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Friday, May 18, 2012

John Leister Interview, Final Part, That Mentality

Red Sox pitcher John Leister delivers to the Brewer's Rob Deer in the top of the first Oct. 3, 1987, at Fenway Park. It would be Leister's final start in the majors. (Photo Provided)
This is the final part of the John Leister interview
Part 1: Most Influential | Part 2: Out Pitch | Part 3: Proved Himself | Part 4: Greatest Day | Part 5: That Mentality

John Leister's time in the pros gives him instant credibility now, working with young players.

Leister has been at Michigan's Alma College in some capacity for the past 20 years, serving as baseball coach or football coach. Most recently, Leister has served as the school's athletic director.

"You're instantly able to grab their attention because you've been where they dream about going," Leister said. "But that will only take you so far."

To get him further, Leister has reached back to his own experiences to what he learned way back in high school, from his high school football coach Jack Johnson.

"The part of it I think that's really helped, and I'll go all the way back to my high school coach," Leister said, "when stuff doesn't go your way, you don't curl up in a ball and point your finger at somebody else. You shake it off and go make something good happen.

"That's just the kind of mentality I've used through everything I've done and it's generally worked out pretty good for me."

Everything Leister has done included seven seasons in pro ball, two of them with time in the majors. He also went to camp with the Steelers, after playing quarterback at Michigan State.

Leister spoke with The Greatest 21 Days recently by phone from his Michigan home, covering his career from his start in football to his time in the majors and his time since.
Fenway Park's Green Monster in 2004. John Leister pitched with the Red Sox at Fenway in 1987 and 1990. (G21D Photo)

For Leister, he had to go to that mentality in 1987, after he was sent back to the minors, following his first stint in the majors.

After getting into eight games with the Red Sox, starting six of them, outings that resulted in an ERA north of 9, Leister returned to AAA Pawtucket trying to analyze what went wrong. He also got pep talks from his manager there Ed Nottle.

"You get a little more daring, a little more creative," Leister said. "Once you've been there, it's like, 'OK, if I'd done this, I'd have been better of, if I'd done this - you're chomping at the bit to get another chance."

Leister's next chance came in September. With the larger roster size, though, Leister recalled sitting for two weeks without getting into a game. A couple times he remembered getting up in the bullpen just to get his arm loose, and the phone would ring, the coach telling him to sit his butt back down.

Finally there was a rain out. The second end of the next day's double header was Leister's. Leister recalled getting the news about midnight after the rain out.

Pitching coach Bill Fischer not coming out with it directly, then finally relaying Leister was starting Game 2 the next day, then telling Leister to get some rest. "That's probably the best game I ever threw," Leister said.

Leister went deep into the game. He only gave up one run in the first seven innings. Up 3-1 in the eighth, he struck out the first batter then gave up a single to the second. With Fred Lynn up, Leister was pulled in favor of Wes Gardner. Gardner then gave up the game-tying home run.

"As soon as that ball left the park (manager John) McNamara came up to me and said 'you deserved better kid, now get in the shower and get some ice on that arm,'" Leister recalled. "It was probably the longest conversation I ever had with him."

Former Red Sox pitcher John Leister in the Red Sox dugout with his cowboy boots during Fenway's 100th anniversary celebration in April 2012. Leister found himself racing toward Fenway for his first start in 1987, running in cowboy boots. (Photo Provided)
It was probably the longest because Leister had few other opportunities. Leister finished out 1987 with two more starts, then didn't make it back to the majors until 1990 and the Red Sox had long since gotten a new manager. Even then, though, Leister's opportunity was brief, just two final major league appearances, one final start.

That last major league time came after a 1989 where Leister saw himself taken off the 40-man roster. He also had the realization that he would finish his career in the Red Sox system. He wasn't going to get an opportunity with another organization.

Nottle, who had been Leister's manager each of the previous four seasons in the minors, also wanted to be honest with Leister, Leister recalled. Nottle wasn't supposed to pitch Leister unless he had to. But Nottle would get him in when he could.

At one point, the AAA team didn't have a closer. Nottle offered that role to to Leister. Leister accepted. What else was he going to do? If Nottle wanted him to play center field, he'd do that. That was brief, though, too. Leister only got one save.

Then 1990 came and injuries came and Leister made the Red Sox in April, after one start at AAA. He'd also heard that spring that the team was looking at him again.

Called back, Leister got into two games, both against the Brewers. He went four innings of relief in one, then 1.2 innings three days later and his major league career was over.

In one of the games, Leister recalled injuring his arm. "It felt like somebody stuck a knife in my elbow - my hand went numb," Leister said.

After attempts at rehab, including surgeries, that got him 16 final starts at Pawtucket, but no more looks at Boston, Leister's career was over.
Leister did, however, return to Boston in April, brought back by the team with a host of former Red Sox for Fenway's 100th anniversary. Leister spoke to The Greatest 21 Days before that trip. Afterward, in an e-mail, Leister called the trip "awesome."

"It was incredible being back on the field," Leister wrote. "The Red Sox did a fantastic job of everything."

Regading his elbow injury, though, Leister said he still feels the effects today. "If I throw football a few times or play catch with my daughter, it blows up size of a volleyball," Leister said by phone. His pinky finger on his right hand has also been numb since. It pops and cracks when he bends it.

John Leister in his Alma College Web site photo. (Photo Provided)
After his playing career ended, Leister went back to Michigan State to finish his degree. There, he got back in touch with his old baseball coach, Tom Smith, who was still there. The then-former major leaguer Leister even worked with some of the Spartan pitchers.

The week after Leister graduated, he heard from his old coach. Smith had friends at Alma College, about 50 miles north of Lansing. They needed an assistant baseball and football coach. Leister had an interview the next day.

After figuring out where Alma even was, Leister interviewed and the next day he had the job.

Over the years, Leister moved up to full coaching duties, then he became the athletic director. He's been trying to focus on his athletic director duties, but he said he he still goes to all the games.

Also, after arriving at Alma, Leister and his first wife split up. He later remarried. He's been married to his wife Michelle for 13 years now. Leister now has four children.

His oldest, Nicole, is 22. Leister proudly noted she graduated from Grand Valley State University in Grand Rapids in April. His son Jarrett, 21, attends Alma. He plays on the football team. Then there's daughters Hailey, 9, and Alyssa, 10.

Through his career at Alma, as an assistant coach, coach and even as athletic director, Leister said he's tried to reach back to those who taught him and use what they passed on to him, passing that on to others.

"Along the way, there's people in your life," Leister said. "For me, I had the Eds, the Stingers (coach Lee Stange), the Tom Smith and Jack Johnson, people like that. You want to become one of those people for somebody else.

"And the best way to do that is to work hard."

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