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Face Facts

American League batters will no longer have Al Leiter to kick around nor, I suppose, will we.

Our erstwhile ace hung ’em up yesterday [1] while a Yankee exhibition was already in progress, saying the time was right. Seemed very Al-ish to bid the game adieu in mid-game. Throw a pitch, get an out and grab a YES headset in order to talk about it. Even in the last uniform he wore as he left the mound, that was our Al.

Al did a lot of talking in his 19-year big league career, especially during his Mets tenure. From 1998 through 2004, he was more often than anyone the voice of the clubhouse, the guy whose quotes peppered more stories than anybody’s. It seemed to have reached a point toward his Flushing finish where he went from articulating eloquently to not knowing when to shut the eff up. Before all was said and he was done, Al Leiter may have talked his way out of blue and orange.

I’m in the midst of Adam Rubin’s Pedro, Carlos & Omar, a dutifully detailed work that is long on nuggets and short on dirt (which is fine). The author is so conscientious and so fair that nobody comes off all that badly in his book. But Leiter edges close to it precisely because Al had a mouth and he knew how to use it. Nothing extremely revelatory on this count, but it’s not a celebration where ol’ No. 22 (and our “Hundred Greatest” No. 28 [2]) is concerned. Al as clubhouse counsel…Al as unnatural chum of ownership…Al as denier of misdeeds in L’Affaire Kazmir…Al as head of the Florida Marlin chamber of commerce successfully luring Carlos Delgado [3] to Miami’s allegedly higher standard of living…Al as sulking, spurned homecoming float last April, deflated by the darting boos of the Shea crowd when he was the visiting starter; sorry ’bout that, ol’ pal, but we’d moved on to Pedro [4].

Al came off as a bit of operator in the book, fairly true to my recollection of him circa 2004. The sense I always got, though, was it wasn’t an act and he wasn’t being a phony. Al, I’m guessing, was being Al all along, which would explain his political aspirations. He was genuinely a politician, but genuine for the whole ride. That’s why we liked Al, really liked Al even if we (or least I) never quite loved him.

The mouth, when in motion on our behalf, could be endearing, especially the oft-repeated tales of growing up one of us, a Mets fan from the suburbs. Al Leiter, until it no longer served his professional purposes, took being a main Met very seriously. We wish every ballplayer would bond with his uniform that closely. Best of all, he talked like he pitched — until he couldn’t anymore.

Al Leiter’s mouth is just one element of Al Leiter’s face, and Al Leiter’s face was, hands down, the best part of his anatomy. Yes, it even beat his left arm when that particular limb was winning 95 games as a Met (sixth-most in franchise history). In a game that’s so at home on radio, you really needed TV to appreciate Leiter. All the effort, the frustration, the disgust, the joy, the result of any given pitch was right there on the face. Wearing his emotions on his sleeve would have been superfluous.

If the Mets were, as one of the marketing slogans of his day insisted, Always Amazin’, Al always looked amazed. Amazed at the diving play Rey made behind him. Amazed he didn’t get that strike called. Amazed his cutter didn’t cut as he intended. Amazed there was contact between his bat and a ball. Amazed that he grew up to pitch for the team to whose Opening Day his dad took him and his brothers when he was a small child deciding he wanted to someday be Seaver or Koosman. That quality of saying it all with his face was what made him more Amazin’ than most.