The Hack Man -- The Other Side Of Jeffrey Leonard -- There's More To Enigmatic Mariner Than Most People See
It is Monday, April 9, two hours before the Seattle Mariners are to open the 1990 regular season.
Manager Jim Lefebvre asks Jeffrey Leonard, who has prepared for six months to play left field, if he can move to right, where young Greg Briley has struggled. Leonard replies, ``Just put me where you need me, Skip.''
Asked by a reporter the last time he played right field, Leonard replies, ``I'm only going to tell you this once - I ain't talking.''
For their road trip to Kansas City and Texas three weeks ago, the Seattle Mariners chose a western theme. Those who wished could wear cowboy duds.
Jeffrey Leonard wore black, from his hat to the heels on his sharkskin boots. Most would call his choice fitting. Leonard is baseball's best-known bad man.
But is Leonard, renowned for one kind of flap or another, truly an outlaw as well as an outfielder? Is his reputation deserved? Is this angry, aggressive persona a real desire for distance?
Jeffrey Leonard is a compound, complex man who has drawn mixed reactions from people, even teammates, during his 11-year career. Leonard's loud, often abrasive style, which often sounds like lyrics from 2 Live Crew, fits easier with veterans. Young players don't realize he uses expletives as terms of endearment.
``It isn't as bad as it sounds,'' says Bob Brenly, a former San Francisco Giant teammate. ``If Jeffrey don't cuss ya, Jeffrey don't like ya. If he doesn't talk to you, that's when he's mad.''
Seattle hitting coach Gene Clines, who has known Leonard throughout his career, calls him ``easily the most misunderstood man in our clubhouse. He doesn't let too many people get close to him, so most people don't really know him.''
Pitcher Matt Young, who has faced Leonard in both the National and American Leagues, takes that observation one step further. ``It goes beyond our clubhouse,'' Young said. He's probably the most misread man in the game.''
Leonard's problems always seem to overshadow his achievements with Houston, San Francisco, Milwaukee and, since signing a two-year contract as a free agent, Seattle. He is known more for fights with teammates Dan Gladden in 1985 and Will Clark in 1987 than for playing hard, playing hurt and producing an average of 100 runs a season. His record of hitting a home run in four straight games while being named the NL playoff Most Valuable Player in 1987 took a back seat to The Flap, the left-arm-down style he adopted for those home-run trots.
Even Clines sees that Leonard, a big man with a booming basso profundo voice, intimidates people. ``He gives them that look of his,'' Clines says, ``and raises his voice to a level that makes people want to run. He can get really angry. But usually his bark is bigger than his bite.''
This is no solace to anyone with the temerity to ask Leonard, especially in the midst of a 2-for-36 slump as he was 10 days ago, for some of his time.
First, the look. Stare. Glare. Disbelief. Penitentiary Face. Then, the voice.
``Go away, man.''
Doesn't Leonard trust anyone?
``Trust?'' Leonard looks curious for the first time. ``Yeah, I trust you . . . to get it wrong. It's not really a matter of trust. It's patience. I don't like to speak with the press because I get tired of the stupid or funky questions.
``Maybe I shouldn't be that way. We all have a job to do. I could have gone to college and been a writer and gone looking for dirt, too.
``But trust? Baseball is a performance job. You perform or you're out of a job. There's no need to talk to someone about a home run. Or about this slump. No matter what I say, you're going to write what you want to anyway, and there's no way for players to get back at you.''
Clines isn't surprised by the response. ``It will seem like hostility. But don't make the mistake everyone else does . . . and I do mean everyone. It's honesty. Jeffrey tells people things they don't want to hear. That scares people. It keeps them away from him and that's OK with Jeffrey.''
Leonard winds up in a ruckus with Rusty Kuntz when he pushes the Mariner outfield coach before a game in Detroit in June. During a previous road trip, when two teammates nearly fight on a team bus ride, Leonard starts to yell at Alvin Davis for no apparent reason. Soon the real confrontation is forgotten. ``Jeffrey goes about things differently,'' Davis says later. ``But he knows what he's doing.''
Jeffrey scoffs at the theory that his hostility, feigned or not, stems from growing up in tough streets of southwest Philadelphia. ``He survived in a place where you have to be strong or fall,'' Clines says. ``Nothing was ever given to Jeffrey. He earned everything he's got.''
Leonard acknowledges that life on the streets was dangerous. ``But it wasn't any harder growing up there than going through this slump,'' he says as he shakes his head. ``Seriously, it was bad news, very bad. But honestly I was not affected by it. I had strong friends. I had - still have - a close family with a lot of love.
``There were gangs and fighting and shooting and trouble all around. Let's just say it was different than growing up in Bellevue, you dig? But I didn't know nothing about no sun and surf in California, and as long as you don't know that life, you can't miss it.''
Jeffrey's parents, Wilson and Johnnie Mae Leonard, still live in the same house. Johnnie Mae says that her only son, born between daughters Beverly and Michele, ``did not give me one minute of trouble. We always knew where he was. He'd show up when he was told and he'd listen to me and his father. But he was somewhat shy.''
Jeffrey says his demeanor was not as much shyness as a desire for privacy typical of teen-agers.
``When I was a little kid, I was as talkative as anyone. They tell me I was loudest when my uncle used to tickle me. I remember when the Twist came out, I could really dance well. But after that I spent a lot of time in my room, listening to my own music and all.
``I didn't turn private because of my color or my speech. I stutter some, but we had one guy that was a lot worse than me. I had good friends, true friends that I left in Philly. I've never made friends like them since. In all my travels since, it's been hard for me to open up.''
Leonard is a major influence on Ken Griffey Jr. One of his many talks with the 20-year-old occurs in Oakland after Griffey balks about moving from second to fifth in the batting order. ``Hac (Leonard) is great,'' Griffey says. ``He's done a lot for me. We talk all the time, more this year than when I was a rookie, as if he didn't want to overload me last year. He works hard. Few people see how hard. I have a lot of questions for him - like how come he's so ugly?''
An All-Star last year, Leonard will stay home and watch Griffey this time.
Leonard was a standout in football, basketball and baseball at Overbrook High School, which produced basketball stars Wilt Chamberlain and Walt Hazzard. He got 60 scholarship offers for football, five for basketball and none for baseball, where he played shortstop and twice hit two home runs in one inning.
``We had a 12-game season and most of the games got rained out,'' Leonard says. ``We didn't get much attention from newspapers or scouts, but the Phillies said they would draft me.''
So when Dodger scout Ed Liberatore gave him his business card after seeing him play, Leonard stuffed it in the pocket of his uniform and forgot it. He had injured an ankle and knew he would not be able play major-college football, so he turned to baseball. But he was interested in playing near home, not Los Angeles.
On draft day, there was no call. Leonard remembers calling radio stations and asking if he had been picked, and being told no. Leonard was hurt. Weeks later, talking with his father, he recalled the scout and business card. ``I told him to go get it and we'd call,'' Wilson Leonard remembers.
Jeffrey ran to the school, found the uniform in a dirty laundry pile and found Liberatore's card still in the pocket.
``I remember I was packing to go on a scouting trip for a couple of weeks when I got this call,'' said Liberatore, 78 and now scouting for the Orioles in the Northeast. ``The man said his son had workouts with the Pirates and Reds but had been turned down. I told him I had a few minutes and I'd come over that night to see a (American) Legion game.''
When Liberatore got to the field, three Phillies scouts were in the stands. Jeffrey had one at-bat before rain wiped out the game. But Liberatore went back the next day and ran Leonard through drills, hitting and fielding.
``He was raw, but he had tools, a pretty good prospect,'' Liberatore said. ``I took him over to my car and signed him.''
Leonard got $500 and a new baseball glove. Liberatore gave him some extra money for equipment and a new suit to wear.
Jeffrey first plays ball on teams coached by his father. He is the youngest player, but already is showing the fire that will mark his pro career. ``I never needed a captain if Jeffrey was around,'' Wilson Leonard says. ``He didn't mix real well even then, probably because all the guys were older by three or four years, but he'd get on the other guys for not hustling or making plays. And behind my back, they gave him a hard time. I learned years later he had taken boxing lessons and gone back and put those guys away.''
Leonard's first manager in the Los Angeles organization was Del Crandall, who later would manage the Mariners in 1983 and '84.
``He had considerable talent,'' Crandall says. ``But he really wouldn't talk to anyone but his teammates. At times he appeared, I'm not sure of the right word, maybe angry. It might have been a defense against management or anyone who had to evaluate him. Sometimes he didn't seem to like what I'd ask him to do, but he always did it. He always played hard.''
Some things do not change. While he has always played hard, circumstances have increased the distance, the distrust.
The Dodgers, trying to reacquire catcher Joe Ferguson, traded Leonard to Houston, where he hit .290 in 1979 and was asked to platoon the next year. Trouble.
In 1981, Leonard was traded to San Francisco, where he settled in to make a career until he tangled with Will Clark in 1987, an incident the All-Star first baseman reportedly caused by making a racial comment to Leonard's nephew as he asked for an autograph. Trouble.
During the 1989 World Series, Clark calls Leonard ``a cancer on the team.'' An angry Leonard promises to beat up Clark during spring training, but most of all he seems hurt. ``Why would he bring me up when everyone is supposed to be enjoying the Series?'' he asks.
When he fell from .280 with 19 homers and 110 runs produced the next year, the Giants traded him to Milwaukee. Leonard felt betrayed by San Francisco Manager Roger Craig.
``I was hurt after the Giants cut me cold,'' he says. ``When I got to Milwaukee, I was down. I was not myself. Before long, one of the coaches comes to me and says, `You act like you're not trying.' Can you believe that?''
Before that and since, no one has questioned Leonard's hustle.
Leonard still is perceived negatively, and some even imply there may be racial overtones. ``Crap,'' Clines says of such talk. ``Jeffrey is always talking black-white, but that's his way of bridging the gap. He'll get on anyone, anytime and any color.''
Indeed, Leonard's ever-sharp needle has turned on his two constant partners at the clubhouse card table, Mike Jackson and Dennis Powell (now with Milwaukee), both black. Leonard called them ``Buff'' and ``Fay,'' for their eagerness to hit the post-game meal. ``Jeffrey's way of telling them to take better care of themselves,'' Clines says. ``The game has gone quiet and businesslike all over. But Jeffrey's from the old days.''
Against Cleveland earlier this season, the Indians' Candy Maldonado, Leonard's friend from his days with the Dodgers and Giants, wants to talk to him during batting practice. Leonard walks away. ``You ain't on my team,'' he says. ``See me after the game.''
Leonard is a devoted husband and father of two sons, Jeffrey, Jr. and Marcus, collector of classic movies and good jazz. His mother, Johnny Mae, calls him ``very generous. He supports our church building fund. He's helped friends who are down as much as he can. He remembers.
``He loves it in Seattle and says the people are very friendly,'' his mother adds. ``I think he's mellowing now. I've seen big changes in him as he gets older.''
But he still is labeled ``controversial.''
``I say things that hit home, but why is that bad? A lot of times in life you don't know where people stand. With me, they know.
``People make me out to be some kind of bad guy. I'm not. I love my family and my family loves me. I love to see birds flying and grass grow green and the sun setting. But why do I have to let people know these things?''
While Leonard is not bothered by his nickname, Penitentiary Face, bestowed on him by San Francisco teammate Dave Bergman, he was upset when someone once called him ``a concrete marshmallow.''
``When I first heard it, I was mad,'' he said. ``One image is hard and insensitive, the other is soft and stupid. Neither one is me. I don't care what is said or written about me. I know that I'm a good person and inside, I'm just as soft as the next guy. So I put on a game face and be mean and talk bad. Big deal.
``I ain't going to pinch someone's head off in the checkout line at Safeway,'' he says with a laugh. ``Unless I'm in the express line with two items, and they come along with 20 items and a check to be cashed. Then I get mad, just like anyone would.''
Times staff writer Bob Sherwin contributed to this story.
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