine, just that his legs are are a little sluggish.
AL: “Yeah but that’s every year. What he’s saying right there, every pitcher leading into every Spring Training, you know you try to get your legs. The only way … you can get in the weight room, you can do all the squats, you can do all the leg lifts, you gotta pitch.”
MA: Just taking to some people, maybe the year off did him some good because 2010, he got hurt. He missed two months with a groin strain, had to push him back in the playoffs because his back was killing him. Maybe this will work, but I’m not … I think there’s reason to be skeptical of how well he’ll actually do, but I feel like the Yankees aren’t in a position where they need him.
AL: “Well right now … they got six for five.”
MA: I don’t know if you’ve been following the whole Michael Pineda thing. The velocity is not — he’s 90-94 now and was 90-97 last year — and I feel like it’s a concern but at the same time it’s overblown. Having been through Spring Training a whole bunch of times, do you think there’s anything to it? That there might be something wrong there?
AL: “I would say this, this is from my own experience knowing how I trained, how I got to be ready for day one of Spring Training, throwing my sides to eventually get into my first innings and eventually get to a 100-pitch count. My routine varied based on where I was as a Major Leaguer — meaning was I rookie trying to make a team, was I an established guy under a multi-year contract, was I an older veteran guy looking to hang on? — so there’s that element. You have a young kid who’s talented who has a terrific arm. Is he green, is he raw? Absolutely. There’s an element to say wow to his 97, but he still has to pitch.
“So he came into camp and the velocity was off as much as it was, absolutely a red flag goes up. And I say that because of my own history of … if I was a guy that settled in at — during the season — at 93 miles an hour, that was my number. You know, I wasn’t coming into camp throwing what I thought was my best effort, 83 miles an hour. I was pretty close to my 93. The percentage difference of 85% effort to 100% effort is not 7-8 miles an hour. It’s a couple miles.
“So that would be the concern — I assume, I’m not there everyday — that they would look at and say hey, he was throwing 97 last year and he’s throwing 90? What’s going on? What was your routine? What was your workout? Did he gain weight? Did he not gain weight? Did he lose weight? Does he have more muscle? Does he have less muscle? Is he heavier? All that … is there a legitimate problem? That fact that you just said he’s touching 94. Supposedly Michael, this is kinda like his M.O., he builds up velocity. I think they’re less concerned now that he’s getting closer to that 95, but if he settles at 90 the entire spring, I’d be concerned.”
MA: The Yankees had almost the same thing with Phil Hughes last year, and I feel like that was a little more obvious. He physically didn’t look right, fastball just wasn’t there, the curveball was garbage.
AL: “I think it’s kinda moderate. A moderate big deal right now that he is at the end of Spring Training … he has hit velocities close to what he hit at his best. If we were looking at his last game and he didn’t throw a ball over 90 miles an hour, I’m concerned. The fact that he hit 94 enough, that’s…
MA: And he did come to camp overweight. He’s a big guy, he’s 6-foot-7, 23 years old, he said he was 10-20 pounds overweight. That is a small percent of his body weight, but it’s a concern especially after Hughes last year. Now what do you think about the Yankees in general? Are you going to be doing many games on YES?
AL: “Yeah, I’m flying down tomorrow to do the Marlins game with Michael Kay, then we go up to St. Lucie on Tuesday.
“Um, what do I think. The Yankees are going to be there, I have them as a playoff team. I think there are going to be stories to watch, there’s going to be an age issue, there’s going to be a health issue, the average age of guys getting a little older … we’ve seen it in the past couple of years, watch it closely.
“With the assumption that they stay healthy, with the assumption that Mariano (Rivera) is Mariano, Derek stays healthy, A-Rod gets back to being A-Rod … I love (Robinson) Cano, I think Brett Gardner to me is a huge under-the-radar guy. I think he continues to improve and he brings an element to that offense that has been missed, a legitimate running game. (Curtis) Granderson, you can’t expect 40 homeruns, I wouldn’t even though Yankee Stadium. I like (Mark) Teixeira doing what he’s been doing with (hitting coach) Kevin Long.
“There are so many components to this team. The fact that Cash went out and got additional guys that can start, that now the problem is that he can potentially send Pineda down to the minor leagues, (Ivan) Nova — who won 16 games — down to the minor leagues, and Phil Hughes. That’s great, you talk about adding depth … and then you have Andy Pettitte waiting in the wings. It’s pretty good. (David) Robertson emerged as the best setup guy in the game. There are so many elements to that team … if they weren’t a playoff team (this year), there were serious problems that went wrong.”
MA: Just real quick to wrap-up, do you think Mariano is going to retire (after the season)? He kinda hinted at it, he said he knows what he’s going to do but he’s not going to tell anybody.
AL: “Does my opinion matter? I dunno. You know what, I’ll be honest. I thought initially when he came to camp and he said the quote was what it was — I know and I’ll let you guys know — to me that was absolutely, I’m retiring.”
MA: That’s what I thought.
AL: “But now … I dunno man. With Pettitte coming back … you know every time in the winter time you miss your wife, you know what the grind is, you hug your kids, you’re going to miss (their) ballgames, you’re going to miss the recitals, like … I’m done. But I’ve got the most saves in [history], I’ve been in World Series, I’ve had a Hall of Fame career, what else is there? Hopefully I win another World Series.
“And then you get to camp and you’re around it, and then your kids come down for two weeks in Spring Training like ‘dad this cool!’ I can see hanging around. Initially, absolutely. Now? I don’t know.”
MA: I feel like he could pitch until he’s 50. He’s in such great shape.
AL: “Maybe!” (laughs)