Friday, June 17, 2016

Lakewood pitcher Leftwich has the mother of all grandfather stories


Luke Leftwich, image- Jay Floyd

The list of third-generation major league pitchers is a short one. The list: Casey Coleman

Phillies pitching prospect Luke Leftwich hopes to double the length of that list someday.

Leftwich, a right-hander, was a seventh-round draft selection last year out of Wofford College. Following his pro debut, the 6'3", 205-pounder posted a 2-2 record with a 2.76 ERA in 11 games for short-season Class A Williamsport. Through 11 starts this season for Class A Lakewood, he has tallied a 6-3 record with a 2.15 ERA and 11.5 strikeouts per nine innings en route to being named a South Atlantic League All-Star.

Through college and in the early stages of his professional career it has been reported in Leftwich’s biographical notes that his father and grandfather played in the big leagues. But if not for the sleuthing of his father, Phil Leftwich, the 22-year-old would not have known that he could become the majors' second third-generation pitcher.

Search for truth

The elder Leftwich, who was a second-round draft pick of the California Angels in 1990, learned in adulthood that he had been adopted as an infant by the only parents he knew for the first 25 years of his life.

His feelings about the dad who raised him to become a loving family man, the dad who coached every team he ever played on, may have inhibited Phil Leftwich's interest in finding out his roots. But after a while, with Phil and his wife Ann starting their own family, heritage and history became more important and curiosity prevailed. He started the search for his biological parents.

"When I found out, I kind of sat on it for a couple years," said Phil. "It was nice to know, but I had parents, so it wasn't like I had this instant urge to go find out where I came from."

First Phil acquired the original adoption paperwork, on which many details were blacked out for privacy reasons. Information that wasn’t edited from the material included ages and some physical traits, along with occupations. For the father, it listed "professional baseball player."

"It was as close as I have ever come to passing out from just hearing something," confessed Phil. "Literally, the blood just kind of left and I had to sit down. And I read it about 10 times. And at the time I'm reading this, I had just made it to the big leagues and I was so blown away by it that I stared at that piece of paper for months."

Phil would eventually move forward with trying to locate his parents, but tracking down his father would present some hurdles. Phil found the team in the area where he was born and contacted the club to find out if there was someone on the roster around the time he would have been conceived who would have fit the age and physical descriptions listed on the adoption paperwork. He was put in touch with someone who worked for the team then, and who, luckily - in those pre-internet days - was also a big baseball card collector.

Using that individual's card collection proved successful only in determining that the local team’s roster at the time didn't include anyone fitting the search criteria. That moved the hunt to visiting clubs. Narrowing the search to the time on the schedule when Phil could have been conceived, research targeted the Tigers’ affiliate, Toledo.

"There was only one person who it could've been and that was Tom Timmermann," said Luke Leftwich. "So then my dad talked to the Tigers people to get a phone number for Tom, and they gave it to him. And he said it took him a while to get the courage to call him, but he eventually did."

Hello, Grandpop

Image courtesy of Phil Leftwich
Timmermann, who went 35-35 with a 3.78 ERA over seven seasons with Detroit and Cleveland, knew he had a child, but didn’t know anything about him. He and Phil’s mother weren’t a couple, so it was decided that adoption would be best for baby Phil, once he was born.

"I had known that there was someone out there, so it was, ‘Okay, he found me!,'" said Timmermann. "And that was fine, because I was always thinking about him also."

Timmermann had familiarized his wife, Ruby, who has since died, with the fact that he had a child out in the world. When Phil’s initial call came she grew curious.

"She came in and asked me what the phone call was about. I said, 'You know that young baby years ago? I think he found his dad.' And she said, 'Oh, good!'" said Timmermann. "And as a matter of fact, it was a week or two later he flew up (for a meeting), and he has been accepted into my family with open arms and we're very proud of him. And not because he's a ballplayer, because he's a good man. He really is. And so is my grandson."

Locating his birth-mother would prove far more difficult for Phil; that search lasted 22 additional years. He encountered numerous obstacles, including her name changes as the result of multiple marriages. He would invest a bit of time every so often to see if he could dig up the right lead, but without success after decades of research he had virtually given up hope.

But while on a plane earlier this year, he was viewing a program dedicated to searching for missing persons. The show featured something that Phil had not thought of before, and he immediately opened a web browser to utilize the method. Within 30 minutes he was looking at marriage licenses and divorce records along with his birth-mother's address. The two would finally meet a short time later.

The couple that raised Phil died when Luke and his siblings - a set of triplets named Troy, Brooke and Brenna - were very young, and their maternal grandfather wasn’t close to the family, so Timmermann is the only grandfather they’ve truly known. Bonds would develop effortlessly between Phil’s children and their newly found relative.

"The connection, I tell you, for my kids - they saw him as a grandfather right away even though I never told them who he was till years later when they were old enough to understand it," said Phil. "But the connection was so strong and it was instant."

To Luke Leftwich, it’s a natural bond despite the long road to establish it.

"He feels like family to me even though my dad didn't grow up with him as a father," said Luke. "But I definitely still view him as a grandfather because my whole life, he's always been there for me."

Bonding through baseball

Luke and Phil worked together throughout last off-season to ensure the younger Leftwich stayed in ideal shape for his first full season of professional baseball. Phil provides regular insight to help Luke on his journey through the developmental ranks. And Timmermann, who made his big league debut in 1969 at the age of 29, after 10 years in the minors, provides necessary guidance.

"He played in a much different era than now, but he was in the minor leagues for a long time, so he knows what it was like to have this grind," said Luke, "and he's just helping me to embrace it and enjoy it."

Toward the end of his playing days the right-handed Timmermann landed in the Phillies organization, pitching with its Triple-A affiliate, which at the time was Toledo.

Phil Leftwich reached the majors with the Angels and posted a 9-17 record with a 4.99 ERA over parts of three seasons. The righty took his career abroad in the late 1990s, pitching two years with Osaka Kintetsu in Japan.

Not surprisingly, Luke, who treasures a photograph of himself as a baby wearing an Angels onesie while being held by his father, is already looking forward to bringing up a future fourth generation in the sport.

"I've had that hung up in my room forever, just like, I want that to be me and my family someday," said Luke, smiling. "Like, my family gets to grow up around the game like I did."

Timmermann, who has two other grandchildren from his daughter from his first marriage, shared that his 10-year-old grandson, Sam, is also a pitcher and wants to someday compete at the professional level.

"He pitched last night. I was there, he did a great job. He wants to be a ball player too," said Timmermann, chuckling. "I don't know what it is ... it's in the blood."

Of Phil’s achievements he’s amazed, simply because he did it all on his own. Additionally, Timmermann has a hefty level of respect for Luke’s dream-chasing because of the lineage that precedes him.

"He's got a carrot in front of him that he's got a dad and a grandfather who played in the big leagues, and he's determined that he's going to do it too," said Timmermann. "And I'm proud of him on the fact of how he's doing it. And he's working hard and diligently. As a grandfather, I couldn't be more proud of it."

Ultimately it's the connections they've developed that keeps Timmermann looking forward to what the younger Leftwich can achieve, not the record book impact that might come for the family with an eventual big-league promotion.

"I never think about the historical aspect," said Timmermann. "All I know is, based on my conversations with Luke, he's got the right attitude, he's got the right stuff and there's no doubt in my mind that he's gonna make it."
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