VERO BEACH – (CBSMiami.com) – Jim Leyritz is a man whose life was defined by two moments – the first was on a baseball diamond when his home run helped his New York Yankees team to the 1996 World Series title. The second moment happened in 2007 when after a night of drinking and driving, Leyritz was involved in an accident that killed a mother of two.
The highly publicized trial kept Leyritz in the headlines for months. The family of the Fredia Veitch, the 30-year-old woman who died, was suddenly thrust in the spotlight while mourning her loss.
Now, nearly one year after Leyritz was found guilty of a DUI and acquitted by a jury of the greater charge of DUI Manslaughter, spoke about seeking redemption.
“She was my rock and it’s hard not to get emotional with that but she was my rock, she never gave up,” Leyritz said moved to tears recalling the love of his mother.
His mother, Leyritz said, stood by him at his darkest hour. After a night of celebrating his birthday on December 28, 2007 and drinking and driving, the one-time baseball icon, Jim Leyritz faced drunk driving and DUI manslaughter charges after hitting a car that left Veitch dead.
“I think the biggest thing that haunts me is that someone lost their life that night. No one would ever hope to be, want to be part of that,” Leyritz said.
Leyritz spoke to CBS4’s Chief Investigative Reporter Michele Gillen at the Vero Beach baseball dream camp he’s been visiting since he was a teen.
He described himself as a man who is far different now than he was when he first wore the Yankees uniform and made baseball history.
“The moment that every kid dreams of,” Leyritz said of the 1996 World Series title.
It was his million-dollar moment. This was his World Series home run – credited with leading the Yankees to their first world championship in nearly two decades.
“It’s almost like you are walking on air,” Leyritz said. “It’s almost like every little kid’s dream.”
It was a childhood dream.
“You had been practicing your signature to be a star, since you were a kid?” Gillen asked Leyritz.
“I started practicing in 9th and 10th grade,” he said. “I wanted people to ask me for my autograph. That is what I was looking forward to.”
His fall from grace was public and painful and ultimately he came crashing down.
“It was a horrible accident,” Leyritz said. “That moment, if you could change anything, that would be the moment that you would change.”
In the minutes following the 2007 accident, police told him they had a witness claiming he ran the red light.
“When I heard that, sheer panic,” Leyritz said. “I was like ‘no, no, no. That’s not what happened.’ Yes. I was guilty of drinking and driving. But at the same time, not responsible for the accident itself.”
Leyritz’ legal team convinced a jury he entered the intersection on a yellow light.
“I remember everything. The only thing I don’t remember is seeing her come through,” Leyritz said.
When asked who hit who, Leyritz replied, “I hit the back end of her car. She was already through the entire intersection.”
Leyritz said Veitch was going 50 mph, however, Veitch’s exact speed was never determined in court. But what was certain was that she was not wearing a seatbelt and died after being ejected from her car.
Leyritz was found to have blood alcohol levels above the legal limit – evidence was introduced in court that so was Veitch’s.
When asked if he ever wondered how he could go on, Leyritz said he never allowed himself to “get to that point.”
“Yes, I was guilty of drinking and driving that night but did not cause this accident,” Leyritz said.
The jury did not convict him of manslaughter.
When asked if he is an alcoholic, Leyritz replied, “No I never have been. Did I drink? Yes, but never to a point where it was an addiction. Never to a point where I needed it to survive.”
But now, because of that night of drinking and driving, the father of three says he is now on the road sharing his tragically learned lesson that alcohol and driving never mix.
“The whole idea of what my life has been, it’s not necessarily learning from my successes but learning from my failures,” Leyritz said.
Leyritz remembers Veitch everyday.
“There is not a day that goes by that I do not think about her and her two children,” Leyritz said.
When asked if he would ever drink and get in a car, Leyritz replied: “No. No. I would never, ever. You think it’s okay to have one, it’s not. If you’re going to have one drink, give somebody else the keys. Find somebody else to go with you that night.”
CBS4 reached out to Veitch’s widower Jordan who sued Leyritz. The Veitch family received a $350,000 settlement. In an email, Jordan Veitch said Leyritz “is holding to his obligations. Everything is up to date and on time.”
Leyritz has since published a book about those two moments titled “Catching Heat.”