Catching up with Jim Leyritz

The 1996 World Series hero is back in the Yankees organization
08/30/2012 10:11 AM ET
By Lou DiPietro

Jim Leyritz' Game 4 home run was a turning point in the 1996 World Series.(AP)
Jim Leyritz played for the Yankees from 1990-96 and then again in 1999 and 2000, playing on three World Championship teams and becoming a fan favorite for both his versatility and his affability.

However, there is one moment in time that likely stands out when long-time Yankees fans remember Leyritz: his eighth-inning home run in Game 4 of the 1996 World Series that may have been the catalyst for the Yankees to come back and win their first World Series in nearly two decades.

With two on and one out in the eighth and the Braves up 8-5, Leyritz strode to the plate for his first at-bat of the night. Atlanta closer Mark Wohlers was five outs away from giving his team a commanding 3-1 lead in the series, but the Yankees’ catcher smacked a 2-2 slider over the left field wall to tie the game.

Two innings later, the Yankees finished an 8-6 victory to tie the Series tally at 2-2, and they went on to win 14 of their next 15 World Series games en route to four titles in five years.

“I think (the home run) is something now that I can really enjoy. At the time it was one of those things, just like in Seattle in ‘95, where if we don’t win it would just be a footnote,” Leyritz told recently.

The Seattle home run Leyritz referenced was his walk-off blast in Game 2 of the 1995 ALDS against the Mariners that put the Yankees up 2-0 in that series. But while the Yankees lost that ALDS in heartbreaking fashion, they rallied to win the 1996 World Series, and in addition to kicking off the dynasty, Leyritz’ home run was a moment of personal achievement, a true sign that he had “made it” in baseball.

Signed as an undrafted free agent in 1985, Leyritz spent four years in the Yankees’ Minor League system before making his Major League debut in 1990 and spending seven years in pinstripes.

“It’s great to be such a big part of Yankees history still today,” he said. “At the time I was a career Yankee, and I came up during the ‘dog days’ when the team was struggling. So, to go through all that and finally be part of a championship was sweet, and it was even sweeter to have a big hand in that.”

Leyritz played with all four members of the Yankees’ famed “Core Four” on that 1996 team, and was there for many other special moments in Yankees history – including the 1995 single in Seattle that gave rookie Derek Jeter the first of his now 3,200-plus hits.

“Derek has been amazing as far as how he’s handled everything, all the fame, and still stayed the same guy I knew when he came up in 1996,” Leyritz said. “Seeing him when I came back in 1999, and seeing how even after a couple championships he still had the same work ethic…that’s what keeps him going today. He never changes, and his work ethic has never wavered.”

Leyritz was also there for Andy Pettitte’s first win in 1995 and the first of Mariano Rivera’s 608 saves in 1996, but even though the “Core Four” and others like Bernie Williams and Paul O’Neill are more closely associated with the Yankees’ dynasty years, the former backstop isn’t shy about letting them know that he’s still got one on them.

“I always tease Jeet and Mo and the guys that if I didn’t hit that home run, they may not have gotten all those World Series titles,” Leyritz laughed. “But seriously, it’s great to see what they’ve done and what they’re still doing at such a high level."

Now 48, Leyritz, who retired following the 2000 season and lives in California with his fiancé and three sons, isn’t in any hurry to join Jeter, Rivera, and Pettitte on the active roster. However, he is back with them in pinstripes somewhat, as 2012 is Jim’s first year with the Yankees under a personal services contract, which calls for him to make appearances at various events – including the MVP Foundation’s annual event in Trenton in late-July where we caught up to him – as an official Yankees representative.

In addition to that, Leyritz also hopes to segue into coaching sometime in the very near future.

“I’ve been happy being a dad, but now that the boys are settled, I hope to get back on the field and start coaching next season,” Leyritz admitted. “Whether it’s with kids, or even in the Minor Leagues or somewhere in the Major Leagues, that’s really what I love to do.”

Leyritz also worked with the Yankees during the Old Timers Day festivities this past July, and hopes to return to the Bronx in 2013 as an actual participant.

Being part of the Yankees family again is great, and anything I can do to give back to the organization, I’m glad to do it,” he said. “I worked Old Timers Day this year, but to come back and be a part of it on the field next year would be awesome.”

That might be bad news for past Yankees hurlers, because chances are there might still be a crowd-popping home run or two in Leyritz’ famous spinning bat.

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