To most, it’s the stuff of which movies are made …
A chance meeting over a spilled drink. A love affair entwining two completely different worlds, each surviving the other’s busy schedules and long, long distances apart.
Mix in Major League Baseball, stealing time together — sometimes by traveling clear across the nation — and finally “eloping” to Las Vegas for the Big Day.
For Leigh and Randy Choate, on this Valentine’s Day, it turns out diamonds are forever.
Leigh Choate (nee Whitmire) is a 1988 graduate of Davis High, where she excelled at volleyball before returning to her alma mater to coach her favorite sport and teach physical education.
Randy Choate, 37, is a professional pitcher who just signed a three-year contract with the St. Louis Cardinals. Choate, a short-relief specialist, broke in with the New York Yankees in 2000 and since has hurled for the Tampa Bay Rays, Arizona Diamondbacks, Florida Marlins and Los Angeles Dodgers.
The pair have spent much of the past nine years trying to catch up with each other. When Leigh and her kids Makena, 16, and Jake, 13, have time off in the summers, Randy is usually working — in any one of 30-plus American cities.
When Randy puts the glove away, Leigh is teaching school.
Married since New Year’s Day of 2012, the couple has two base camps. Leigh, her son and daughter have a home in Davis while Choate’s house is in Incline Village, Nev. Choate has two daughters — Tatem, 11, and Tegan, 8.
“All the kids enjoy being around each other, despite the age differences,” the left-handed pitcher tells The Enterprise. “They spend time together during the summer and either Thanksgiving or Christmas.”
Leigh and Randy know the time is nearing when they’ll be together 24/7, and each is patient.
“It would be amazing to spend more time together … to live where we want to live,” Leigh says. “Most of our time is stolen moments. When we do spend time together, we are not super-social — (we) spend lots of time just being together at home.
“I wouldn’t say it is hard to maintain two separate lives, but there are times when it is challenging.”
But the Choates say the challenges now are few and far between.
“Once we are into the swing of the season, we get into a routine,” adds Leigh.
When the two met, Leigh was with a friend on a girls’ night out while Randy was in Sacramento to pitch for the Triple-A Tucson Sidewinders against the River Cats.
Their paths almost didn’t cross …
“I was so embarrassed,” Leigh admits of their first encounter at an Old Sacramento establishment. “Someone bumped into me and I spilled my drink all over him. I wish I could have disappeared into the floor. I must have said ‘I’m sorry’ a hundred times.”
But Randy didn’t care. He said he could tell how embarrassed she was, so he struck up a conversation. On this night, the hurler’s only pitch was a strike:
“She was completely embarrassed but I assured her it was OK and ordered her another. We started talking. I think only because she felt so bad, she talked to me. It’s been a match ever since.”
Curiously, Leigh Choate isn’t a big baseball fan. But she’s grown to enjoy the game — she subscribes to the MLB cable package at home — and appreciates how difficult life on the road is for major-leaguers.
“The hardest part is that if you are not in baseball, it is hard to understand how a life like this works,” Leigh explains. “There are lots and lots of parts that are awesome and amazing, but there also are parts that are not so great.
“I am constantly overwhelmed, gracious and thankful for this crazy, new lifestyle, but we miss out on doing lots of things together: family celebrations, weddings, birthdays, everyday stuff that (others get to do).
“Living out of hotel rooms and never eating a home-cooked meal gets old real fast.”
Despite the inconveniences, the daughter of Kathy and Dave Whitmire — the longtime successful football coach at DHS — says she and Randy are blessed.
“Baseball has provided the opportunity for travel that I would never have imagined,” she add.
But the humble Randy Choate is a professional, who is nonetheless paid handsomely for his talents …
“Being an MLB pitcher is a show of determination on my part, I think,” he says. “It’s something I have wanted since I was a kid (in San Antonio, Texas), but most boys do.
“That being said, a lot of guys want to give up the things that can come along with that. I have played winter ball in the Dominican Republic three different times. That takes a lot of time away from family and friends and a normal life.”
Choate says it has taken him 12 years to get eight full seasons in the big leagues; “up and down between MLB and AAA … isn’t fun.”
But he’s had an accomplished career.
Twice, he’s led baseball in appearances. Although his career record is only 11-11 with just six saves, Choate is valued as a situational pitcher who is asked to dispose of the opponent’s tough left-handed hitters, normally when a game is on the line.
So when his wife is in the stands, does Randy feel any different on the mound?
“I don’t think there are extra butterflies, but I do know that Leigh has been a huge part of any success that I have,” the 6-foot-1, 205-pound hurler says, smiling. “She has always been supportive of anything I’ve done and has always listened to me. Even when she didn’t care for stuff — like (my) having to play in the Dominican — she always understood that it was something I had to do.
“She also has been there to listen to me complain … and the old coach in her has words or encouragement and words of truth when I’ve needed them.”
Watching her husband pitch in person can be trying. Leigh admits to not having “very thick skin” and says it’s been hard to listen to opposing fans get on her favorite player.
“I don’t care what team Choate is on,” she says (Leigh calls her husband “Choate.” It’s a coach thing). “I just want him to be happy. He loves baseball and I want him ride this dream … as long as he can. I try to remember that baseball doesn’t last forever, so when he retires, we will get a turn to be together.”
OK, maybe diamonds aren’t forever. But this unlikely sports pairing seems to be.
Notes: Choate has faced a handful of current Hall of Famers and some shrine shoe-ins during his career. How did he do against home run king Barry Bonds and active HR leader Alex Rodriguez? “Barry was oh-for-three against me,” says Choate. “A walk … and three groundouts.” Against A-Rod? “I haven’t been able to get him out, even when I made some tough pitches. As someone who competes, I love facing them all, but honestly, I love to face the top left-handers in the game the most.”
— Reach Bruce Gallaudet at email@example.com or 530-747-8047.