Leiter recalls sold-out SkyDome days

 * LHP Al Leiter was in the Blue Jays organization for seven years being acquired for former home run leader Jesse Barfield. Leiter, now a New York Yankees broadcaster and MLB Network analyst, remembers the sold-out crowds each night when Toronto was at home. ....  

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By Bob Elliott

The good memories come flooding back every time Al Leiter walks into the building formerly known as the SkyDome.

Now, a New York Yankees broadcaster the lefty joined the Blue Jays in 1989 and was here for the glory years leaving after the 1995 season as a free agent joining the Florida Marlins.

“It was so pleasant here, Toronto was the destination of every top free agent, our clubs took care of business and every seat was sold,” said Leiter, who doubles as one of the MLB Network brilliant, insightful analysts along with Mark DeRosa and Dan Plesac.

What did Leiter think when he peered down from his 400 Level booth to see crowds of 19,217, 21,519 and 21,312 this week when the Yankees were in town, considering that the Jays led the American League in attendance the seven years (1989-1994 three times drawing more than four million, averaging 50,000 fans per night) Leiter was here?

“It’s like ownership lost touch with its fan base, I can’t believe that fans are that upset with the team to stay away,” Leiter said.

The Jays are averaging 23,581 fans per game, 11th in the AL.

Spending his winters in Florida, Leiter has seen the Miami Heat bring in Shaquille O’Neal and LeBron James and knows you have to win to draw.

“When I was here Peter Hardy, Peter Widdrington and Paul Beeston had the financial flexibility to bring in a gunslinger like David Cone in 1992,” said Leiter, who was surprised Rogers Communications conducted a presidential search in November while Beeston was still in office.

“Beeston’s personality could light up a room, his personality translated to the clubhouse, Paul Beeston was the guy who was so adamant everyone was given the same World Series ring ... from the woman who answers the phone and says ‘Good afternoon, Toronto Blue Jays,’ to the players on the field, from the trainer in Medicine Hat to the pitching coach in Syracuse,” Leiter said. “The Toronto Blue Jays organization I played for respected everyone.

“Either the current owners don’t value that or don’t care about that.”

Acquired from the Yankees for former home run king Jesse Barfield when the Jays were in Anaheim the final Sunday morn of April in 1989 the deal was historic in that it ended the Jays 630-consecutive day streak without making a deal.

Free-agents Jack Morris, Dave Winfield, Paul Molitor and Dave Stewart came to town via free agency, Hall of Famer Robbie Alomar, Joe Carter and Devon White via trade.

Leiter lived with his wife in a waterfront condo, walked to the park and then would go out after games.

“My wife and I refer to our Toronto years as our single years ... before we had children,” said Leiter. Post-games sometimes meant a visit to the Loose Moose or Gretzky’s with teammates Mark Eichhorn, Todd Stottlemyre, Danny Cox, Pat Hentgen and Ed Sprague.

Leiter believes most clubs handle the “X’s and O’s” on the same level.

“The key is keeping everyone happy, one guy you pat on the back, one guy you kick in the butt,” Leiter said. “We had a lot of bonding moments as a team here.

“Now in the corporate world it’s ‘we’re paying you $X. Go out and perform.’”

Leiter said Beeston, in his final year, has left a legacy.

“Doesn’t matter how long anyone played for the Blue Jays, you can think of not one moment but 10 special moments here,” Leiter said. “Whether it was a game, a golf outing, putting on a tuxedo to give a sing-along for some one’s surprise birthday.

“Fans gave us tremendous support after tough losses in September or in the post-season.”

The next president will have to address attendance issues.

Next the Jays entertain the Boston Red Sox, who will likely throw three shutouts this weekend -- not that they fired their pitching coach Juan Nieves.

Yeah, right.

We’ve never liked in-season firing of coaches -- and neither did legendary manager Jim Fregosi when management forced him to fire pitching coach Rick Langford in 2000. Fregosi blasted management for the in-season firing.