Thank God I Experienced the Heaven and Hell of Fame
One day, a single heart-wrenching event abruptly ended my very successful life as I had known it. In one shattering split-second, I turned from being a national sports celebrity, to fighting for my survival–and it literally became a fight for my life.
Millions of boys dream of being the guy who hits an historic home run.
I hit the home run that won the N.Y. Yankees the World Series for the first time in eighteen years, which in turn launched the N.Y. Yankee Dynasty into the 1990’s.
My name is Jim Leyritz and I had a ten-year career as a major league ballplayer. My “claim to fame” was for my multiple playoff and World Series home runs.
I was one of those fortunate people, who had their lifetime moment in the sun. I went up against the best in the world in my field, and in the biggest game in sports I slammed the ball over the fence, under ultimate pressure.
The face of fame has such irresistible allure– multi-76 million dollar contracts, parties with top celebrities, top media attention.
The world was indeed my oyster.
Little did I know at the time that this same fame would soon send me crashing down to the point where I was fighting for my freedom, fighting for my life.
It started with a crash. After the impact and screeching, the two cars came to a rest. I exited my car and ran back down the street to the intersection where the collision had taken place. The other driver was a woman, and looking at the tiny blood drops rolling down her face made me realize that this wasn’t just another accident. Someone else was standing over her and was trying to talk to her. I knew then that I had to go back to my car and get my phone and call someone to let them know that I was lucky to be alive.
It was after I came back to the scene and a police officer said, “Stand here,” that things began to take on nightmare proportions.
I was certain that the other driver had very clearly run the light and that she had hit my car. But as I stood watching and waiting, another officer informed me that a witness who had been driving behind the woman’s car thought that her light had been green.
The other driver was unconscious and not breathing well. The ambulance paramedics were there and working flat out to save her.
Then I found out that the other driver had died!
I was distraught that a valuable life had been lost.
And with that turn of events, this night changed my life, my family’s life, and the other woman and her family’s lives forever.
That night was December 28, 2007, at 3:05 am.
The evening had started out as a happy, relaxed and loving celebration of my forty-fourth birthday. My three sons and I had been out to dinner and as I finished opening their presents, I received a call from a group of friends suggesting we meet up for birthday celebration drinks.
I dropped the boys off at their mom’s house for the night and headed off to the Blue Martini. The level of anticipation there was high, filled with excited talk about our group heading to the Bahamas the next morning to celebrate the New Year. Slow service saw us moving to another venue and eventually, around 3:00 am, I decided it was time to get a couple of hours’ sleep before picking up my sons to take them home with me again.
A young man who had come with my friends, hitched a ride home with me since it was on my way. Within minutes of leaving the carpark, everything came to a crashing halt at an intersection we were entering.
A car came flying through on their red light. Before we could use our brakes or react, there was that ear-splitting clash of metal as our two cars collided.
I had no idea that my nightmare had only just begun.
Three very long years later, I was finally standing in front of a jury of six people and was still waiting for a verdict on the charges of either DUI (driver under influence) manslaughter with the prospect of spending the next fifteen years of my life in jail, or just being sentenced with a simple charge of DUI.
The accident had become a national media story—I had gone from hero to zero in an instant.
My heart was pounding. We had fought for so long to prove that I had not been responsible for what had happened, and soon, either one or two words were going to decide my future forever.
Shortly after the accident, I had found out that I actually knew the other driver. She had just been served divorce papers by her husband– the papers were found in the car with her– and she had been drinking and was texting as she was driving.
None of this, however, was admissible as evidence— Florida had just enacted an anti “victim bashing” law, which meant that my case rested on a technicality– was the light red or green?
On my side, I had admitted from the outset that, yes, I’d been drinking and driving. I was adamant, however, that that was the only charge I was prepared to accept.
Eventually, my attorney tried to urge me to take a plea of a lesser charge, but I would not agree to take the easy way out. I was determined to clear my name. I knew from deep in my heart that it was the only way to handle this whole ordeal.
During those three years of waiting for trial, I found myself stepping stronger into my faith and I rededicated my life to God. I stood firm that He was in control of everything that was happening in my life. From the start, He had been giving me guiding signs confirming that I must not admit to doing something I did not do.
The plea I was being urged to take, would have not given me any time in jail, yet it would have left me with a charge of felony and probation for ten years.
I had waited three years to hear those two words–“not guilty”–and I was adamant that I was not going to accept anything less than that. I told my attorney that I trusted that the truth would come out in court.
Even though the state continued issuing delays, I doggedly continued fighting, despite the pain it was causing both families. I just knew that coming through would make a difference to all involved. It took forever to push to finally be in front of a jury.
Through all this time, I noticed how in some strange way, this horrible situation was producing positive steps for the future of our family.
During this time, my mom had stayed with me helping me with the boys. The whole ordeal brought us very close together– I had been awarded custody and had recently quit my baseball career to be a full-time dad. My 12-yearold held me for three nights in the beginning–“Daddy, you’re ok … you’re here … you’re alive … did you have your seatbelt on?” And through the pain of possibly losing their dad for fifteen years, the boys started attending church regularly. My mom through watching me go through all of this had brought God back into her life and had been saved again.
As you can imagine, money was an issue. Despite having made 10 million dollars over eleven years, I had spent all of my earnings on getting custody of my children. A Major League Baseball group called BAT (Baseball Assistance Team) sent a representative to look at the details of my case to see if they could help the boys and me out financially. I’d been using all of my own money to hire an attorney to defend me. After looking at all the evidence and depositions, he saw that I was being wrongly accused and gave the board permission to grant me whatever money the boys and I needed, as long as it wasn’t used for the case. Another prayer had been answered.
I had heard that the State attorney had taken the case because they wanted the publicity for their campaign to become a Judge. I guess there’s nothing better than taking down an infamous N.Y. Yankee legend to boost one’s career. I Thank God I had the faith to not give in and to believe that, as the Scripture says,“The truth will set you free.”
Now finally, it was Friday, November 20, 2010, and the trial was nearly over.
The jury had left the courtroom. We waited and waited. My whole life hung, suspended in that wait. Then the judge called them back in. At last I would know.
“Have you reached a decision?” the judge asked.
The jury foreman said: “No, your honor, we have one
person who is undecided.”
They were instructed to go home and sleep on it and deliver their verdict the next morning.
This was beyond painful. We didn’t know what the juror was unsure of. Was it the manslaughter or was it the simple DUI? As you can imagine, my family couldn’t sleep worrying what their undecidedness could be. This guided Michelle (my fiancé), mom and my kids to pray that night—not to be free or anything direct–just to affirm that God would lead the jury to come to a fair and just decision.
On talking it through, we felt that enough evidence had been given to clear me of the Manslaughter charges.
That bonding with my family that night is something I would never want to change. Without this adversity, we would never have experienced that precious gift of bonding and love in that deeply meaningful and unique way.
Returning for the verdict the following day tested us even further in practicing patience in faith. The jury was still at a stalemate and they were instructed to remain together until a decision was reached.
We left to go next door and have a coffee. Finally, while talking to my pastor for reassurance on the phone, they called us back in—the jury had reached a decision.
As we walked back, my nerves really started to take over with so many thoughts going through my mind. Then I remembered what Pastor Troy had said: “No matter what,
God is a fair and just God. You must have faith in that.”
I walked back to the chair I had been sitting in for twentyone days.
Brian, the court foreman, stood up to read the verdict. I reached into my bag and held my Bible in one hand and a picture of my children in the other.
My heart was racing almost as much as my mind. As he began speaking, the officer standing next to me put handcuffs on my one arm. My heart sunk as this seemed to indicate I was in trouble, but as she put them on, she reassuringly said, “It’s ok, they’ll be off in a minute.”
I wondered what she knew.
–And then I heard the words: “Guilty on the lesser charge of DUI first time offense.” I didn’t know what that meant. I looked at my attorney and he assured me that this was good. A slight “yes” erupted from my side of the courtroom.
Those few seconds seemed like a lifetime.
The stress and the pain all of these families had been through was finally over. I was later sentenced to one year probation and a $500 fine.
The lessons I learned through all this have changed my life and made me a better man than I ever could imagine.
Like a boy with a new toy, the allure of fame had me feel, at times, foolishly invincible. It was my fame that had put me through hell. At the same time, in going through hell, I discovered heaven in my faith.
I pray every day for the girl who passed away and her family. I also pray that as my trial and struggles were so public, that other people learn from my experience. I live now in California with my three sons who are with me full time. I have a beautiful new wife. She has two little girls. I am working for the L.A. Angels Radio Station, and my broadcasting career is finally moving forward again.
Had I not been part of that tragic night, I might still take my fame and the responsibilities that come along with it for granted. Now I take nothing for granted. I appreciate and am filled with gratitude for all that comes my way, the challenges included.
I learned that there is a fine balance in life, where challenges and achievements are important co-ingredients in the subtle mix to becoming and being successful.
My accident on December 28, 2007, has, without a doubt, turned my life around for the better.