“But Moreland can’t run, can’t throw, can’t field, and he’s gotta hit home runs, and he couldn’t do that. He couldn’t hit the warning track. And Chris Brown is Chris Brown. I have been doing this twenty years, covering amateur and professional athletics of all sports…I have never seen an athlete with less desire and zest to play than Chris Brown.”
The words live on in YouTube infamy, a classic rant from 1988 by Ted Leitner on KFMB news. For those of a certain age, it’s quintessential Leitner: quick-witted, sharp, abrasive, unafraid to tell it like it is. And also, not worried about time constraints. The idea of a network sports anchor commanding the time and attention Leitner did to wax poetic about the Walt Terrell trade or the economic feasibility of the San Diego Chargers even bothering to charter a flight to Seattle, where they hadn’t won since 1980, seems completely foreign in the modern day.
For a time, Leitner, who recently announced he will be stepping away from the Padres radio booth after 41 years in favor of a club ambassador role, was the hardest working man in local sports media, working for the Padres, Chargers, Aztecs, as well as KFMB TV. In the days before I was born, he also did San Diego Clippers games.
And for those who only know him as Uncle Teddy, the beloved elder statesman of San Diego sports, they would be surprised to know for much of that time, Leitner wasn’t quite beloved in all corners. I can personally remember being at Jack Murphy Stadium and seeing Ted introduced to MC a pregame event, and, well, “boo” doesn’t rhyme with “Ted”, or “Leitner”. He was controversial, and he didn’t shy from it. He was opinionated, and it kept him relevant, a part of water cooler conversation. For myself, his transformation to Uncle Teddy was unexpected. I expected time to soften sharp edges, but I didn’t expect Ted Leitner to reach iconic status.
But time marched on in San Diego, leaving only the Padres on the local pro sports landscape, taking from us Jerry Coleman, and retiring Bob Chandler. Before we knew it, the famously divorced man with the sharp East Coast tongue and disdain for hockey highlights was our collective uncle, the man who had the story for every situation, who remembered what we did, and more. The man who could stoke the fires of childhood memory and stories our parents and grandparents only remembered.
The timing could not be better, because as the Padres went adrift into nearly two decades without glory or franchise stars, Leitner became the continuity. As players, uniforms, and even front offices and ownership were a constant evolving chaos of mediocrity, we could count on Ted Leitner behind the microphone with us. We could relive the stories and laugh about today while reminiscing over yesteryear. Ted Leitner became a more essential part of the fabric of San Diego than ever.
In 2017, I moved down the coast from the Bay Area to San Luis Obispo. It was an exciting time, because I no longer needed to fly to visit my family, it was now a much more casual drive than before. But being back in an area with beaches, sun, and palm trees made me more homesick than ever. One day I got off work, and, having the next two days off, I headed south in my faithful 2003 GMC Sonoma.
My truck’s CD player was long since broken by this time, so I relied on Bluetooth transmitters or good ol’ fashioned radio. On a long drive like this, I preferred the radio. I was on I-15 somewhere north of Fallbrook when I began to lose radio stations from the Los Angeles area. Fiddling with the dial, a voice I’d known all my life shot through the speakers that winter’s evening: “Boise State calls timeout, Aztecs down five.” In a way I never expected, I was awash with nostalgia. And in the same truck I had had since high school, a familiar voice was literally welcoming me home.
The accolades are many, and will be spoken of all month. They are deserved for a man who never thought he would make a career of calling games for the Padres. Perhaps that’s the beauty of it all, none of this was ever planned, it came together organically. Leitner’s career is further proof that fate finds us in the most unexpected places.
In his final season, Ted Leitner found himself calling games for the first contending Padres team in a decade, and the first to reach the playoffs in fourteen years. He did so amidst the strangest of circumstances, a sixty game season due to a global pandemic, and for Leitner, no travel. Indeed, Leitner and his partner, Jesse Agler, would call away games remotely from Petco Park.
It’s fitting that Leitner’s final year would be so unforgettable. At a time Padres fans felt isolated, he and Jesse, along with the television crew of Mark Grant and Don Orsillo, became more a part of our lives, along with these Padres, than they had in years, if ever. At a time of loss and hardship, the Padres brought joy.
On September 20th, 2020, the Padres faced the Seattle Mariners at Petco Park, with a chance to clinch a Wild Card berth. I was asked to stay late at work, part of the hazards of being an essential worker in 2020. I was able to leave in the 8th inning, and put on the 97.3 feed of the game on my phone, playing through my car speakers. Seattle quickly tied the game, but, having the faith of a Padres fan who had watched the impossible be possible all year, I stayed glued to the broadcast. Instead of heading straight home on 59th Avenue from Glendale, I turned left on Grand Avenue, veering towards downtown Phoenix.
As yet another oddity of 2020, this was a makeup game. Though the action we were watching was at Petco Park, the Padres were visitors. As the Padres scored three in the 11th, the anticipation grew. In the bottom of the inning, Trevor Rosenthal would strike out Phil Ervin, sending the Padres back to the postseason. Jesse Agler had given the microphone for that inning to his partner, a surprised and emotional Ted Leitner. And Leitner called that inning with the emotion of a man who had been waiting all those years for it, just like the fans. In a rare moment of Padres glory, Leitner was at his best: a brilliant broadcaster with a fan’s soul. As talented a voice as there ever has been with the microphone, and a person who, at the end of the day, was one of us.
In my car at that moment in downtown Phoenix, the emotion rolled over me as it did so many other Padres fans. Texts and messages pinged my phone as friends and family shared in the excitement. Tears filled my eyes as Ted Leitner brought that long-anticipated moment of euphoria home. Home. In my car, in Phoenix, Arizona, thanks to Ted Leitner, I was once again being welcomed home.
Follow @MarkFWilkens on Twitter and check out his work at Madfriars.com.