For South Florida Bulls football coach Jim Leavitt, baseball used to trump football

ST. PETERSBURG — In truth, for Jim Leavitt to really come full circle, his USF football team would have to be playing Saturday at a different baseball stadium, about 4 miles west of Tropicana Field.

Forty years ago, there was no outfield fence at the Northwest Community Center, so the home runs of Leavitt's youth were simply balls hit far enough that he had time to make it back home.

"He was always hitting home runs," said Leavitt's brother, Rusty, two years older but often a teammate throughout their childhood years. "He would just hit the ball as far as it could go, and you'd go running after it."

Ask about Jim Leavitt, baseball player, and he sounds a lot like Jim Leavitt, college football coach. Words such as intense, committed, focused come up a lot.

"You did not want to sit next to him in the dugout if you just made an out," said Ron Helinger, an American Legion Post 14 teammate and still a close friend.

It's hard now to imagine anything keeping Leavitt, who leads his team Saturday into the St. Petersburg Bowl against Memphis at Tropicana Field, from college football. But as a teenager, baseball could.

One summer, the night before he had to report to Missouri for the start of football practice, Leavitt was across the state in Daytona Beach playing Legion ball. He still remembers having to leave the game in the 11th inning, his parents waiting to drive him back to Tampa overnight for an early flight.

Long before he was a two-sport star at Missouri, the Leavitts were very much a baseball family. Rusty umpired games at the Northwest center, just blocks from the family home. His mother walked over to see his games. "Good call!" she would shout from the stands, in his mind the only person ever to attend a baseball game to cheer for the umpire.

Leavitt, 52, remembers a lot about baseball. He remembers opening a Little League season 24-for-26 — hitting at least .900, his brother confirms — though Leavitt also remembers dropping off later and "finishing up at .848." He grimaces, remembering striking out with the bases loaded in the ninth inning of a Legion playoff loss to Puerto Rico.

He remembers crushing a home run off Michigan quarterback and future major-leaguer Rick Leach at Henley Field in Lakeland. He remembers ripping a triple off Cardinals pitcher Aurelio Lopez in 1978 in an exhibition while at Missouri. Cards manager Vern Rapp asked Leavitt if he was going to play pro football or pro baseball.

"That was the first time in my life somebody talked to me about playing professionally," said Leavitt, remembering Missouri lost that game on a Keith Hernandez grand slam. "I was kind of embarrassed, humbled by that."

Was Leavitt confident? Gene McArtor, his coach at Missouri, remembers Leavitt missed fall practice his first year because of football, and on the team's first road trip to Florida that spring, Leavitt sat with his new coach to talk, "concerned about playing time."

"My first reaction was that he had no business complaining," McArtor said. "But by the time he was done, I knew I would like him as a player. Certainly, he was a very intense, very confident guy, just as he has been throughout his career."

Watching him pace the sideline and scowl at officials with the Bulls, his teammates see Jimmy Leavitt, long hair spilling out from under his ball cap.

"The main thing that sticks with me was his competitiveness," said former USF baseball coach Eddie Cardieri, another Legion teammate who helped bring in Leavitt to coach the Bulls in 1995. "You think of a linebacker or a safety playing baseball. That's what he was. But he could steal some bases and cover some ground in the outfield."

A back injury spoiled Leavitt's chances of playing safety in the NFL, but he still aspired to play pro baseball. A Big 8 Conference batting champion as a sophomore at Missouri who went undrafted after his senior year — he recalls finishing that season in a 3-for-27 slump — he still earned a tryout with the Brewers at their minor-league affiliate in Burlington, Iowa.

There, 30 years ago, unable to land a contract, he faced a crossroads: keep traveling to tryouts, hoping to make it as a minor-league outfielder, or take a job as a graduate assistant on the football coaching staff at Missouri.

"It just didn't seem to be working out for baseball, so I made a decision," Leavitt said. "I felt like the Lord was leading me to go back to Missouri. That's the door that was open."

Thirty years later, he's still a football coach, but Helinger's favorite Leavitt story is from Legion ball. Post 14 had a double­header in Winter Haven, the day Helinger was graduating from high school. In the first game, he broke his wrist in a collision at home plate. Scouts were in attendance, watching players such as Leavitt, but his focus was on his injured friend.

"Every inning, instead of going into the dugout, he came over and sat with me in the bullpen," Helinger said. "He'd say, 'C'mon, let's go. I'll drive you home right now.'

Late in the second game, Helinger relented, and Leavitt got him to the hospital in time to receive his diploma with his hand in a cast.

"Not many 18-year-olds would put a friend ahead of all those scouts," Helinger said. "But he did."

For South Florida Bulls football coach Jim Leavitt, baseball used to trump football 12/17/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, December 17, 2008 9:40pm]

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