ERIE, Pa. — Imagine being a dad. A baseball dad.
And you played for the Detroit Tigers back in the 1990s, and now your kid is out on the field, pitching in the Tigers organization.
“I loved my three years in Detroit,” said Mark Leiter, who pitched for the Tigers from 1991-93. “I loved that old stadium. I loved those uniforms.”
Now his 30-year-old son, Mark Leiter Jr., is pitching for the Erie SeaWolves, trying to return to the big leagues after Tommy John surgery, and he is trying to follow his father’s footsteps, all the way to Detroit.
“I went to Lakeland for spring training and I was looking at him in a Tigers uniform,” Mark Sr. said. “I’m like, oh my God, it’s like he is supposed to be wearing this uniform. This is it, man. Detroit is where I got my big league career started.” ( (Leiter made his debut with the New York Yankees, and appeared in eight games before a trade to Detroit.)
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“Those three years there were awesome. And I’m looking at my son — this is so freakin’ awesome that he is going to make it back to the big leagues, and I hope it’s with this team.”
Mark Sr. didn’t know if his son would make it out of spring training. The Tigers had signed Mark Jr. to a minor-league free agent contract. “I didn’t know whether he was gonna make Double-A, or Triple-A, or, hell, even make the team,” he said. “I had no idea.”
Then, Mark Sr. drove to Gainesville, Fla., to watch his nephew — Jack Leiter, projected as one of the top picks in this year’s MLB draft — pitch for Vanderbilt against Florida.
And yes, Jack could end up with the Tigers, who hold the No. 3 overall pick. “He’s doing great man,” Mark Jr. said of his cousin. “He’s setting the world on fire right now. He’s gonna, hopefully, be a high pick and do big things.”
But that’s getting ahead in the story.
Because Mark Sr. is on an amazing road trip.
After seeing his nephew pitch — and spending some time with his brother Al, who pitched 19 years in the majors and won three World Series rings — Mark drove to Reading, Pennsylvania, to watch his son’s debut with the SeaWolves.
“To see him coming out of the bullpen in Reading, I had to take my phone out,” Mark Sr. said. “And I’m talking into my phone: ‘This is it man, his comeback to the big leagues starts here, right now. It’s on. This is it. Reach down deep in your baseball soul. Don’t give in.’”
Mark Jr. didn’t give in. He reached down deep in his baseball soul and threw two innings of scoreless ball.
“My son can pitch,” Mark Sr. said. “We were throwers — Al, myself, my brother Kurt (who reached Double-A), all of us from the Leiter family — we were hard throwers growing up. We believed 0-2, I’m knocking you on your butt, all that old school stuff. We thought we were great pitchers but we didn’t know how to pitch.”
Not like his son, Mark Jr.; he doesn’t have great velocity but he has command and control, able to throw five different pitches.
“I’m not a 96-98 guy,” Mark Jr. says. “I just try to keep guys off balance, hitting spots, moving the ball in and out.”
‘He knows how to pitch’
Now, it’s Tuesday night.
Mark Jr. is pitching for the SeaWolves against Akron. His father is in New Jersey, trying to follow on his computer, living and dying on every pitch.
“As crazy, awesome and amazing as it is, it’s also brutal because the stress is through the roof,” Mark Sr. said. “I thought that if he ever made it, it would be easy for me because I’d know what to expect. I wasn’t even close. It was so far off. As soon as a couple guys get on, my heart starts pounding. I can feel my knees shaking a little bit.”
But Mark Jr. is fantastic again, pitching three scoreless innings.
“He knows how to pitch,” Erie manager Arnie Beyeler says. “He’s been around a little bit, so he can read swings pretty well. He’s got about a five-pitch mix that he can go to with cutters and sliders and change ups and two seams and four seams. He knows how to pitch a little bit and when he gets ahead in the count, he’s got stuff to put guys away. He’s effective.”
Elbows of steel (except one)
Here’s the crazy thing.
None of the Leiters had elbow issues.
“Al had some labrum issues and I had trouble with my rotator cuff,” Mark Sr. said. “I never even iced my elbow. So yes, it’s weird that Junior had the elbow.”
Mark Jr. played for the Toronto Blue Jays and Philadelphia Phillies from 2017-18. He threw 114 innings, recorded 106 strikeouts with 43 walks while pitching in 47 games.
But he started having arm trouble in 2018 and had surgery in 2019.
Right when he was about to be cleared in 2020, “COVID happened,” he said.
Mark Jr. has appeared in two games for the SeaWolves, pitching five scoreless innings in relief. He has given up one hit, no walks and has five strikeouts.
“Just kind of trying to battle and trying to get back to where I was before injury,” he says. “Just keeping the faith and keep working hard. It’s a blessing to be back in a uniform and start to feel like things are a little normal again.”
Full of pride
Now, it’s late Tuesday night.
Mark Jr. is on the phone with his father, going over his outing.
They do it after every game, dissecting his performance, batter-by-batter, pitch-by-pitch. Part analysis, part lesson.
“He is amazing at how he can remember every pitch,” Mark Sr. said about his son.
“My dad and I are extremely close,” Mark Jr. said. “When he retired, I was 10. So he was there for all my games. It was just something that is invaluable, learning from him, just listening to stories. I can call up and ask him about his career, having parallel situations, because the game doesn’t really change, you know, things continue the same way.”
I finally reached Mark Sr. that night. “I was just on the phone with my son,” he said. “He woulda talked all night.”
Mark Sr. laughed. Full of pride.
Imagine you are a dad. A baseball dad.
And everything seems perfect.
Contact Jeff Seidel: email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @seideljeff. To read his recent columns, go to freep.com/sports/jeff-seidel.