When baseball fans think of the great Yankee teams of the late 1990s, players such as Derek Jeter, Bernie Williams, Mariano Rivera, Paul O’Neill and David Cone quickly come to mind. Yet, it was seldom used backup catcher Jimmy Leyritz who kicked off the dynasty with a memorable blast in Game 4 of the 1996 World Series.
The Yankees faced the defending champion Atlanta Braves in that series and looked over-matched during the first two games in New York as the Braves took a commanding 2-0 lead. They bounced back to win Game 3, but found themselves in dire straits after falling behind 6-0 early in Game 4. The Yanks scraped together three runs in the sixth inning and, with the score 6-3 going into the eighth inning, Atlanta manager Bobby Cox called on his closer Mark Wohlers to shut down the Yankees over the final two innings.
Wohlers was an All-Star that season, armed with a 100 mph fastball, he was one of the most intimidating closers in baseball. He began the inning by surrendering back-to-back singles to Charlie Hayes and Darryl Strawberry. After Mariano Duncan grounded into a fielder’s choice, Leyritz stepped to the plate with one out and two men on.
At the time, Leyritz was better known for his loquacious personality and idiosyncrasies at the plate than his production on the field. Since being called up by the Yankees in 1990, he’d platooned at third base and served as a backup catcher. He was an average hitter who never smacked more than 17 home runs in a season.
The Ohio native often arrived at the ballpark wearing a cowboy hat and boots. His teammates nicknamed him “The King,” due to his large ego, and on a team composed of reserved professionals, he was the one Yankee sportswriters turned to for provocative quotes.
The right-handed Leyritz had a unique batting stance, which many fans tried to emulate. He kept his front leg straight and stiff, while placing his weight on his back knee, which was slightly bent. As he waited for the pitch, he dangled the knob of the bat in a circular motion behind his head. Then, after each pitch, he twirled the bat at waist level, like a baton.
Leyritz had entered Game 4 of the ’96 Series in the sixth inning as a pinch hitter for catcher Joe Girardi. He looked confidant, as always, as he stepped into the batter’s box to face the hard-throwing Wohlers. “The King” worked the count to 2-2, then fouled off two blistering fastballs just to stay alive. In the seventh pitch of the at-bat Leyritz caught up to Wohlers’ heat and jacked a hanging slider over the leftfield wall at Atlanta Fulton County Stadium, tying the game at 6-6.
With one swing of the bat, “The King” completed the Yankee comeback and shifted the momentum of the series. It was the biggest home run by a Yankee since Bucky Dent’s blast against the Red Sox at Fenway Park in 1978. The Yankees won the game 8-6 in the 10th inning and finished off the Braves in six games. They went on to win three more World Series over the next four years.
Leyritz’s sensational shot wasn’t the only dramatic postseason homer of his career, either. The previous year, he hit a walk-off shot against the Mariners in the 15th inning of Game 2 of the ALDS. As a member of the Padres in 1998, he launched three long balls in the NLDS, one of which tied the score in the ninth inning of Game 2 and another in the seventh inning of Game 3 that turned out to be the game winner.
In a second go-around with the Yankees, Leyritz let fly a solo bomb in the eighth inning of Game 4 of the ‘99 World Series. It was the last major league home run hit in the 20th century.
The Yankees had a young Jorge Posada in the farm system so they let Leyritz sign a free agent deal with the Anaheim Angels after the ’96 season. He went on to play for the Rangers, Red Sox, Padres, Yankees again and Dodgers, before hanging it up after the 2000 season. During a career that spanned eleven seasons, Jimmy Leyritz compiled a .264 batting average and hit 90 home runs, though “The King” earned his ransom when the games mattered most. He retired with eight post-season home runs.
Saturday was Old-Timers Day at Yankee Stadium, one of the more glorified traditions in sports. There were several Hall of Famers on hand, including, Yogi Berra, Whitey Ford and Reggie Jackson. Joe Torre received a rousing ovation for his first appearance at Old Timers Day and many of his former players participated, such as, Bernie Williams and Tino Martinez, who took his former teammate David Cone deep. But the man that kicked off the most recent Yankee dynasty was conspicuously absent.
Leyritz has spent the last few years fighting serious criminal charges. His blood alcohol level was above the legal limit when he was behind the wheel during a car accident in 2007 that resulted in the death of the other driver. In November 2010, he was acquitted on a charge of DUI Manslaughter, but convicted on the misdemeanor of driving under the influence. Perhaps the Yankees are letting the dust settle before they invite him back.
Despite his mistakes he’s sure to receive a thunderous applause the next time he appears at the stadium. “The King” remains a crowd favorite in the Bronx and his home run in Game 4 of the ‘96 World Series will forever be a part of Yankee lore. Old Timers day isn’t the same without him.