When first coming up through the Yankee farm system, Leiter was hailed as the next great arm in pinstripes, the one remaining star left in a minor-league system decimated by foolish trades throughout the 1980s. Though he never realized that success with the Yanks, he did end up reaching the World Series with three other teams. A tough-as-nails power pitcher, Leiter as hampered by injuries through the first half of his career, but fought back to establish himself as one of the premier lefties in the bigs by the mid-’90’s.
The Yankees’ second-round pick in the June 1984 draft, the much-lauded Leiter recorded an unimpressive 2-2 with a 6.35 ERA after his first call-up in 1987. That was good enough for the bumbling Yanks, who put him into the rotation in 1988, though he was frequently unable to pitch due to a recurring blister. In need of heavy hitting, the Yanks traded him to the Toronto Blue Jays early in the 1989 season for Jesse Barfield. Shortly after being traded, the southpaw went on the DL and underwent arthroscopic surgery in September.
From 1990-92, the hard-luck Leiter appeared in only eight games with the Jays, thanks to arthroscopic surgery, an irritated nerve in his left elbow, and tendinitis. In fact, Leiter didn’t record his first win in a Toronto uniform until 1993, when he went a respectable 9-6 as a spot starter, helping the club win its second consecutive World Championship. But it was not 1995 (his first injury-free season) that Leiter would establish himself as an ace in the making, setting career highs in almost every pitching category, winning 11 games, striking out 153, and posting a 3.64 ERA.
By that time, Leiter’s pitching rhythm had become concrete. As opposed to most lefties in the majors who used offspeed pitches to combat their opponents, Leiter went for the gullet like Randy Johnson. Sinking fastballs and devastating sliders were the composite of his repertoire, along with a looping curveball to induce groundball outs.
Leiter signed a lucrative three-year deal with the Florida Marlins in December 1995, citing his desire to play closer to home. (Leiter and his family owned a Fort Lauderdale house that was just minutes from Joe Robbie Stadium.) In 1996, he enjoyed a career year, winning 16 games, hurling his and the club’s first ever no-hitter, and recording the final out in the All-Star Game.
Despite struggling most of the season during the team’s pennant drive in 1997, Leiter was given the ball by Marlin skipper Jim Leyland for the seventh game of the World Series against the Cleveland Indians. Finally able to avoid surrendering “a big inning” — a pitfall which had plagued him for much of his career — Leiter hurled six solid innings while yielding only two runs. The Marlins went on to win the dramatic game 3-2 in eleven innings.
As part of the club’s post-season dismantling, Leiter was traded to the New York Mets on February 6, 1998 in a package deal that sent the Marlins minor-league pitcher A.J. Burnett. The club that he had rooted for as a youngster growing up met him with open arms, and Leiter responded by winning a career-best 17 games and striking out 174 batters. Following the season, he inked a $32 million dollar deal to stay with the Mets for another four years.
Though the Mets made the post-season for the first time in 1999, pressure mounted on Leiter to stand up as the ace of a high-pressure New York team. His stats dropped considerably, and he finished just 13-12 with a 4.23 ERA. But the acquisition of Mike Hampton in December 1999 took some of the heat off him, and allowed Leiter to shift into the second starter role. Al ended up going 16-8 with a 3.20 ERA and 200 strikeouts.
In the 2000 Subway Series, Leiter’s Game Five effort showed all of New York and the nation how gritty he was, as he toughed it out against the Yanks till the last, throwing 142 pitches in all. Though he lost the game, he had won the admiration of New York.
Leiter’s efforts off the field were just as remarkable. Beyond the passive role of a millionaire athlete who writes checks to charities, Leiter became an avid coordinator and participant in aid organizations. After signing his four-year, $32 million contract with the Mets in 1998, Leiter publicly pledged to donate $1 million to kids’ causes, mostly through a foundation he and his wife started and ran. Among his gifts to the communities was his establishment of a tutoring project in Harlem and a $100,000 donation for the construction of a Little League baseball field in his hometown of Toms River, New Jersey.
Baseball ran in the Leiter family: his brother Kurt pitched briefly with the Orioles organization, and his brother Mark enjoyed moderate success with several big-league clubs.