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Monday, May 14, 2012

John Leister Interview, Part 1 - Most Influential

John Leister delivers to the plate at Fenway Park in 1987. Leister is currently the athletic director at Alma College in Michigan. (Photo Provided)
This is Part 1 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

Called up to the majors for the first time in late May 1987, John Leister's father flew into Boston to be there.

Not knowing Boston, Leister and his wife thought they had plenty of time to pick him up at the airport. With traffic, and the maze that is the Boston street system, the three couldn't find Fenway.

"Finally," Leister recalled recently to The Greatest 21 Days, "I saw the Citgo sign. I stopped the car in the middle of traffic, threw open the door and told my wife good luck."

He took off running - in his cowboy boots. Leister made it in plenty of time for the game. But he was passed the time he was told to be there.

After convincing the guy at the gate he was that night's starter - and he still ended up being that night's starter - soon Leister was on the mound at Fenway Park, his father in the stands, for his major league debut.

Leister has spent much of the past two decades at Alma College in Michigan, coaching baseball and football and, more recently, serving as athletic director.

Leister arrived at Alma after a baseball career that spanned seven seasons, two of them with time in the majors. He also arrived there after a start in football, going to Michigan State on scholarship to play quarterback and almost becoming a Pittsburgh Steeler, getting cut as training camp closed.

Boston's Fenway Park in 2004. John Leister played at Fenway in two seasons, 1987 and 1990. (G21D Photo)
And having his father there for that first start in Boston had all the more meaning for Leister as it was his father who helped set it all in motion.

Leister's father James Leister was a colonel in the Army, the family frequently moving to wherever the Army sent them. But, with another move pending and John showing promise on the high school football team, the elder Leister chose to retire instead, the younger Leister recalled, putting his son on the path toward Michigan State and the pros.

It was in Montana that the family finally settled and John Leister got his start. The moved there from El Paso, Texas, as James Leister got transferred to Malmstrom Air Force Base with NORAD. Staying into high school, it was the longest they'd stayed anywhere.

Wherever they were, though, he and his friends played whatever was in season, baseball, football and even basketball. "In between," Leister recalled, "we fished."

With a strong right arm, baseball, he said, always seemed to come easy. He just reared back and threw as hard as he could. Football, though, always seemed harder, he said. Because he had to work harder, it felt like he had to earn it more.

At Great Falls' C.M. Russell High School, Leister excelled at both. His football coach, Leister recalled, was a man named Jack Johnson. Next to his father, Leister called Johnson one of the most important men in his life.

"Coach Johnson," Leister said, "taught me discipline. He taught me how to work. He taught me not to whine. He taught me when bad things happen, you deal with them and move on."

John Leister with his daughter Nicole at Fenway Park. Leister is now the father of four: Nicole, 22; Jarrett, 21; Alyssa, 10 and Hailey, 9. (Photo Provided)
It was also Johnson that Leister's father spoke with, as the Army looked to relocate the father again, this time to the middle of the Pacific, to Hawaii.

In a conversation Leister didn't learn about until later, Leister's father asked the coach his thoughts on Leister's future. The coach responded that, with hard work, John could get a scholarship.

With that, James Leister retired. His son would finish high school in one spot.

"It's one of those things that, when you first get told in your early 20s, you think 'that's kind of weird. I'd kind of liked to go to Hawaii,'" Leister said. "Later on, when you become a parent, you realize kind of why they would do something like that."

Leister's parents now live near him, in Michigan.

Coming out of Russell, Leister's baseball skills were good, as well, good enough to be taken by the Mets in the 20th round.

After talking with his parents and his coaches, Leister chose college. And he had colleges to choose from.
The Michigan state capitol building in Lansing. John Leister played football at nearby Michigan State University in East Lansing. He now serves as athletic director at Alma College, about 50 miles north of Lansing. (G21D Photo)

He eventually narrowed down his choices to Arizona State and Michigan State. Michigan State, with the promise that he could play both sports, ultimately seemed the most comfortable.

The promise, though, didn't pan out. After a change in administration and there on a football scholarship, the new athletic people kept his focus on football. Baseball would have to wait.

"I referred back to what my high school coach taught me," Leister said. "You don't whine about it, you adapt and work hard, so I just threw myself into football."

Leister's Michigan State football career went from 1979 to 1982. His 20 career touchdown passes is still tied for 10th on the school's all-time list. His 35 interceptions still ranks second. "We weren't great," Leister recalled, "but I had a lot of fun and I learned a lot."

His football eligibility up, Leister was free to pursue baseball. But he'd hardly stepped on a diamond through college. The Spartans baseball coach, Tom Smith, though, welcomed him. It was just like riding a bike, Smith told Leister.

Soon, Leister was in the Michigan State starting rotation.

"I pretty much never took signs," Leister recalled of his time with the Spartans baseball team. "You don't develop a curve ball in two months."

His communication from his catcher largely consisted of location: Up, down, in, out, Leister recalled. "You tell me where you want it," Leister told his catcher, "and I'll do my best to get it there."

Leister pitched well enough to be taken again in the draft, this time in the sixth round by the Athletics.

By then, though, Leister had already signed another professional contract - with the Pittsburgh Steelers of the National Football League.

Go to Part 2 John Leister, Out Pitch

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