Worth the wait

BRADENTON, Fla. – Twenty-nine years of long bus rides and grunt work in small towns. Twenty-nine years of cheap hotels and fast food. Twenty-nine years of working on the fringe and waiting for that one golden opportunity to arrive.

Twenty-nine years in the minor leagues without ever getting a shot in “The Show.”

Until now.

Tim Leiper, who spent three seasons managing the Curve (2006-08), is one of the most likable people you’ll ever meet. He’s always smiling, always joking around, always enthusiastic and bursting with optimism.

He’s just a good dude.

And good things do happen to good people, even if it sometimes it takes a long, long time.

“I’ve always wanted this,” Leiper said. “It’s great to be at the highest level.”

It took 29 years to get there, but the guy everyone simply calls “Leip” finally has made it to the major leagues as first base coach for the Toronto Blue Jays. It’s surprising, given everything he has accomplished at so many levels of pro ball, that it took this long, but Leiper has had a blast every step of the way in waiting things out.

“It doesn’t seem like it’s been very long, honestly,” he said with his usual smile before Tuesday’s spring training game against the Pirates at McKechnie Field. “It seems like yesterday I just signed and played. But I couldn’t be happier.”

Leiper began his playing career in 1985 and played for 12 different minor league teams over 12 seasons. He was a versatile utility man who could always hit – finishing with a .273 career average in 1,166 games – but he never had much power (only 40 homers total) and was the prototypical organizational player rather than a big prospect.

Leiper’s chances of reaching the majors as a player were slim, but he’s been a successful coach or manager in the minors for the past 17 years, yet still couldn’t get his foot in the big league door.

“I really don’t know why,” he said. “I think it’s a matter of being in the right place at the right time.”

Plus knowing the right people, which is what finally led to Leiper getting his current job.

“I knew Leip from our days together with the Mets, and you’re not going to find a better coach,” said Blue Jays manager John Gibbons, who hired him to be the first base coach. “He’s well-versed in everything.

“It was a situation where he needed an opportunity. Like a lot of guys out there, they’ve got a chance to be great baseball coaches and major league coaches or be a manager, it’s just about opportunity. And some don’t ever get that.”

Leiper occasionally wondered over the years if he would fall into that category. Well, sort of.

“Yeah, I think so. Probably,” he said when asked if he doubted he would ever get to the majors.

But then he quickly added, “Well, to be honest with you, no. Obviously I wanted to do it, but just stayed focused on what I do. I knew the opportunity would probably arrive.”

That response is typical Leiper. He’s so optimistic that he probably wouldn’t let himself doubt if he’d make it.

“We tell the players, ‘You can only control what you can control,’ and it’s the same thing as a coach,” Leiper said.

“My biggest thing is to go out every year, and I realize it’s a players’ game, so for me I’ve always wanted to give everything I can to the players for those six months and then worry about myself later.”

Leiper served as a senior advisor in the Blue Jays’ minor league system last year, his first with the organization. Toronto’s first base coach, Dwayne Murphy, retired after the season, opening up a spot on the big league staff.

In a great twist of irony – from an Altoona perspective, at least – the Blue Jays picked Leiper to be their first base coach over Marty Brown, who managed the organization’s Triple-A club in Buffalo last year. Brown was the first manager in Curve history in 1999, and when he didn’t get the job in Toronto, he decided to leave the organization.

Leiper worked with Brown last season as part of his roving minor league duties with the Blue Jays. But Brown had been new to the organization, while Gibbons and Blue Jays general manager Alex Anthopoulos had known Leiper longer, going back to prior stops with the Mets and Expos, respectively.

“He deserves a shot at it,” Gibbons said of hiring Leiper. “He can coach infield, outfield, baserunning. He’s well-versed. He was just looking for his opportunity, so it was the perfect time.

“It basically just came down to he’s such a good baseball man, he’s going to help us win games.”

Part of Leiper’s wealth of baseball experience includes his three-year stint managing the Curve. He guided the 2006 team to the Eastern League playoffs, and his 213 wins are tied with Dale Sveum for most in franchise history (he and Sveum have been the only two managers to stay for three seasons).

“Three years in one spot in the minor leagues, that’s unheard of,” Leiper said with a laugh.

“I loved it. Altoona was great. Such a nice facility and such a great place to show up for work every day.”

He didn’t just work in Altoona, either. Leiper lived in the city during the offseason and has good memories of life away from the ballpark.

He’s a pretty skilled hockey player and enjoys talking about playing for a team called The Goons at Galactic Ice in 2007 and ’08.

“I miss my hockey team and miss playing with those guys,” Leiper said with a big smile.

Former Curve broadcaster Jason Dambach played on Leiper’s hockey team and became good friends with the Altoona manager. There’s no doubt Leiper is happy to finally be in the major leagues, and there also are a lot of people happy for him.

“I’ve had the fortunate opportunity to be friends with a number of future major league coaches and players, but I’ve never been happier for anyone to have the opportunity to ply their craft at the game’s highest level than Leip,” said Dambach, now GM of the State College Spikes.

“He spent 29 years as a minor league player and coach and finally has the chance to wear a major league uniform. His is simply a great story in perseverance.”

Part of that perseverance has been Leiper’s willingness to take on any challenge and learn every facet of the game. He not only has been a minor league manager and coach at all levels, he’s also gained valuable experience coaching in winter ball and for Team Canada in the World Baseball Classic.

There’s no question he’s done and seen more in the 29 years it took him to reach the major leagues than many coaches who have gotten there much quicker.

“The one thing that’s been great about it is I’ve experienced literally everything in baseball that you possibly can experience,” Leiper said. “There’s nothing that I haven’t done. I’ve gotten to be a hitting coach, a manager, a rover, a front office guy. The 29 years, it’s been a great work experience.”

Now, after all these years, Leiper is getting ready to walk onto a big league field for the first time with a chance to call himself a major leaguer. His first regular-season game with the Blue Jays will be Monday at Tampa Bay.

“It’ll be fun,” Leiper said. “But the biggest thing for me is when the game starts, I don’t think the venue will really matter.”

At that point it will just be about baseball, a game Leiper knows inside and out.

Twenty-nine years in the minor leagues taught him well.

Cory Giger will have Pirates and Curve updates from Bradenton all this week.