Leonard remembers what happened on the next pitch. "When I came down on my left knee, it sounded like the Velcro strap I'd been wearing for support just ripped loose. But it was my tendon! My body went left, but I remember feeling like somebody had put me in reverse. I rolled over and over. The pain lasted a minute and a half. It shot up my leg. It hit me in the brain. My kneecap was off to the side, and my leg was straight. I thought, I've been hit by a line drive. But I remembered the umpire yelling, 'Strike!' So I knew that just wasn't right."
Audrey Leonard rushed to her husband in the clubhouse. She remembers the moment this way: "Tears were rolling down my face. He was as sweaty as can be. And he looked up at me and said, 'What the hell are you crying about?' Then he turned to [pitcher] Larry Gura and said, 'Damn. I had good stuff tonight. I was on a roll.' And I said, 'Dennis, maybe you'd like to cut your arm off and give it to one of the other guys.'
"We got in the ambulance, and I was sitting up front, giving directions. I could hear Dennis saying, 'Great. I had to get the one guy who doesn't know where he's going.' Meanwhile, Dennis is complaining that he's starving."
Leonard's injury was quickly diagnosed as a ruptured patellar tendon, and Dr. Steve Joyce, one of the Royals' physicians, repaired it the next day. But three months later, it was discovered that the tendon had deteriorated. On Sept. 29, 1983, Leonard was operated on by Dr. Frank R. Noyes of the Cincinnati Sports Medicine and Orthopaedic Center.
"The patellar tendon is the biggest and strongest tendon in the body," Noyes says. "In most cases, one surgery is enough. But half of his tendon had dissolved. It looked like cottage cheese. We were then faced with rebuilding the entire tendon. I warned Dennis that it would be a long process."
To strengthen the patellar tendon, Noyes used human tissue grafts from trauma victims and tissue banks. Leonard began his rehabilitation in December 1983. The knee was mending well, except for a fluid buildup. By June 2, 1984, Leonard was throwing from the mound.
Suddenly, he was hit with more bad news: The fluid in his knee—an infection—threatened the grafts. On July 31, Leonard underwent a second patellar tendon graft. "This time, we used three types of tissues to reweave the tendon—his own tendon, human grafts and a tendon from the back of his leg," Noyes explains. "We also found that his own patellar tendon had lengthened and that his kneecap was too high. We had to restring the tendon through his kneecap."
Noyes cautioned Leonard that it would take at least one year for the tendon to completely heal. And that he might never play baseball again. "We don't ever restore tendons to normal strength," says Noyes.
It's easy to feel comfortable around Leonard. He looks like one of the neighborhood guys: big blue eyes, a bushy auburn beard and cheeks that get red and round when he bursts into his boyish laugh. One of his favorite phrases is, "Everybody over to my house!" He rarely goes anywhere without wearing sneakers and one of the 100 baseball caps that are scattered about his bedroom closet. He also favors blue jeans; the back left pockets of his pants all carry the worn outline of a Skoal can.
Leonard is a pied piper, every kid's friend. Annie, the bat girl for the Lacy's Homes Little League team, is seven, and she has a mad crush on Dennis. She brings him strawberries from her grandmother's strawberry patch. He gave her one of his gloves, which she drags everywhere. Stephie, the little blonde next door, helps Leonard in his vegetable garden. "I make the holes," Leonard says, "and she drops in the seeds." Stephie, 5, is the daughter of former Royals pitcher Steve Busby, whose own career was cut short by a rotator cuff injury.