A few opponents are keeping tabs on Leonard's progress out of respect. Detroit catcher Lance Parrish says, "It's amazing he's been out so long and is still trying. You've got to give a guy like that a lot of credit. He could sit back, take the money and run. I don't like facing him, but I hope it happens. I'll tip my hat to him and then take my swings."
But most of baseball doesn't know what Leonard has been putting himself through. "People think I've disappeared, that I'm out of the game," Leonard says. "I like that."
Leonard does most of his thinking when he's running. "Sometimes, I think about how I'm going to field my position when I come back. Covering first and pickoffs. And you know guys will test me with bunts. I think about whether my knee can take all the twisting and turning.
"But mostly, I visualize myself pitching, ready to start. I can see myself walking in from the bullpen. I can hear the fans in the rightfield bleachers yelling, 'Let's go!' And then, as soon as I go out to throw my first pitch, the visualization stops."
He has reasons for putting himself through all the workouts and mind games. "I don't want to sit around when I'm 50 years old and wonder if I could have come back," he says. "I don't want to say, 'If only I had been more faithful.' Besides, I feel guilty about the Royals' paying me all that money. I want to earn it."
Even in his lowest moment—before the final knee operation—Leonard did not come close to giving up. "I just love baseball," he says. "I just love the feeling I get whenever I'm pitching. Ever since I was a little kid, this is all I've ever wanted to do."
Audrey Leonard is buzzing around her kitchen, darting to the cutting board, where she's chopping broccoli; to the stove, where she's stirring baked beans; to the counter next to the sink, where she's shaping the hamburgers for tonight's cookout. She's talking all the while, barely catching her breath, but never missing a beat. Audrey is the perfect complement for the relaxed Dennis—energized and emotional.
They met in ninth grade at Lincoln Orens Junior High in Island Park, N.Y. "His mother had been my school crossing guard for years," Audrey says, "but she'd never told me she had a cute son who was in Catholic school." They stayed together through gold initial rings, graduations and mediocre varsity baseball seasons. "He was a dud in high school," she says.
Dennis, who wasn't drafted out of high school, had a partial scholarship to Iona College in New Rochelle, N.Y. On Dec. 18, 1971, during his junior year, he and Audrey were married. The Royals drafted him in the second round in '72. The two of them bounced around from Kingsport to Waterloo to Sarasota to San Jose to Arecibo to Omaha. In '75, he was called up to the big league club for keeps. They went through it all together, the bad times and the good.
And now, they have weathered the injury, which instantly turned Audrey into superwoman. She made treks each day to Kansas City's St. Luke's Hospital, bringing Dennis lunch and dinner from nearby restaurants. "I was the only person arriving with grocery bags," she says.