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Tuesday, May 15, 2012

John Leister Interview, Part 2, Out Pitch

Former Red Sox John Leister back on the mound at Fenway Park at Fenway's 100th anniversary celebration in April 2012. (Photo Provided)
This is Part 2 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

The Red Sox called and John Leister was willing to listen.

But, if he was going to sign, Leister had specific terms that had to be met, first.

"Basically," Leister recalled recently to The Greatest 21 Days, "I said, 'when I get to spring training, are you going to pay me?"

Leister wasn't looking for some big-league payday. He was simply looking for any payday, one that came with a check that didn't bounce.

He'd already looked for that paycheck in his other sport, football. But the former Michigan State quarterback didn't make it out of training camp with his first pro team, the Steelers.

His second team, the Michigan Panthers of the short-lived USFL, didn't so much give out paychecks, Leister recalled, as they gave out IOUs.

Back with the Red Sox scout. Leister recalled the scout laughing at his unusual question.

"He said, 'yeah, we pay all our players,'" Leister recalled. "Basically, I'm like, 'OK, where do you want to meet?'"

With that, Leister started on his path toward the major leagues.

Heinz Field, home of the Pittsburgh Steelers, in 2006. John Leister went to training camp with the Steelers in 1983, hoping to play with the Steelers at old Three Rivers Stadium. (G21D Photo)
Leister spoke with The Greatest 21 Days recently by phone from his Alma, Mich., home. Leister has spent much of the past two decades there at Alma College, 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 his start in football, going to Michigan State on scholarship to play quarterback and then almost becoming a Steeler, getting cut as training camp closed.

At Michigan State, Leister mainly played on the football team. He was there on a football scholarship and the team didn't want him playing other sports. Serving as the Spartans' quarterback, Leister eventually completed 313 of 686 passes, connecting on 20 touchdowns. He returned to baseball only after his football eligibility ended.

He played well enough in baseball in high school to be taken by the Mets in the 20th round. Out of college, with just one season back in the game, the Athletics came calling, taking Leister in the sixth round.

By then, though, Leister's Michigan State football career had already gotten him a contract with the Steelers. Having signed that, Leister recalled wanting to see that through.

Tampa Yankee pitcher Sean Black looks toward the plate in a Florida State League game in 2011 at West Palm Beach. John Leister pitched in the Florida State League in 1984 with the Red Sox in Winter Haven. (G21D Photo)
Leister went into the Pittsburgh training camp as the team's fourth quarterback. Coming out of camp, they would only carry three.

Leister recalled at one point being told he was their No. 3 quarterback as questions about the future of Hall of Famer Terry Bradshaw lingered. By the end of the month, though, he found himself cut.

Leister recalled still getting interest from the Steelers as the fall wore on. But he seemed more like an insurance policy, a policy that they didn't pay for.

As the former Michigan State quarterback, Leister also started getting calls from the USFL's Michigan Panthers. With Pittsburgh not coming through with a roster spot, Leister signed with the Panthers.

"I had rent to pay, I had to figure out how to feed myself and at the same time stay in shape," Leister recalled of his decision to sign with the USFL.

By January the Red Sox came calling and Leister was ready to start his baseball career.

After agreeing to sign with Boston, Leister flew from where he was in Arizona back to Michigan to pick up his glove and formally sign his contract. From there, he hopped another plane en route to Winter Haven, Fla., and Red Sox camp.

With recent baseball experience consisting of just one college season the year before, Leister recalled he probably should have been sent to rookie ball. His age, 23, though, meant he played the year at Winter Haven to play in the Florida State League.

A Brevard County Manatee delivers to the plate as a runner goes in a 2011 Florida State League game. John Leister played in the league for Winter Haven in 1984, learning his curve ball. (G21D Photo)
And it didn't start well, Leister recalled. Picking the game back up his last year in college, Leister hadn't had time to learn a good curve ball. In the Florida State League, Leister recalled using his fastball and attempt at a curve, but not getting the results.

"I get through the lineup one time, and then the second time through, man they just, they were knocking me all over the ballpark," Leister recalled.

Then, Leister recalled Red Sox coach Doug Camilli getting him together with old time pitcher Mace Brown, who played 10 years in the majors, including three with the Red Sox in the 1940s.

It was Brown who sat him down and taught Leister the curve.

Starting in maybe the fifth week of the season, Brown worked with Leister, first throwing from 10 feet, then 20 feet. For the first month they worked, Brown wouldn't let Leister test it out in a game.

"After the All Star break Mace came up and said 'now it's time. I want you to start throwing it," Leister recalled. "And, the rest of my career, it was my out pitch."

Leister chalked up meeting Camilli and Brown to a reoccurring theme in his life, meeting the right people at the right time.

The first example of that was his high school football coach Jack Johnson, who helped in improve to get his scholarship to Michigan State.

Then there was Tom Smith, the Michigan State baseball coach who welcomed him into the program after Leister finished out his football eligibility.

Next up, with Leister moving to AA New Britain, Leister met Ed Nottle.

Go to Part 3 Proved Himself

For more on Ed Nottle, read the August 2011 Greatest 21 Days Ed Nottle interview

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