Reaching the major leagues already felt strangely attainable for Luke Leftwich, before his father gathered him and his siblings to unlock a family secret.
Leftwich, a Phillies pitching prospect at Triple A, was just a teenager and not even the best player on his travel teams. He knew the climb to the majors would be difficult, but his father, Phil, had climbed his way there in the 1990s with the Angels.
So, why couldn’t he?
“You know Dad’s friend, Tom,” Phil Leftwich asked his children, who nodded. “He’s actually your grandfather.”
Phil Leftwich had discovered a decade earlier that he was adopted as a baby, but he kept it from his children until his adoptive parents passed away. For Luke Leftwich, the long-kept secret made his far-flung goal seem even closer. His dad’s friend, Tom – Leftwich’s biological grandfather – was former major-league reliever Tom Timmermann.
Luke Leftwich not only had a dad who reached the majors, but a grandfather, too. Leftwich came from major-league stock. There have been just five three-generation major-league families. Leftwich, if he keeps climbing, would be the second third-generation pitcher.
The right-hander did not allow an earned run in 10 relief appearances this season with Double-A Reading, before he was promoted Thursday to Lehigh Valley. Leftwich, who will turn 25 next month, struck out nearly half the 58 Double-A batters he faced.
He is one step closer to making history. All because of his father’s discovery.
“That’s an interesting story,” Leftwich said.
Researching the past
There were hints scattered throughout Phil Leftwich’s childhood in Lynchburg, Va., that he was adopted, but he chose to ignore them. His parents, Linwood and June, were great, and he had no reason to look elsewhere. Pressed by an aunt, his parents finally told Phil when he was 23 about the family secret he would tell his children one day.
Phil, curious to learn more, requested his adoption file from the state of Virginia, but the names and addresses of his biological parents had been redacted. As Phil paged through the file, he came across a section of descriptions.
His parents were not married, and his biological father was 28 when Phil was adopted. His father was 6-foot-3 with a stocky build. And then it listed his occupation: professional baseball player.
“That’s the one that got my blood pressure through the roof,” he said.
Phil made his major-league debut a year earlier with the Angels. Now, he was reading that his biological father had been a professional baseball player, too. He found clues in the document that indicated his father was a pitcher, like him. He wanted to find out who he was.
The file indicated that Phil was born in Richmond, Va. That was the longtime home of Atlanta’s Triple-A affiliate. He called the Braves, hoping they could help him track down a stocky 6-3 pitcher who was in Triple A in 1968.
The team’s publicity director was an avid baseball-card collector, and he went through his 1968 Richmond Braves set but could not find a match. The investigation shifted to visiting players. Phil surveyed the rosters of the teams that visited Richmond late in the 1968 season, when Phil would have been conceived. There was a match.
Tom Timmermann, a stocky 6-4 pitcher, came through Richmond late that season with Detroit’s Triple-A affiliate. The Braves employee found a Timmermann card. It had to be him, Phil thought.
Phil tracked down Timmermann’s phone number but tucked away the information. He did not know what he would say if he reached Timmermann. A year later, he worked up the courage to call Timmermann’s home in Michigan.
Timmermann retired 20 years earlier, after spending 15 years as a professional baseball player. At age 29, he reached the majors with Detroit, in June 1969, a month after Phil was born. Phil told Timmerman he was a pitcher with the Angels – and he had a secret to unlock.
“I just had open-heart surgery a couple days before he called me,” Timmermann said. “That was quite a shock. It took me a little while to register it. But that was something. Unbelievable. That was a moment I’ll never forget.”
The two met at Timmermann’s home shortly after. Timmermann had known he had a son in Virginia, but never knew whether he would meet him. Timmermann later went to spring training to watch his son, a major-league pitcher, just like he once was.
Phil pitched parts of three seasons with the Angels and retired in 1999, after two seasons in Japan. Timmermann often visited his son’s home in Arizona, where he was introduced to his grandchildren as “Dad’s friend, Tom.”
“They knew,” Timmermann said. “As soon as they found out, they said, ‘We always knew you were our granddad.’ “
Lineage in his favor
Timmerman drove to Akron, Ohio, last week to watch Luke Leftwich pitch for Double-A Reading. The right-hander logged another scoreless night. The Phillies drafted Leftwich in 2015, in the seventh round, out of Wofford College, the small school in South Carolina that gave the lightly recruited pitcher a chance to play college baseball. That chance allowed him to keep climbing.
The Phillies switched Leftwich from a starter to a reliever two seasons ago. Last October, they sent him to the Arizona Fall League, a five-week showcase for baseball’s best prospects. Leftwich dominated with his low-90s fastball, curveball, and slider. He carried that momentum into this season, and the results have been just as promising.
It would be a dream, Timmerman said, to see Leftwich reach the majors. Phil Leftwich tries not to think about it, knowing how many steps his son still needs to take. Phil’s wife, Ann, sat with his adopted parents at Angels Stadium in July 1993, and she later told her husband how his father reacted in the first inning.
Phil started his career by striking out Hall of Famer Rickey Henderson on three pitches. Linwood Leftwich – “a bear of a man,” his son said – leaped from his seat and hollered at Henderson. Then, he collapsed in his seat and started crying – his son was pitching in the major leagues.
Reaching the majors never felt possible in his rural Virginia home, Phil said. The big-league players he watched on TV each Saturday afternoon might have well been from Mars, he said. If only he knew that his biological father was one of them.
Perhaps, Phil will react like his dad did if he sees his son complete the climb to the majors, he said. For Luke Leftwich, that goal has always been in reach, because unlike his father, he’s always known it’s in his blood.
“That would mean everything to me,” Luke Leftwich said. “It’s been my lifelong goal. I feel like it’s very attainable right now, and it’s exciting to think about. I feel like the moment will be pretty surreal, and I’m pretty hopeful that it will happen.
“If we’re going off of lineage, I have a pretty good shot.”