In case you ever wondered what the life styles of the rich and famous were like before they became rich and famous, well, in the case of Dennis Leonard, the Kansas City Royals pitcher, and Alfonse D'Amato, the junior senator from New York, they were cramped; they lived in the same house on Long Island. D'Amato, then a struggling attorney with two small children, rented the top floor of the Leonards' two-family house. We're going back some -- to the middle 1960s -- when the D'Amatos moved in and young Dennis Leonard picked up $1 an hour babysitting the D'Amato girls, Lisa and Lorraine. "We're like family," D'Amato said, offering definitive suburban proof: "His mama and my mama went to the beauty parlor together. His mama was the crossing guard at my kids' school."
Even after D'Amato made enough money to afford a house of his own, he moved just down the street, and continued to follow Leonard's athletic career with enthusiasm. "I don't care who he pitches against -- even if he pitches against the Yankees," D'Amato said, invoking the name of his beloved team in that hushed tone normally reserved for saints, "I root for Dennis." So it wasn't surprising that D'Amato called Leonard the other day and arranged for a car to bring him to Washington from Baltimore, where the Royals are playing this weekend, for lunch yesterday.
D'Amato was escorting Leonard through the Capitol when they met up with Kansas' own Robert Dole, the Senate majority leader. Dole also has warm, special feelings about Leonard; not only is Leonard a pitcher on Dole's favorite team, but like Dole, Leonard has fought to overcome a disabling injury. Dole lost virtually all use of his right arm while in combat in World War II; a torn tendon below Leonard's left kneecap sidelined him for almost three full seasons. Dole suggested Leonard and D'Amato join him in his office. When they got there they found some 40 people waiting -- not to mention a sheet cake inscribed "Happy Birthday Comeback Player of the Year" and decorated with the Royals insignia.
"Oh geez," Leonard gasped.
Did I mention that yesterday was Leonard's 34th birthday?
How old are you, someone asked Leonard.
"Twenty-seven," he fibbed.
"He can be a good politician," observed D'Amato.
"Comeback of the year," someone shouted.
"I'm trying," Leonard grinned.
If the votes were counted today, he'd be unanimous. It's hard to recall any player coming back to play so long after an injury. Three seasons? Leonard hurt himself on May 21, 1983, following through after a pitch to Cal Ripken Jr. His next major league appearance wasn't until September of 1985: two innings over two games. Although Leonard was in their clubhouse at the end of last season, he didn't truly feel himself a part of the Royals, especially when they went on to play in the World Series: "That's why I didn't go to the games. I went to the first two because the public relations director asked me to. But I didn't go to St. Louis, and I didn't go to the last two in Kansas City. I was happy they won, but I wasn't part of the team. I felt really weird, so when the whole team flew here to meet the President, I stayed home."
There would be no such reticence again. The unassuming Leonard is very much a part of these Royals. While some may have wondered whether Leonard would make the team on sentiment, there's no doubt now he deserves to be there. His 3-2 record obscures him allowing but three earned runs in 37 innings for a startling 0.37 ERA; great numbers for anyone, incredible for someone who was away so long. From 1975 through 1982, Leonard won 130 games; only Steve Carlton won more. Does Leonard's hot start imply pitching is like riding a bike, something you never forget? Or is he remarkable? Or both?
For the moment Leonard's is a resurrection tale, starting with the 1-0, three-hit shutout he threw at Toronto on national TV in his first start of the season, and ending who knows where. "I wasn't supposed to be a starter," he said. "I made the team as long relief. If Danny Jackson doesn't sprain an ankle in spring training, I'm in the bullpen and nobody makes a fuss over me. Getting into the rotation, making my first start at home on national TV, and throwing a three-hit shutout? Forget it. I'd never dreamed anything like that."
Leonard's dream was simpler: to play again; only that. "I wanted to play," he said. "If I didn't want to, it was easy to sit back and collect the money. But I owed it to myself to try, number one; number two, I owed it to the Royals." Leonard was in the second year of a five-year contract when he got hurt. The financial security "made it easier" for him to work so singlemindedly on his rehabilitation. Every day he'd go to the ballpark and work with the Royals trainer, Mickey Cobb, who knew about disability, having himself overcome polio. Four hours a day they'd work. In a sense Cobb was Leonard's role model, and it says something fine and warm about friendship that Leonard took the game ball from that win over Toronto and gave it to Cobb.
Including all the signposts on his road back -- from the first time he pitched batting practice in 1985 through his first major league victory in 1986 -- Leonard said "the most significant" one came last August at Fort Meyers, KC's minor league affiliate, the first time during his comeback that he tried the real thing, pitching in an official professional baseball game. After that, his confidence grew until now when it seems complete.
"A lot of people feel that once they have a problem, it's all over," Dole was saying. "That's not so, and Dennis Leonard is proof of it. He may not know it, but he's a real inspiration to thousands and thousands." Dole nodded his head and smiled, satisfied. "It's good news," he said, "real good news."