One of things about baseball cards that provide an emotional response to me is the fact they provide yard markers for years in my life. When I see the 1978 and 1979 Topps series, I am instantly transported to the first years of following the game when I was in second and third grade.
The Topps cards of the mid 1980’s, especially the 1987, 1988 and 1989 series, I remember when I was in high school, my family moved from New England to California, and my baseball passion was brought up to a new level.
I kept collecting cards throughout the 1990’s when I was a college graduate trying to make in New York City.
Al Leiter is a player I associate with the mid 1990’s, when he flourished with the Blue Jays, Marlins and Mets, picking up a few World Series rings along the way.
So seeing this card with him in the mid 1980’s, my high school years, seems like a bit of a disconnect. Leiter doesn’t belong while I was building up the courage to ask out Lexie in my junior year of college. He belongs when I was doing open mike comedy nights in New York, building up the courage to ask out the cute waitress at the comedy club.
To be fair, I DO remember Leiter when he was a Yankees prospect. The Yankees of the mid 1980’s had lots of star power but had a painfully thin starting staff. They never developed an ace to replace Ron Guidry. (Some would argue that Dave Righetti should have stayed in the rotation instead of becoming the heir to Rich Gossage.)
Leiter, a New Jersey native, looked like he had the goods to be that most rare of players: a homegrown front line starter for the Yankees.
Now of course the Yankees traded away eventual aces Doug Drabek and Jose Rijo plus All Star pitchers Bob Tewksbury and Scott McGregor in the 1980s, all of whom could have helped the Yankees win a Division or two.
He did not fare particularly well in 1987, his early auditionsfor the Yankees. But I believed his Topps title of being a future star. He began 1988 looking like a stud. He allowed 1 run over 7 innings in his first start. He struck out 11 over 8 innings for his second start. But an injury at the end of May derailed his season and the Yankees fell short again.
In 1989, he made a handful of starts before being dealt to Toronto for Jesse Barfield. It was a typical 1980’s trade for the Yankees. A young player was sent off for a recognizable player. The Yankees needed a replacement for the injured Dave Winfield and who the hell was Al Leiter.
I told someone I was in highschool with that the Yankees were making a mistake dealing away a young pitcher like Leiter. As Barfield continued to hit homers and Leiter missed entire seasons with injuries, my highschool friend made fun of my scouting report.
Throughout my college years (1990-1994), Leiter kept being a non factor, surfacing for a game or two in Toronto while nursing injuries.
In 1993, he played in the majors long enough to be a useful middle reliever and spot starter for the Blue Jays and even got a double in the World Series, earning a ring.
By 1995, he was one of the Blue Jays more reliable starters. He signed a huge contract with the Marlins before the 1996 season. The Marlins did not exist when this card was issued. Now he was making the Yankees feel badly about the Barfield trade.
In Florida became an All Star and threw a no hitter in 1996. By 1997, he was a starter on the team that stunned baseball by beating San Francisco, Atlanta and Cleveland to win the World Series. A rash of injuries, including one to Alex Fernandez, put Leiter on the mound for Game 7 of the World Series.While he did not get the decision, he helped set up the victory.
The Marlins broke the team up after the 1997 World Series and Leiter finally got to star in New York, but he did so with the Mets.
In his 7 years in Queens, Leiter made multiple All Star Games and found himself on the mound in some of the biggest games for the Mets.
He threw a complete game shutout against the Reds in the one game playoff for the 1999 Wild Card.
Leiter pitched into the 8th, allowing only 3 hits, in the 1999 Division Series clincher won by Todd Pratt’s walk off homer.
He allowed only 1 unearned run in the aggravating 1-0 Game 3 NLCS loss to the Braves. In the heart breaking (for Mets fans) extra inning 1999 Game 6 NLCS loss, he failed to record an out in the first inning.
He pitched 7 innings or more in each start in the 2000 post season. He threw 8 2/3 innings in Game 5 of the 2000 World Series but was the hard luck loser as the Yankees rallied to win.
The New Jersey native later became one of the prominent faces in September 11th giving after the attacks in 2001.
He wrapped his career up with the Yankees in 2005. Finally he was in the playoffs with the Yankees. When he came up, the Yankees were managed by Billy Martin and his teammates included Ron Guidry and Willie Randolph. When he finished with the Yankees, he was teammates with Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter, Robinson Cano and Mariano Rivera.
He stretched many eras… it just didn’t seem that way because he didn’t blossom for almost a decade.
This card remains a strange time warp for me.