From the Bigs to the Littles and Back Again, Dennis Leonard's Comeback Brings Him Full Circle
06/23/1986 at 01:00 AM EDT
We begin with Dennis Leonard on May 28, 1983. Leonard, 32 at the time, is the ace of the Kansas City Royals pitching staff. A three-time 20-game winner, he is the most successful right hander in baseball, with a 136-93 lifetime record. On this balmy spring day, Leonard winds up and throws a routine fastball to Cal Ripken of the Baltimore Orioles. But when he comes down on his left leg, his knee collapses. "I heard the knee explode," he says. "It sounded, it felt, like Velcro pulling apart." The memory still brings a shudder to George Brett, Kansas City's nonpareil third baseman. "Dennis was out on the mound flapping around like a fish out of water," says Brett. "They took him off on a stretcher."
Leonard had ruptured his patellar tendon, an essential length of dense fibrous tissue that connects the thigh muscle to the lower leg. For reasons neither doctors nor patient could explain, it had shredded when Leonard's foot hit the ground, reducing itself instantly to what one specialist described as "a ball of spaghetti." Surgery was performed the following morning, but Leonard knew that no professional athlete had ever come back from such an injury. Still, he was determined to try.
Rehabilitation began immediately, but when the pitcher's full-leg cast was removed at the end of the summer, the devastation was only too obvious. "With his leg all shriveled up, Dennis looked like a polio patient," says Mickey Cobb, the Royals trainer. Cobb doesn't make the comparison lightly. As a child, he was a victim of polio; his legs are twisted and he walks with a limp. But Cobb doesn't believe in being disabled. He refers to himself as "so-called handicapped," and the Kansas City players call him Dr. Clock for his perpetual energy. When Leonard became despondent, Cobb delivered pep talks that were more like filibusters. When the pitcher was impatient, Cobb soothed him. "Mickey was really important," says Leonard. "He was with me every step of the way."
Leonard came to the park early every day, before his teammates, and made a point of being gone before game time. Watching the Royals play was too painful. "I felt distant," he says. "I didn't really feel part of the team." With the passage of time, Leonard's ordeal took on Sisyphean overtones. Three more operations were performed to shore up the knee, a length of donor tendon was woven into place, and finally a piece of Leonard's own hamstring was added. Each procedure set his rehabilitation back to square one. He had a guaranteed contract through 1986 worth $900,000 a year, so he could have taken the money and run. "Or limped," he jokes. "But I felt I owed it to the organization to try to come back. I also felt I owed it to myself. Five years from now I didn't want to think, 'I could have played ball again if I didn't screw off.' " And then, of course, there was the example set by the relentless Dr. Clock. "If someone looked at Mickey on the street, they'd feel sorry for him," says Leonard. "But he doesn't feel sorry for himself. He is an inspiration."
Meanwhile, at the Leonard household in Blue Springs, Kans., the world had turned upside down. And it wasn't just because Dennis' diminutive wife, Audrey, had to help her 6'1" 200-pound husband in and out of bed or the shower. Since Leonard was no longer traveling with the Royals, he was around the house constantly. "I really had a hard time adjusting," says Audrey. "For the first time, our lives didn't revolve around baseball and his schedule. The biggest help was the kids. They kept us going."
Going, that is, to Little League games and practices. Through his sons, Dennis Jr., 12, and Ryan, 9, Leonard rediscovered the simple pleasures of baseball—pleasures that had nothing to do with endorsements and multi-year contracts and were, in fact, available to any suburban father. Dennis Sr. started coaching in the Blue Springs Little League. His pedagogical philosophy was basic: "Don't yell. Why yell at a poor little kid who gets yelled at enough at home?" He concentrated on pitching mechanics, and he laughed when he saw kids copy the mannerisms of major leaguers he knew. "Little League was my outlet," he says. "It helped me get through rehabilitation. It was like the donkey and the carrot." Whenever the pain or the tedium of rebuilding his injured knee became too great, remembers Leonard, "sometimes I'd say to myself, 'One more hour and I'll be out there on the field with the kids.' "
For Leonard, baseball had become, once again, a child's game played by children. And he got to know his neighbors for the first time. "I never had a chance to before," he says. "I was always at the ballpark." The neighbors were pleased, but not awestruck. With the other fathers, Leonard cheerfully did his share of the grounds keeping. "We'd get a six-pack and drag the field," he says. "It was fun." After the games there were barbecues, pool parties, trips to Minsky's for pizza and beer. And Leonard was finally getting a chance to watch his kids grow up. "Sometimes you don't know what you have at home because you're not home," says Audrey. "In a way the injury was a godsend. It made us a closer family."
By that time baseball savants had written Leonard off for 1986 and forever. So, reluctantly, had most of his teammates. "We thought it would be great if he came back," says Brett. "But deep down inside we didn't think that he could." Even Leonard had doubts. When he reported to spring training last February, he was ready to accept what had once seemed inevitable to everyone but him and Mickey Cobb. "I was prepared to quit the game," he admits. "If they said, 'We don't think you can handle it anymore,' that was it. I wasn't going to play for any other team." But by the end of camp Leonard had pitched his way onto the Royals young and talented staff. His 87 mph fastball still darted, his slider was nastier than ever.
The Royals manager, Dick Howser, planned at first to use him as a middleinning reliever, but on April 12 Leonard got a surprise start against the Toronto Blue Jays. It was a home game, nationally televised, and the outcome was improbable enough to make a Hollywood screenwriter blush. Before his wife, his sons and several dozen friends from the Blue Springs Little League, Leonard, pitching like a man stepping out of a time warp, blew the Blue Jays away with a three-hit 1-0 shutout. Behind him, the Royals played with mingled joy, disbelief and affection. "It was a real tearjerker," says Brett. "Amazing. Emotional. Like a World Series game." Afterward, Leonard pressed the game ball into trainer Mickey Cobb's hand. "I was thrilled," says Cobb, who keeps the ball on his desk, under glass. "And I'm still thrilled each time he pitches." By the second week in June, Leonard had won six games with a stellar 2.60 earned-run average, third best in the American League. "Even I can't believe how well I'm pitching now," says Leonard.
Unbelievable just about covers it. There has never been a comeback quite like it for suddenness—albeit after three years of pain and hard work—for unexpectedness, and for its sheer shameless storybook ending. "Of course, there's no guarantee the knee will stay together," says Leonard, who knows now, in ways that he may not have before, that life would go on if it didn't. His outlook has changed in three years and so has his family's. Now that her husband is traveling again, Audrey Leonard realizes what was gained and what is now, temporarily, lost. "We miss him," she says. "The kids miss him terribly. My little one, when he left for school this morning, was crushed when he realized that Dennis wouldn't be home to watch his game."
At 35, Dennis Leonard has once again grabbed the brass ring, but he knows the merry-go-round won't go on forever. When one day the knee or the arm or the wages of age have cashiered him to the ranks of old-timer, he will be ready. And he has in mind a second career. "Managing," he says, "in the Blue Springs Little League. I'd like that."