Leyritz gets 2nd chance after fatal crash

Former Yankee Jim Leyritz tries to turn his Former Yankee Jim Leyritz tries to turn his life around and is now working as the pitching coach for the Newark Bears. (May 17, 2011) Photo Credit: Newsday/Joe Epstein

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NEWARK

Somehow, he still walks with the same recognizable swagger.

Fifteen years, including three very difficult ones, have come and gone since Jim Leyritz's famous home run in Game 4 of the 1996 World Series. Yet, the former Yankees catcher still walks the baseball field with the confidence of a clutch hitter, with the feeling that he knows exactly what needs to be done and exactly how he's going to do it.

It didn't matter that he was wearing a gray T-shirt that says Newark Bears Tuesday instead of the Yankees pinstripes. It didn't matter that Riverfront Stadium in Newark is about as far away from Yankee Stadium in the Bronx as one can get and still be in professional ball. Leyritz was back home again, on a baseball field, which may be the one place for him in life where things always have made sense.

Six months after being cleared of vehicular manslaughter charges stemming from a 2007 automobile crash in Florida that resulted in the death of a 30-year-old woman, Leyritz is working as the pitching coach for the Newark Bears, who open their season May 26 against the Rockland Boulders. The unaffiliated professional team plays in downtown Newark and is managed by former Yankee Tim Raines.

"For me, this is a great opportunity," Leyritz, 47, said Tuesday during a team practice. "It's an opportunity to start my career over again and maybe get into the coaching ranks."

Leyritz played 11 years in the majors, primarily as a catcher, breaking in with the Yankees in 1990. During the course of his playing career, he made close to $11 million, and after his retirement in 2000, he worked as a commentator for ESPN Radio, MLB Radio and MLB.com.

Leyritz, however, went from a fan favorite with the Yankees to shunned outcast in December 2007. According to reports of the trial, after having drinks with friends on his 44th birthday, the car Leyritz was driving struck that of Fredia Veitch, a mother of two. Veitch, who also had been drinking, according to trial testimony, died as a result. Leyritz soon found himself looking at the prospect of spending up to 15 years in prison after being charged with vehicular manslaughter while driving drunk.

He ultimately was found not guilty of the charge last November, though he was convicted of a lesser DUI charge for which he received probation. He also settled a civil suit with the woman's family, according to reports.

One person who did not abandon him throughout the trial was Newark Bears owner Thomas Cetnar. Leyritz had played 19 games for the Bears in 2001, before signing with the San Diego Padres organization. He struck up a friendship with Cetnar, who then was the general manager of the Bears. The day after he got in the automobile accident, Cetnar flew to Florida to be with him.

And the day after he was acquitted, he offered him a job with the team. Leyritz, who is divorced and has primary custody of his three sons, was thrilled at a chance to bring them north for the summer to spend time around baseball.

"This is a league of second chances on the field," Cetnar said. "I think he's excited about turning the page after getting involved for three years in something that was tragic. Tragic for everyone involved."

Leyritz has written a book about his life that comes out June 7 called "Catching Heat," which discusses the car crash and trial. Because it has yet to be released, he would not talk specifically about the details of the accident Tuesday and what it was like to go through it.

He did, however, credit his religion, close friends and family for getting him through the last three years.

"I try to believe everything is a learning experience," he said. "Unfortunately, this was very painful for both families and everyone who had to go through it. But now, I'm able to move forward and move on and this is something I really want to do."

Another thing he wants to do is re-establish ties with the Yankees, adding that he is hoping he can go to Old-Timer's Day this year.

Cetnar believes that the experience has changed his friend.

"We all go through things in life that humble us as we mature," he said. "I think this has humbled him. He was always about doing the right thing, but I think he looks at things through different eyes now."

His swagger, however, is still the same.

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