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MIKE DOWNEY

Anguish Struck Out by Angel

May 09, 1994|MIKE DOWNEY

Fastened to the left side of the baseball player's locker is a color photograph of an adorable baby boy. Alongside it is a hook, from which dangles a pair of white gym-shoe booties, size 1. Directly opposite the locker, facing him, is a notice board on which the night's starting lineups have been scribbled in felt pen, with his own name at the bottom as starting pitcher. Across the top someone has written a reminder: "May 8--Happy Mother's Day."

The baby in the photo died in April.

Midnight is approaching on Mother's Day eve. Exhausted from a hard night's work, distressed by his own poor performance, a resolute Mark Leiter moves on to the next day, same as he has now for many weeks, same as his wife, Allison, has. They will take tomorrow as it comes. A man asks, "Any special plans for Mother's Day?" No, not really, the 31-year-old Angel pitcher responds with a guilty expression, as though it was his fault, because come Sunday the team must leave town.

"How about breakfast in bed?" the man suggests.

An amused smile, his first since the game ended, creases the pitcher's face. He says, "Nah, Mark would just jump into bed and make a mess of the whole thing."

Mark Jr., he means. He is only 3. He, too, is a beautiful boy, and there is another photo, one of him beside his baby brother, above the bench of his dad's Anaheim Stadium locker, never far from mind or heart. His family is the pitcher's inspiration. It gets him through disappointments such as Saturday's, when he is roughed up by the last-place Oakland Athletics for seven runs. Every bad day like this is a danger to his career. But it's OK, because he has known far worse days.

Around the clubhouse, possibly no one is as popular, has such support. Teammates speak of it openly, of their admiration for Leiter, of their hope that he is in the Angel pitching rotation for good. Their manager, Buck Rodgers, shakes his head near the batting cage before a game and says, "We only really got the kid because we needed an extra pitcher and he had a live arm. For the last month, though, I don't know what we'd have done without him."

And that very first Angel game of his, well, that bordered on the unbelievable. On the inconceivable.

They say Lou Gehrig demonstrated courage beyond belief after learning he was dying from an illness that eventually would bear his name. They still tell of how Gehrig called himself the "luckiest man on the face of the Earth." But courage every bit as great was shown April 9 of this year, the courage of a young father, four days shy of his 31st birthday, who only hours earlier had personally overseen the cremation of his youngest son, a glorious child who never even got to have his first birthday.

Mark Leiter got on a plane, went right out and pitched a game. Pitched his heart out.

Then he and his wife acted quickly to establish the Ryan Leiter Fund, designed to aid families similarly affected by the disease, spinal muscular atrophy, that had claimed their boy.

Even after a game such as Saturday's, a defeat that weighs on him so heavily, a request for the fund's mailing address takes precedence. Leiter runs a finger across a shelf, knows he has the address here somewhere, is indebted to anyone who cares to contribute. Because, he says, "Every nickel we raise, it's another reminder that Ryan was here."

Ryan Leiter Fund, care of Families of S.M.A., Box 1465, Highland Park, IL 60035, for those in a position to help.

Mark Leiter is a sensitive man. Not so much on the field, where few pitchers are as intense, as in a zone. It is one of his strengths. It is what increased his worth to the Angels, particularly after injuries suffered by two other starting pitchers, Mark Langston and Brian Anderson, and an uncharacteristically poor opening month for another, Chuck Finley. Off the field, though, Leiter's intensity lessens. He worries. He scolds himself for not keeping pitches farther away from Oakland hitters, for grooving fastballs. Told that Rodgers emphasized the pitcher's having neglected to use all the stuff in his repertoire, for being a two-pitch pitcher, Leiter looks up with anxious eyes. He says, "Buck said that?"

More than two weeks have passed since Leiter's last victory. He is eager to please. No way the Angels had anticipated needing Anderson or Leiter so much. Leiter doesn't want to let them down.

"One of the guys made the comment that, hey, one of us was in triple A, meaning Brian, and the other was a released, unemployed player, meaning me. And it's the truth," Leiter says. "But I can't think that way now. I'm here and I want to stay here. I want this team to need me, to be able to count on me."

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