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Sunday, April 13, 1997 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Jim Leyritz Has A Story That's All Heart

Cincinnati Enquirer

`I WISH you were my daddy,' the youngster told Jim Leyritz at lunch. While the former Yankee couldn't make that wish come true, he ended up doing something even better.

The story reads like it fell off the teen shelf of the library. But maybe that's what baseball needs nowadays. More heart than headlines.

One was 9 years old, his brother 6, and why they couldn't get adopted last summer gnawed at the New York Yankees' Jim Leyritz until he did something about it.

Steven and Eric had fallen into the vat of neglect, an unspoken place littered with children too small to realize they are unwanted because they are too big to cuddle.

"It's hard when there are two and (they are) older," said Maggie Lear of New York City's Administration of Children Services. "People are always expecting to adopt a baby, but that's just so rare."

Last June, "the boys," as Leyritz calls them, were profiled in one of the tabloids saying how their dream was to go to a Yankees game with their daddy.

Who could be better to help than Jim Leyritz. He was an honest-to-goodness Yankee. Big. Tough. Well off. A catcher by trade, a hitter by reputation. A hardened seven-year survivor in the what-have-you-done-for-me-lately world of Major League Baseball.

Karri Leyritz's husband kids about how she is trying to save the world.

So it was really no surprise when she woke him in their Manhattan apartment, waved the newspaper in his face and told him she had set up a commitment for them to take those kids to a game.

"I'm thinking, `Yankee Stadium is where I go every day,"' Karri Leyritz said. "And 20 percent of the time I probably complain about it. And this was these little kids' dream. It makes you think."

Karri and Jim sent a limousine to pick up the boys, and they took them to the Yankee Store, then to the All-Star Cafe, then to the clubhouse to meet the guys.

Nearly a year later, Steven says, "I still have that day in my mind."

During that lunch with the Leyritzes, he also said something only a kid can say. Both heartbreaking and heartwarming: "I wish you were my daddy."

No such things were said growing up amid the vacant lots and cul-de-sacs of an emerging Anderson (Ohio) Township in the 1970s. There was a mother, a father, a brother, a sister. Jimmy would become the toast of brand-new Turpin High.

Mom and dad worked, but brother Mike, five years older, always had time to put the Knothole catching equipment on Jimmy and fire hard balls at him off the backyard lawn.

"I wish you were my daddy."

Jim Leyritz was taken aback. He had heard that older foster children had an attitude, that they were troubled and abused. But here was this great little kid at lunch wearing a Yankee hat just looking for a daddy.

From there, it became a whirlwind.

Every other week, Karri and Jim took an older foster child to a game. The one that broke their hearts was the 16-year-old who had been in a group home since he was 2 and told them, "This has been the greatest day of my life."

Sick of seeing youngsters show up with holes in their sneakers, the couple organized a charity event for older foster children. In August, a month before their son Dakota was born, they raised nearly $200,000.

Karri was amazed at all the memorabilia her husband brought back from other parks, all the morning phone calls he made before going to the park. And how about getting 20 Yankees to show up for the event on an off-day?

Then in October, the Leyritzes and Steven and Eric went big-time. Their sudden, sweet odyssey resulted in Steven and Eric finding a permanent home. Karri and Jim screamed and cried in the Atlanta hotel room when they got the call about a foster parent being found.

Then Jim left to go to the ballpark a few hours later .. and hit a home run, a three-run blast in the eighth inning of Game 4 that wrenched control of the World Series from the supposedly unbeatable Braves.

"They asked me what made me feel better and I told them, `No comparison,"' Jim Leyritz said. "My home run, that's part of my career. That's my job. I'm sorry, but helping these kids find a home, that's more of an impact."

Then came what foster kids dread.

A change. A move. Another home. Only this time it was the Leyritzes who were moving. All the way to the West Coast when Jim got traded to the Anaheim Angels during the off-season.

"It crushed me," Lear said. "Karri and Jim did so much to give coverage of the problem faced by older foster children who need homes. They came in not knowing anything about the system. All they said is, `We want to help, what can we do?"'

From that first game with Steven and Eric, Jim Leyritz tried to calm their worst fears.

Karri and Jim and social services are careful to protect them and refuse to talk about their background, but certainly the boys, of Hispanic origin, have been moved around since birth from various homes.

"You could tell the apprehension," Jim Leyritz said. "Was I going to be just like everybody else, come into their lives for a little bit and then be gone? You have to build trust. I think they knew they could trust us when we called that first night after the game to see how they liked it."

Karri Leyritz could only watch in admiration as her husband responded to Steven's "I wish you were my daddy."

"There was no way we could (adopt)," she said. "The one thing those kids need is stability, and a baseball player's family just doesn't have it. Plus, we had two little ones.

"But the way Jim answered him was beautiful. He told them he could be their friend and be a part of their lives."

And so he has. After the World Series, Karri and Jim took the boys and their foster parent, a single Hispanic woman, to lunch. Steven refuses to wear to fourth grade the World Series hat Jim signed and gave him. Karri and Jim sent the family a television for Christmas.

"They're doing so much better; she's doing a great job with them," Jim Leyritz said. "You can really tell with Eric. He was always running around, excitable. Now he's a little more quiet. They're both polite. It's great to see."

The couple's one regret about the trade is that it prevents them from putting the charity into high gear this season.

But that won't stop Karri Leyritz, 29, who seems bent on abolishing the perception that baseball players and their families are spoiled.

With the family now moving to her home city of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., she is directing her energies there to the Covenant House, a program for runaways. They plan to host some events at home with some of the youngsters. Karri's also involved in the cystic fibrosis campaign.

After Jim is done playing, they are seriously thinking about adopting older foster children.

"We've got so much to offer," she said. "We've just realized that in the past few years. Everything has gone so well for us. When we met, we weren't the happiest people in the world. We were both in marriages where the other spouse didn't want children, and we've been lucky with Austin and Dakota."

They met at a country-and-western place in Fort Lauderdale and still dance to John Michael Montgomery's "I Love The Way You Love Me." It was their wedding song, starting everything fresh.

Karri thinks the kids have softened her husband.

"Everyone knows the Leyritz story," she said. "Really into the baseball scene, really into being a ballplayer. I would kid him about having a pretty big head. But he's as down-to-earth as they get. You see your kids are still smiling at you when you get home even though you go 0-for-4, and it does something."

They swear by him in New York, where Leyritz got noticed for moving his family from New Jersey into the city because he wanted to get the feel of the Big Apple. Every day, he walked from 64th Street and Second Avenue to pick up the No. 4 train at 59th and Lexington.

It was just one of the things that made him appreciate the New York police.

"Jim does more for us than any other player in New York," Police Benevolent Association spokeswoman Marilyn Waddell told a New Jersey newspaper last summer.

There are two kids in New York who wouldn't be surprised. Maybe, just maybe, Steven's wish has come true. Maybe, in a sense, Jim Leyritz is his daddy.

"I haven't really thought about it like that," he said. "All I know is that I'll be there for them."

Copyright (c) 1997 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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