Leake’s paralyzed father weighed heavily in righty’s offseason choice
JUPITER, Fla. — For roughly seven hours, Mike Leake’s father was on the ground, in excruciating pain, unable to move.
Chris Leake, working alone, had fallen off a roof while building a log cabin in Bridger Canyon, Montana. His wife, Sarah, was at their home in nearby Bozeman, preparing a family dinner, with no idea what was going on.
Sarah always would tell Chris: “Keep the phone with you, keep the phone with you.” But Chris had left his cellphone in his pickup truck. And as dinner time approached on this Sunday in August 2013, Sarah began to panic.
“I got to a point where I told my brother: ‘You’ve got to go up there. I know something is wrong, and I’m going to freak out,’” Sarah recalled.
Something was terribly wrong, something worse than even Sarah imagined.
Chris had suffered a fractured rib and injury to his shoulder, and that was the least of it.
The fall also left him mostly paralyzed from the waist down.
For several weeks this offseason, the story lingered. Mike Leake wanted to sign with the Diamondbacks, was willing to take less money to sign with them before completing his five-year, $80 million free-agent contract with the Cardinals on Dec. 22.
Leake, 28, had gone to Arizona State. His wife Catherine’s parents live in Phoenix. His parents spend their winters in Phoenix. What could be better for Mike and Catherine than having their two young children grow up around their grandparents?
But there was more to it, much more.
Mike wanted to be close to his dad.
“It was a big part,” Mike said Thursday after his first workout with the Cardinals. “I thought it would be nice for the family and for him.
“But at the end of the day, I couldn’t make the decision based just off that. I had to pick the circumstance that was best overall for my future. That would have been a good situation, but it just didn’t work out.”
Not for lack of effort, though.
The D-backs spent the early part of the offseason trying to sign Leake. They tried even after securing Zack Greinke for $206.5 million, tried even after trading for Shelby Miller.
“Once they signed Greinke, I was like, ‘OK,’” Chris said. “Then when they got Miller, I said, ‘There’s no chance, it’s over.’”
But it wasn’t.
In fact, D-backs GM Dave Stewart said, the closest the two sides came to a deal was after the acquisition of Miller on Dec. 8.
“I thought we were real close,” Stewart said, “then things just broke down.”
Stewart said he did not know about Chris’ condition while talking with Mike and his agent, Danny Horwits of the Beverly Hills Sports Council. But he said that the Leake camp made it “very, very clear,” that Mike wanted to be a Diamondback.
Leake, like many players who become free agents, said he found the process to be both fun and nerve-wracking. He did not grasp initially that he was part of a pecking order. He had to wait for the top pitchers to sign. Some of the teams pursuing him, including the Cardinals, even kept him waiting behind free-agent outfielder Jason Heyward.
“It got close. It just never came to fruition,” Leake said. “I felt like there were some that wanted it and some that didn’t in the organization.”
The Cardinals, though, were always on his short list.
Leake had spent his entire career with the Reds, competing against the Cardinals in the NL Central, before getting traded to the Giants last summer. He knew how successful the Cardinals were, knew about their fans, knew about their tradition.
“They were quiet at first,” Leake said. “Then they came on strong.”
Chris Leake was an exercise physiologist until he switched careers and began building custom homes, wanting to spend more time with Mike and his older son Ryan, who is now a scout with the Astros.
The Leakes, who then lived in San Diego County, took a camping and hiking trip every summer, often to Yosemite Park.
Chris led the way.
“I was a really active guy, very physical, have been my whole life,” Chris said. “You all of a sudden can’t do something, and you miss it terribly.”
Chris said that his quadriceps muscles and hip flexors function, that he can raise up his legs and extend them. But that is it.
“I don’t have any hamstring or glutes and nothing from the knees down,” Chris said. “I can stand up with parallel bars as long as I hold on. But as soon as I let go, I fall over. I have nothing to stabilize myself. I can’t stand unless I’m holding on.”
His biggest issue, by far, is neuropathic pain, which is described by the American Chronic Pain Association as a “complex, chronic pain state that usually is accompanied by tissue injury.”
“It’s what I fight constantly,” Chris said. “I have a number of different types of physicians. They’re all basically trying to help with the pain issue. Otherwise, I’m coping better and better all the time physically and figuring things out. Emotionally, it’s day to day.”
On this day at least, Chris was in good enough humor to chuckle at various points while telling his story.
The log cabin, intended to serve as both a retirement home and family retreat, will remain unfinished; it would be too difficult to make wheelchair-accessible.
But Chris works in his garage now on occasion, building furniture. As Sarah put it: “It takes a while, but things progress. You go and you learn to do things.”
Mike said he is impressed by his father’s resilience. Chris said he is grateful for his son’s support.
“Whenever I need anything, he jumps right in,” Chris said. “It doesn’t even bother him. There are a lot of issues with this kind of injury. But he’s hands-on. He doesn’t shy away from it at all. He’s not scared of it. A lot of people are.”
Chris already has circled on his calendar the Cardinals’ first trip to San Diego and Arizona in late April. He will travel with Sarah to see Mike, provided that he can handle it physically.
During Mike’s negotiations with the Cardinals, Horwits and Cardinals GM John Mozeliak discussed arranging accessible seating and club seating at Busch Stadium so that Chris can attend games in his wheelchair.
If Mike had signed with the D-backs, he would have spent spring training in Arizona instead of Florida, the season at home instead of St. Louis.
Chris, though, had no problem with Mike’s decision.
“There are a handful of teams you want your kid to go to, knowing there is always going to be a chance to win,” Chris said.
Added Sarah: “Whatever worked out for him is all that my husband and I cared about. The fact that he’s not here is tough. But at the same time, we feel he’s with a fantastic team. You can’t complain.”
Actually, Sarah and Chris could complain about a lot of things. But considering all that has happened to them, they’re not going to dwell on their son playing nearly 1,500 miles from home.
“I look at it as things work out the way they’re supposed to,” Sarah Leake said.