When Jim Leyritz played for the Hays Larks, he said the local summer-collegiate team was lucky to have about 20 fans in the stands.
Leyritz, who played in the major leagues for 11 years before retiring after the 2000 season, marveled at what he saw at last weekend’s celebration of the Larks’ 75th anniversary season, with about 1,000 fans in attendance. He attributed the dramatic increase in interest in the Larks program through the years to longtime manager Frank Leo.
“It’s amazing what Frank has been able to build here,” said Leyritz, 57, one of about 60 former Larks who came back for the anniversary. “He has given his whole heart and soul to this town, to this team. It’s enjoyable to come back here and watch, and realize you were part of starting something.”
Back in 1985, Leyritz and his teammate at Kentucky, Hays outfielder Rusty Schueler, both expected to be selected in the major league draft. After neither player was picked, they decided to play that summer for the Larks.
Leyritz wanted a chance to catch while in Hays, and he had a big showing at the NBC tournament to catch the eye of scouts from both the New York Yankees and Kansas City Royals. The Royals went on to win the World Series that year, and Leyritz’s father thought he would have a better chance to make the majors with the Yankees. The Yankees also promised to pay for Leyritz’s education, which sold his mother. Leyritz chose the Yankees, receiving a signing bonus of $8,000.
In his one summer in a Larks uniform, Leyritz batted .416 with 13 homers and 66 RBI. He added 21 doubles, 46 runs scored and had a .471 on-base percentage. Leyritz will be remembered by Yankee fans for a pair of postseason home runs. In Game 2 of the 1995 American League Championship Series against the Seattle Mariners, he hit a walk-off homer in the 15th inning. In the 1996 World Series against the Atlanta Braves, Leyritz belted a three-run homer in the eighth to tie the game, and the Yankees won in 10 innings. The Yankees went on to win the World Series.
Leyritz, who owns two World Series rings with the Yankees, said his ability to come up with clutch hits goes all the way back to a lesson he learned when he was a 14-year-old bat boy in spring training for the Cincinnati Reds. He asked Pete Rose how he was such a good hitter in pressure situations. Leyritz remembered Rose saying that he treated each at-bat the same, whether it was in spring training or Game 7 of the World Series, so he never got caught up in the moment.
“That advice really stuck with me,” Leyritz said.
Inspiration of another sort helped Leyritz after a 2007 fatal car crash. Leyritz was involved in a car accident in which the driver in the other car died. Leyritz was arrested on suspicion of drunk driving and vehicular homicide. When the case went to trial in 2010, Leyritz was found guilty on the misdemeanor DUI charge but was acquitted on the DUI manslaughter charge.
Leyritz said a book written by pastor Rick Warren, “The Purpose Driven Life,” helped him get through those tough times. Leyritz also met his future second wife, Michelle, at that time, who went to Warren’s church.
“Pastor Rick Warren did a prayer over me after I told him everything I was going through,” Leyritz said, adding after his legal troubles were over he was able to move on with his life. He married Michelle and moved to California.
Leyritz these days also spends time in New York, where he is an ambassador at Yankees home games. He signs autographs and greets corporate sponsors. Leyritz also started a podcast this spring, “Catching Heat,” which focuses on athletes’ redemption stories and on athletes who found success in other areas after their playing days.
But last weekend for Leyritz, it was reliving the days of summer 36 years ago.
“Great memories here,” Leyritz said.