Leonard's slugging lifts Giants in bid for first pennant in 25 years
Outfielder Jeffrey Leonard of the San Francisco Giants is an acquired taste - even in his own clubhouse. The man who set a major league record with a home run in each of this year's first four National League playoff games doesn't seem to care what others think of him. But largely because of Leonard, the Giants are within one victory of appearing in the World Series for the first time in 25 years - a goal they hope to achieve tonight as the best-of-seven series returns to St. Louis for Game 6.
Leonard purposely leads by intimidation. He's outspoken. He's tough on teammates. He glares at umpires. He tolerates the press. On occasion he has even tested manager Roger Craig by insisting that Craig put his name back in the lineup after Roger had decided to rest him because of an injury.
And then there is the home run trot he's been demonstrating throughout the current league championship series. Indeed, Jeffrey is at his best or worst (choose one) when he violates the unwritten baseball law that says you don't ever show up a pitcher or his team by taking all day to circle the bases after you've hit a home run.
I mean, in the time it takes Leonard to get back to the dugout after hitting one out, the Egyptians could have built another pyramid.
Leonard had two hits including a home run in the Giants' opening game loss in St. Louis, then went 3-for-4 in the second-game victory that evened matters at 1-1 as the scene shifted to San Francisco for the middle games. Jeffrey's solo shot in Game 3 wasn't enough to prevent another Cardinal triumph, but his two-run blast in the fifth inning of Game 4 lifted the Giants from behind and triggered the 4-2 decision that once again squared the series.
``When Leonard hit that ball he lifted the whole team with one swing of the bat,'' said winning pitcher Mike Krukow. ``We just came up as one person off the bench. It was awesome.''
``We are just climbing on his shoulders and he's carrying us all the way.''
The Cardinals finally did manage to shut Leonard down in Game 5, holding him hitless, but his teammates took up the slack in a 6-3 win that put the Giants in the lead for the first time.
Overall, Leonard has seven hits and a .412 batting average in the first five games, and if the voting were held now he'd be a cinch for playoff Most Valuable Player honors - an award that would net him a $50,000 bonus according to the terms of his contract. His feat of homering in four straight games bettered the previous record shared by Hank Aaron (1969), Gary Matthews (1983), and Bill Madlock (1985), while his four homers already have him tied with Bob Robertson (1971) and Steve Garvey (1978) for the most in an entire playoff series.
How can a guy who had a good but not a great regular season (.283, 19 home runs, 63 runs batted in) suddenly become such a dominating force in the championship series? Did Hac-Man, a spinoff nickname from the video game Pac-Man, just crank up his concentration, or what?
``The fact is that Leonard carried us early in the season,'' San Francisco manager Roger Craig told me, recalling that Jeffrey had hit .354 in April and .381 in May. ``I mean, he was putting MVP statistics up on the board. It didn't make any difference who was pitching against us, Jeff was going to get his hits.
``After that he slumped a little,'' Craig continued. ``As with most players with his kind of talent, we never worried. We figured he'd come out of it. But then he got hurt.''
In fact, Leonards sustained a series of injuries that had him on the disabled list at times. But he kept battling his way back into the lineup.
``I always knew he'd be back, because if this guy can walk, he'll play,'' Craig said.
Asked what Leonard is like away from the media and inside the privacy of the clubhouse, veteran San Francisco infield coach Bob Lillis replied:
``Well, he's not exactly like you and me, but he's close. He's likable, and he's honest, and he has great work habits. All the time I've worn a baseball uniform, which is quite a few years, I've always been one of the first three or four guys in the clubhouse before a game. But Hac-Man beats me every time.
``There are a good number of players on this team who seem to follow him, who I've noticed go to him sometimes with their problems,'' Lillis continued. ``He's definitely a leader, and he likes to intimidate people - even his own teammates.
``I've seen him jump all over guys who weren't doing their jobs. But I've also seen him go over to a teammate after that man had a bad game and cheer him up.''
Jose Gonzalez, now in his second year as the Giants' batting coach, calls Leonard one of the toughest hitters in the league to pitch to with men on base.
``We work on different things, and we often talk baseball,'' he said. ``But you have to remember that Hac-Man was a strong hitter before I got here. I can't teach him anything, because he already knows pitching and situations. But I can remind him to be more selective. I think what he wants more than anything now is consistency, and if I see a bad habit geting started, I can tell him about it.''
On the day that Leonard, who has a mustache that could shelter a covey of quail, hit his record-breaking fourth consecutive playoff home run, he had gone into the clubhouse between innings to relax. While he was away from the field, he decided to visit his 3-year-old son, Marcus, in a room just off the clubhouse where the players' wives park their kids with a team of babysitters while they watch the game.
``There's a little window in that room, and when I leaned in and saw Marcus, it kind of relieved the tension,'' Leonard said afterwards. ``We even had a conversation. When he saw me he said, `Daddy, what you doin'? Are you still playing baseball?' I said, `Yeah,' and left.
``I'm not claiming that was the reason I went back and hit a home run, but ...''
Why Hac-Man, you old softie you. Imagine letting a 3-year-old kid blow your cover!