How Yankees stars and their agent are teaching teens that ‘character matters’

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Mark Leinweaver, captain of his Stonehill College baseball team, never made the pros. His glove did, though.

Let’s go back to 1999 in Norwich, Conn., where the Norwich Navigators, the Yankees’ Double-A affiliate, were playing a home game.

“(Manager) Lee Mazzilli made a move that pulled Nick Johnson out of the game,” recalled Leinweaver, who worked as both a Navigators radiocaster and media-relations employee at the time. “They were short a first baseman. They didn’t have someone to play first base. So they brought in Jeremy Morris, an outfielder, and he played first base wearing his outfielder’s glove, because he threw righty and Nick threw lefty. My radio partner recognized that, and on the air, I said, ‘I have a first baseman’s glove in my house.’ I lived about a half-mile from the ballpark.

“The clubhouse manager heard me say that, and he told Mazzilli, ‘The radio guy said he has a glove at his house!’ It was like the third inning. They got a police escort and a stadium ops guy went to my house and got the glove. Morris wore it at first base for the rest of that game.”

A Yorktown Heights native, Leinweaver has plenty more such stories, from playing basketball one-on-one against 2002 Navs manager Luis Sojo (who returned to active play with the Yankees the next season!) to driving Sojo’s predecessor Stump Merrill’s vintage Mercedes – with Merrill in the passenger seat – from New Haven to Portland one very late night post-game (Stump, a native Mainer, was a fan of neither bathroom breaks nor turning on the heat).

Now a player representative for Beverly Hills Sports Council, whose client list includes Yankees Kyle Higashioka and Jordan Montgomery, Leinweaver has leveraged those experiences, those life lessons, and many more into not only helping others, but encouraging his players to do the same with an initiative he calls “Character Matters.”

In 2015, Leinweaver explained, he developed a side business called Perfect Placement for which he would visit high schools around the country and make presentations to student-athletes in which he would highlight the benefits of Division II and Division III colleges. He continued: “At the start of the pandemic, I gave it more thought (and realized), the character component of that process was far more relevant. I shifted to prioritizing a character element rather than on the field or in the classroom. I mirrored that approach with our own players, encouraging them to give back and see how they could make a difference.”

Last offseason, Montgomery spoke in a Zoom call to special-needs athletes in New York, and Higashioka, also via Zoom, addressed student-athletes from New York State districts with a significant population participating in the Free & Reduced Lunch program. Both Yankees intend to be active once again this coming winter, with Montgomery particularly interested in anti-bullying efforts.

Montgomery wrote in a text message: “Mark does so much for me off the field that allows me to fully focus on doing my job. And one of the first things he asked was what I was passionate about. He helped me brainstorm ideas to help with special needs and anti-bullying once I told him.”

Leinweaver himself remains perennially super active, if his extensive globetrotting has been replaced by Zoom for now. He’ll make his “Character Matters” presentation on May 3 as the virtual keynote speaker for the event, which emphasizes community service, leadership and anti-bullying to the Massachusetts Athletic Directors Conference and features some 400 high school athletic directors from the state. Each time he speaks to a high school, he highlights a pair of preferred causes, the Special Olympics New York Unified program and Mallory’s Army, an anti-bullying group.

Like any good life traveler, each of Leinweaver’s experiences informs the next. He knew what to do for Norwich’s media relations after working in that department for the Class A Pittsfield Mets under Ethan Wilson, who is now the New York Mets’ senior director of communications. When representing Yankees minor leaguers now, he interfaces with the organization’s senior director of player development Kevin Reese, who played for the Navigators in 2002.

“For a kid who grew up in New York, going to Yankee Stadium and Shea Stadium, and to be where I am now to feel as if I’m making a difference, is really very special for me,” said Leinweaver.

His first baseman’s glove was a one-hit wonder in the pros, but Leinweaver’s reach keeps growing.

This week’s Pop Quiz question came from the late Jan Bottone of Wellesley, Mass.: What revered author wrote, “Oh to be a center fielder, a center fielder–and nothing more!” in a 1969 novel?

Congratulations to Yankees senior vice president and assistant general manager Jean Afterman for being named a “2021 Champion” by the Sports Business Journal. Here’s a great interview with Afterman in honor of the award.

Your Pop Quiz answer is Philip Roth in “Portnoy’s Complaint.”

If you have a tidbit that connects baseball with popular culture, please send it to me at [email protected]

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