It's an afternoon in June, five hours before game time. The clouds over Royals Stadium are gray and heavy; Kansas City is in for one of those summer gully washers. The stadium is quiet, except for an occasional rumble from a semi heading east on nearby I-70.
Dennis Leonard, the Royals' 34-year-old righthander, is running alone in the outfield. He has been sidelined for more than two years as the result of a ruptured patellar tendon in his left leg. The patellar connects the knee cap to the top of the lower leg, and no athlete in any sport has come back from a patellar reconstruction as extensive as Leonard's. For two years, he has worked out by himself, day in and day out, four hours at a stretch. Being alone makes it easier to keep count. Three times around the park, three-fourths of a mile. Fourteen sprints from foul line to foul line, two miles. And 10 jogs backward, 90 yards each.
Working out alone is also easier on Leonard's mind: Being around healthy ballplayers would remind him of how far he has fallen. He was once the best. From 1975 to '82, Leonard won more games—130—than any righthander in baseball. He was a 20-game winner three times, which is still a Royals record. Now, three knee operations later, Leonard's claim to fame is that he's the highest-paid player not to play this year. His contract calls for $800,000 a year, guaranteed, through 1986. That means he has earned almost $2 million since his last pitch.
Leonard began throwing from a mound on July 1. If his reconstructed patellar tendon proves strong enough to withstand the stress of his power-pitching style, Leonard could be back working in the majors by September.
"O.K.," Leonard says to himself as he jogs on the warning track, "break it down into little compartments. Not so overwhelming that way." He speeds up. "I have to get to the 410-foot mark. C'mon. I have to get to the 385 mark. Don't stop. To the 330. Done! Only 13 more."
Mickey Cobb, the Royals' trainer, is watching Leonard from the dugout, bifocals on the edge of his nose, a notepad in hand. Cobb dotes on his players. When he took the job in 1977, he told them he would be available 24 hours a day, so his nickname is Dr. Clock. Cobb has a fondness for Leonard. "We go back a long way, to the minors in '72," Cobb says. "We're fishing buddies. And we share something else." Cobb, who was stricken with polio as an infant, points to his own weakened legs. "We understand these kinds of struggles."
Every afternoon when the Royals are at home, Cobb sneaks into the dugout, just out of Leonard's sight, and studies the pitcher. "I can remember the first steps Dennis took, when he first tried to run, in '84," Cobb says. "It was awful. The limp. The left leg so much smaller than the right. I was used to seeing a champion just glide through the motions. I kidded Dennis, 'You run worse than I do.' But I thought, 'Gosh. Maybe he'll be this way permanently.'
"But this," Cobb says, motioning toward Leonard, jogging backward in centerfield, "this is prayers answered.
"I always sit here in the same spot, in line with the mound. I think about the good times, the good years. Some people say it will take a miracle for him to pitch again. But I can see him, right now, on the mound. I can actually see Dennis pitching. His time is nearing."
May 28, 1983. Royals Stadium. Kansas City versus Baltimore. The game is scoreless in the fourth inning. Leonard, who had come back from broken fingers the year before, has a 6-3 record and is hopeful of making his first All-Star team. He has retired 10 of the first 11 Orioles, striking out four and walking one. The batter is shortstop Cal Ripken Jr. The first pitch is a ball.