Al Leiter doesn’t want a Father’s Day present from his son, Jack.
This trip, to the College World Series in Omaha, Neb., with the entire family to watch Jack pitch for defending national champion Vanderbilt, is better than any material gift he could receive. So is the ride Al, his wife Lori and their three daughters — Lindsay, Carly and Katelyn — have been on, as Jack has developed into one of the premier baseball prospects in the country.
“Oh my God, he’s been the gift that keeps giving,” Al, the former Mets and Yankees left-hander who now works for MLB Network and as an adviser for the Mets, told The Post in a phone interview. “He’s brought us a lot of joy.”
Jack, a 6-foot-1, 205-pound right-hander who grew up in Summit, N.J., is a projected top-five pick in next month’s MLB draft, if he doesn’t return to Vanderbilt. He’ll eventually be the latest in a long line of Leiters who have pitched professionally — following Al, his brothers Mark and Kurt, and Mark’s son, Mark Jr. Jack has the potential to be the best of them all, with a fastball in the high-90s, a hammer curve, a quality slider and a changeup.
“He certainly has that kind of stuff to be a top-of-the-rotation pitcher,” said a scout familiar with Jack, who compared him to David Cone because of his frame, no-nonsense mentality and competitive fire.
“It just feels surreal,” Lori said. “It’s amazing.”
Al didn’t push Jack into baseball. But his son was always around the game. Jack was 6 months old in 2000, the year Al reached the World Series against the Yankees with the Mets, and Jack always had an affinity for pitching. As a kid on his travel team, he wasn’t one of the regular pitchers because he was so small, but would throw on the side. He brought a ball and glove with him everywhere.
Around the ninth grade, Al gave Jack a workout plan he had used in his time in the major leagues, and Jack never veered from it. He developed into a top prospect by the end of high school at Delbarton School in Morristown, N.J., and had he not held a scholarship to Vanderbilt, likely would have been a first-round draft pick in 2019 (he was selected in the 20th round by the Yankees).
At Vanderbilt, the 21-year-old has further blossomed. This year, he went 10-3 with a 2.16 ERA and 156 strikeouts in 96 innings and helped the Commodores reach the College World Series, which they won in 2019, the last time it was contested. He pitched the school’s first no-hitter since 1971 while striking out 16, and is expected to start Vanderbilt’s second game in Omaha on Monday. Both coach Tim Corbin and Vanderbilt teammate and fellow top pitching prospect Kumar Rocker marveled at Jack’s focus and consistency, his passion for pitching and dedication to his craft.
“He gets to the facility and it’s full-on go,” Corbin said. “He’s wired to compete every single day.”
When Jack was a high school senior at Delbarton School, Al stepped away from his job as a YES Network Yankees announcer to immerse himself in that season. This year, Al flew down to Vanderbilt with Lori almost every weekend. He sits behind home plate charting his son’s pitches, just like he did through high school.
“He’s focused,” Lori said. “I think that keeps him from being nervous.”
Everything Jack is going through and what he hopes to experience, Al has been there, done that. Al was a second-round pick of the Yankees in the 1984 MLB draft. He was selected to two All-Star teams and won three World Series titles across a 19-year career that saw him win 162 games, compile a 3.80 ERA and strike out 1,974 batters.
Al, 55, knows how hard it is to reach the big leagues, and he also knows how difficult it can be if you try to skip steps. That’s why both father and son insist they haven’t even discussed the draft. Al’s mantra to his son is to be where your feet are. Enjoy the moment. Focus on your next start, not your future.
“I remind him to know when to celebrate, know when to smile, know when to laugh, know when to be happy, know when to pat yourself on the back,” Al said. “I think you get in this tunnel of trying to be your best, trying to get better and working hard, being dedicated and having a process, program and routine, you kind of lose sight of, ‘Hey man, step back, know when to turn the music off, know when to dance, know when to laugh and smile and be with your boys.’ ”
Al helps Jack the most following his struggles, infrequent as they may be. After a bad outing, the first question he asks his son is how he feels physically. Then he tells him what he did well.
“Any kid who’s pitching at this level kind of understands what they did wrong. They don’t need to hear it right after,” Jack said. “My dad kind of knows that being somebody who pitched at a higher level. He says that all that matters [is your health], because you’re going to have ups and downs. If you’re lucky enough, you’re going to have 30 more of those bad outings in your career. That kind of puts it in perspective, like, ‘OK, it’s not the end of the world.’ Sometimes it feels like it after an outing that doesn’t go your way, but it’s really not.”
Once, the elder Leiter sent his son clips of his own worst outings. Even the best pitchers, he told his son, struggle.
“That’s always kind of comforting to see,” Jack said.
Al wouldn’t say he’s surprised to see how far his son has come, just because of how hard he has worked. But if he had been told this would happen when Jack was an underclassmen in high school, he would have thought it stunning. Jack, a stellar student who Al jokes always had a high level of “give a s–t,” already throws harder than his father ever did, has better mechanics and is more composed on the mound.
“I played 19 years [in the major leagues]. He’s got some work to do to catch up to dear old Dad, but as far as where he is now and where I was at his age, it’s not even close,” Al said. “He’s way better than me.”
For years, Jack was known as Al’s son, following in the footsteps of the longtime major league pitcher. But as he developed into this big prospect, first in high school and now at Vanderbilt, it has changed. Now Al is known somewhat as Jack’s father.
“I like that,” Al said. “Damn right. He deserves it.”
It’s the best Father’s Day present he could ask for.