Taking a look back with longtime Padres broadcaster Ted Leitner, who entered the team's hall of fame.
For generations of Padres fans, Ted Leitner represents the voice of summer.
The longtime radio play-by-play broadcaster known as "Uncle Teddy" entered the team's hall of fame Thursday along with executive Larry Lucchino. Leitner began broadcasting with the Padres in 1980 and continued with the team until 2020. His broadcasting tenure with the Padres encompassed Tony Gwynn and Trevor Hoffman's careers, two World Series appearances, a partnership for the ages with fellow broadcaster Jerry Coleman, and the team's resurgence during the 1990s.
My book Playing Through the Pain: Ken Caminiti and the Steroids Confession That Changed Baseball Forever is available wherever books are sold.
Leitner and Ken Caminiti bonded in 1995, Ken's first year with the team, after Ken pulled the broadcaster aside one day.
"Hey, I really want to thank you for the nice things you've been saying about me on television," Ken told Leitner. It wasn't common for players to pay attention to what Leitner said on-air, let alone thank him.
"I was blown away," Leitner told me in a 2017 interview for my book on Caminiti.
A connection was forged between the third baseman and broadcaster, one that revealed itself in the moments after the Padres clinched the National League West title in 1996. Leitner was interviewing players in the clubhouse, and he ended up getting a moment with the league's soon-to-be MVP.
"I don't want to fawn on you, because I know you don't like that, you're not comfortable with it, but I wanted to tell you what a pleasure it has been, and a lot of Padres fans, thousands of them, feel the same way, to watch you play has just been sensational to watch you, and I congratulate you on your championship," Leitner said as beer dripped down Ken's head.
"Thank you very much Ted, and I appreciate all the things you've been doing for the team," the third baseman said, as his teammates chanted "M-V-P!."
Leitner came to embody Padres fandom -- to him, they were "My Padres" when the team was leading and “Your Padres” when they were losing. For his Padres, Caminiti's tenure, especially that 1996 season, stood apart.
"I've never seen a player connect like that to the fans and vice versa ever. And no Padre, not even Tony Gwynn, did that," Leitner told me. "People used to call the ticket office and hem and haw, and say, 'you know, I've got season tickets now for 12 years on the first base line, is it possible to get a commensurate equal type of ticket on the third base line? And the ticket guy has heard this nine times that week. So he'd play along and say, 'well, is there a problem with your seat, something wrong?’ ‘No, to be honest with you, I just want to be close to Cammy and watch him field and have that seat that I have on the first base line on the third base line.’ And that happened a lot."
Leitner's strongest bond with San Diego came through in his friendship with Coleman, the former Yankees player and Marine Corps pilot. Leitner slid into the Padres' broadcast booth in 1980 while Coleman served as the team's manager. That experiment lasted only one season before Coleman was back to broadcasting -- and a partnership was born.
"He was the most amazing man I've ever known," Leitner said. "He was father, brother, mentor to me.
"I had to take out dental tools to pull teeth to get him to tell me stories about the war, because those guys from the greatest generation, they didn't tell war stories. It was just their job. They did it. And he was absolutely amazing. Simply amazing. He went through hell."
For Leitner — a Bronx, New York native who served as a Yankee Stadium vendor as a teen — nothing topped the 1998 Padres team reaching the World Series and facing off against the Yankees.
"Here I am in Yankee Stadium, and I'm in the press box, and I'm talking to Bob Sheppard, and I'm thinking, 'somebody pinch me.' It was absolutely amazing. ... I wish my parents were alive to see this. I'm standing here with Jerry Coleman and Phil Rizzuto. I'm talking to Bob Sheppard. I am home," he said of the 1998 World Series.
When Ken entered the Padres hall of fame in 2016, Leitner was the logical choice to serve as master of ceremonies, recalling Caminiti in mythical terms.
“You’d never seen a player like this, a man like this,” he told the crowd. “It was as if God took a great third baseman like Mike Schmidt and crossed him with John Wayne. Clint Eastwood. Charles Bronson. He was all of that, and that’s not an exaggeration.”
Thursday was Uncle Teddy's turn to be honored. He was his usual self-depreciating self, telling the crowd a joke: "You know, there are only two kinds of people in San Diego. You either hate Ted Leitner, or you are Ted Leitner."
That isn’t entirely true. While listeners sometimes took some time to adjust to Leitner’s style, he typically won them over. He’s family — your broadcaster for your Padres and his Padres.
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