Cubs’ Mark Leiter Jr.’s major-league education began in childhood: ‘The standard that you’re chasing’

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — At 7 years old, Mark Leiter Jr. had yet to catch a major-league batting practice fly ball, but he’d been working up to it.

“The year before, I was only allowed to go for ground balls and five-hoppers,” Leiter told the Sun-Times. “I was getting better and better.”

For his father, the elder Mark Leiter, one of the perks of being a pitcher was getting to shag batting practice with his son. But he was always nervous when young Mark would go after the ball. One day, the perfect opportunity arose. Young Mark reached up and caught a fly ball hit by Phillies shortstop Alex Arias.

Mark Leiter, shown here with the Giants in 1996, played for eight teams over 11 seasons in the majors.

Rhona Wise/Getty Images

“He turns around and looks at me like he just won the World Series,” Mark Leiter Sr. said over the phone. “He jumps up and down. But what he didn’t realize was most of the team was always watching him because he’s a cool little kid, the way he’d be diving around. And all the teammates that saw him do it started clapping for him. It was the coolest feeling.”

Twenty-six years later, Mark Leither Jr. is a setup man and high-leverage weapon against left-handed batters for the Cubs. His signature pitch, the fork ball he learned from his dad, was considered old school until splitters went through a recent revival. And when he talks about the game, he can sound like a more grizzled veteran than his three years of service time would suggest.

None of that’s surprising, though, considering he grew up in big-league clubhouses.

“You see the highest level of commitment, you see the highest level of skill,” Mark Leiter said last week, with Father’s Day right around the corner. “That becomes the standard that you’re chasing.”

The baseball schedule and business side of the game pose a distinct set of challenges for baseball families. The players are away from home half the season. They could be traded with little notice, raising questions about where to settle, when to have the kids change schools.

The game also opens up unique opportunities for its families.

Mark Leiter Jr. has fond memories in ballparks around the country. His dad spent over a decade in the majors, playing for the Yankees, Tigers, Angels, Giants, Expos, Phillies, Mariners and Brewers. And the younger Leiter, born in spring of 1991, was around for all of those stops except for New York.

Once the Expos players put 5-year-old Mark in a laundry cart and wheeled him onto the field, leaving him at second base about 45 minutes before a game. In Philadelphia, Curt Schilling came back from one of his All-Star appearances with a team-autographed ball for little Leiter. For his ninth birthday, in Mariners spring training, Leiter got to meet Ken Griffey Jr., his favorite player other than his dad and uncle Al Leiter.

Mark Leiter Sr. was always clear that the clubhouse was the players’ space, and spending time in there was a privilege. “Little Leit,” as the elder Marks’ teammates called him, was so respectful of the dynamic that trying to convince him to move out of his seat in front of his father’s locker became a game of its own.

One spring training game in 1996, when Mark Leiter was pitching for the Giants, he spotted his son in the dugout next to Barry Bonds, instead of in the clubhouse where he was supposed to wait with his coloring book or baseball magazine.

As soon as Leiter threw the last pitch of the inning, he beelined toward young Mark, who sprinted back up the tunnel to the clubhouse. Bonds followed, calling after his teammate.

It turned out, Bonds had invited young Leiter into the dugout to watch his dad pitch, but little Mark had refused, his time around the team at stake.

“He loved it that much, that even Barry Bonds had to literally pick him up and carry his ass into the dugout,” Mark Sr. said.

“Even if he didn’t make it to the bigs, I was so proud of how hard he went after trying to achieve his dream. If it hadn’t worked out, he still was amazing for doing what he did. And pushing it, never believing in anybody other than himself.”

— Mark Leiter Sr.

Chicago was always a popular trip for the families. One year, young Mark refused to shag batting practice wearing any other color than Phillies red. But he hadn’t packed any red shirts, and they could only find a red turtleneck at the mall. So, despite his father urging him to wear a different colored t-shirt, Leiter took the field in long sleeves, in the middle of the summer.

For that, Mark Letier Sr. was brought up on charges in Kangaroo Court, the player-led justice system for clubhouse infractions. But Leiter fought the accusation and won, avoiding a fine. Luckily for him, the three judges knew how serious “Little Leit” was about representing the Phillies.

That young boy went on to be drafted by and debut with the Phillies. And on a winding path through changes in roles, Tommy John surgery, and stints with three different organizations, Leiter developed into one of the Cubs’ most reliable relievers.

“Even if he didn’t make it to the bigs, I was so proud of how hard he went after trying to achieve his dream,” Mark Leiter Sr. said. “If it hadn’t worked out, he still was amazing for doing what he did. And pushing it, never believing in anybody other than himself.”

The younger Mark is now a father himself, making memories with his daughter Madison, who is 2½ years old. She knows the names of all her dad’s teammates and greets them after games. She chases Cubs mascot Clark on the field.

“It brings me back to the things I got to do as a kid,” Leiter said. “And it’s a blessing to be able to share that with my kids because it’s an amazing opportunity and an experience that people dream of. And we’re getting to live it.”

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