Yankees: Jim Leyritz answers some questions about the ’96 team and his career
By Marcus Guy
“I’M GOING TO BE A CATCHER!”
Gary Sanchez, the Yankees starting catcher is having a much better season behind the plate than past years. What do you see that’s changed in his approach?
He lost some weight but he seems more flexible so he’s able to handle the low pitch like he couldn’t do last year. I think he probably really worked on that. I think that, and this is just a guess, that a lot of Joe Girardi’s criticisms when Joe was the manager, and when Joe was on the MLB Network. I think Gary might’ve finally taken it to heart and worked on those things that Joe was trying to get him to do. Every expert that had the Yankees winning last year had Gary Sanchez as their best hitter and he wound up hitting .190.
I think there was something bothering Gary Sanchez last year and that we didn’t see the real Gary Sanchez. He went home this off season and worked on himself, whatever it was. He obviously he took care of and he came back and now he’s the guy that we thought we were going to have two years ago.
Catcher is a very unique position in baseball; Why did you decide to become a catcher?
There is a great story behind that. My best friend growing up in Cincinnati, Ohio was a guy named Tommy Brennaman, who’s now an announcer for FOX. His father was the announcer for the Reds, Hall of Famer, Marty Brennaman, and so we used to go to spring training with their family for a couple of years. One year when we went, they were doing a TV show with Wild World of Sports where Johnny Bench was teaching catching and Pete Rose was giving hitting drills.
I was a center fielder/shortstop, I never even thought about catching. But I got to do the catching and Johnny Bench. So we did a catching segment and he was teaching me how to block balls and how to throw down the bases and I was doing all these things to show the young kids what to do.
So as soon as we were done with the segments, Johnny called me over and said, “Hey kid, are you a catcher?” And I said, “No, Mr. Bench. I want to be like Pete, I want to be an outfielder.” And he said, “Well, you know what you got some pretty good skills there and catching it is the quickest way to the big leagues”. Again, I was a 14 year old kid and I wasn’t really listening. He was able to kind of read me, and that I wasn’t really buying into it. So he said, “Maybe this will help”. He took off his mitt, signed it, and gave it to me. I went home that day and told my dad, “I’m going to become a catcher”, and that is how it happened.
Now here’s the interesting part of the story. I became a catcher and I was supposed to be drafted out of high school in the first round. Four days before the drafts, I was playing tennis and I broke my leg. I never got drafted. The team that was going to draft me out of high school, by all irony, was the Atlanta Braves, the team I ended up killing in the playoffs. After the injury, I couldn’t squat for two years. I went to junior college and learned to play the outfield again and some third base, I wasn’t drafted out of junior college.
I went to Kentucky for one year and I asked the coach if I could catch a little bit. He wouldn’t let me. So I played 3rd base, and didn’t get drafted again. And when I didn’t get drafted, I called my college roommate who was my teammate at Kentucky and said that I wanted to play with him in a collegiate league, but I wanted it to catch and if his coach would let me catch, I would play for them. Well, the coach said, yes, play for us and you can do whatever you want. So I went out there as a catcher. We ended up making the playoffs that year. I was catching in the NBC tournament in Wichita and these scouts from the Yankees were there to watch this guy named Dave Hollins who ended up playing for the Phillies. Even though they were there to watch Hollins, they saw me catching, and I wound up hitting like .500 for the tournament.
So after the game, the final game we played, a scout by the name of Doug Melvin, who I’m sure you’ve heard of, approached me and said, “Hey kid, what are you doing catching?” I told him that I was a catcher by position. He said, “well, not according to your draft report, you can’t”, because I guess my college coach told him I couldn’t catch so to make the long story short they looked at me and said, “We just saw you catch, and we want to sign you”. They ended up signing me right then and there out of that collegiate league. So I ended up never being drafted.
Who was you your childhood idol growing up?
Pete Rose. Pete was my idol growing up because Tommy Brennaman and I used to pick up baseballs in the batting cages when Pete used to hit, and it was pretty special. He used to just talk to us all the time. One piece of advice he gave me was to approach every bat, whether it’s the first bat of spring training or the last of that of the World Series, that you don’t approach any of those bats any differently. And if you do that, you’ll never get caught up in the pressure of the crowd or the moment because you’re taking every bat like it will be your last at bat.
That’s why when people say to me, ‘how were you able to come through in the clutch and not just once, but so often’, I tell them that because at 14 -15 years old, a guy like Pete Rose, who I idolized, gave me that advice, that’s what I lived by. In high school, I always wanted to take the last shot of the basketball game. I always wanted to be in control of the outcome, and that’s how you could do it.
Bob Costas covered the 1998 playoffs when we were getting ready to play the Atlanta Braves and he made a comment that it would be better for baseball if the Atlanta Braves beat the Padres and played the Yankees in the ’98 World Series rating-wise and everything. Well, we ended up beating the Braves and I made tee shirts that said, ‘hey Costas, sorry, but you got us’. The ’99 playoffs comes around, and he is broadcasting the World Series. I got traded to the Yankees in July of ’99, and I hadn’t hit a home run since I got back and I hit a home run that ended up becoming the last home run of the century. That was when he made his now famous comment, that “you could send this guy away in the spring and summer as long as you bring him back in October”.