By Ken Stone
Ted Leitner dropped names, jokes and some choice political words Wednesday night.
But about 17 minutes into his first-ever appearance before a Democratic club, the beloved San Diego sportscaster dropped a bomb.
“I will go blind,” he told a La Mesa audience. “I just don’t know when. … I don’t know how many years I have.”
The 71-year-old Padres and Aztecs play-by-play man revealed that in early April 2018 — during Padres spring training — he learned that he had glaucoma.
The diagnosis — from world-class glaucoma scientist and surgeon Dr. Robert Weinreb, director of UC San Diego’s Shiley Eye Institute — came two months before he was declared cancer-free in another health crisis.
(He had a kidney removed over fear that a large tumor was likely cancerous. But it was benign.)
Addressing 170 members of the La Mesa-Foothills Democratic Club at the La Mesa Community Center, Leitner described an eye scare while calling an SDSU-Arizona State basketball game in Tempe, Arizona.
It was Nov. 14, 2017, when he experienced pain in his right eye amid the bright lights of Wells Fargo Arena.
“I’ll share with you what I’ve never shared with anybody here in the city,” he said. “It hurt so much during the event that I had to close my right eye and broadcast the game with one eye.”
Using his Lasik-repaired left eye, Leitner finished working the 90-68 Aztecs loss. But at his hotel that night, the pain persisted — even with his room lights out — “just a little light under the door out in the hall is making me go owwww, God.”
Back in San Diego the next morning, his doctor of 30 years said: “I need to send you to a specialist.”
Leitner would later say: “I’m not whining. I’m basically telling the story so that you know.” (He also reported that he’s suffering hearing loss — “three-fourths gone — both ears.”)
After his 67-minute free-association talk, Leitner visited with club members but declined to share additional details on his glaucoma, the leading cause of blindness for people over 60.
“I’m fine,” he said, explaining that he had removed his eyeglasses before his remarks because “there’s so much glare in here. … I can see the field, I can see the court.”
Story continues below
He said he was in the final year of his Padres contract.
“They haven’t talked to me yet, so I have no idea [about an extension],” he said. “It would be nice if they would, but they haven’t.” He also said he has a year left on a three-year contract broadcasting San Diego State football and men’s basketball.
Leitner disclosed his eye fate in the course of slamming former President George W. Bush and “the other Republican wackos” who barred most stem-cell research earlier this century.
He said scientific delays in learning how to regenerate the optic nerve prevented the “opportunity to keep me from going blind or anybody else who might be in that situation.”
“Not having that stem cell research, they’re eight years behind — because [some were saying] ‘You know, you’re interfering with God’s work.'”
Saying he tries “desperately to put my head in the sand as far down as I can get,” Leitner has dropped his 40-year habit of listening to Los Angeles radio station KNX, “news on the hour every single hour.”
“I will not, and I cannot, listen to it anymore — ’cause I might hear that voice,” he said, referring to President Trump, triggering one of his many laughs.
He opened his talk by celebrating the fact that cones had been set up for him to park — which he called a first in his career.
He told stories — recalling sitting between Al Gore and John Glenn. Visiting with his neighbor Wally Schirra. Interviewing Neil Armstrong on his KFMB morning radio show. He told admiring stories about Ray Charles and Nat King Cole and the “god” of his youth — Mickey Mantle.
The New York native lovingly remembered Jerry Coleman, his late Padres booth colleague. Leitner repeated a couple Colemanisms. One involved the former Marine pilot getting fed up with a longtime Indians fan who incessantly banged a drum in the Cleveland mezzanine beneath the broadcasters.
“Let him go home and bang someone else,” Leitner recalled Coleman saying on air.
Told during a break what he had uttered, Coleman was incredulous, insisting he said “bang something else.”
Leitner had the station play back the exchange on headphones.
Coleman listened and admitted: “Yeah, I guess I (did.)”
Working with the former Yankees player “was so much fun,” Leitner said. “And so much laughter. I miss him so much. It’s unbelievable.”
But Leitner reserved scorn for another misspeaker.
He recalled how the president spoke of the nations of Bhutan and Nepal but pronounced them “button and nipple.”
Leitner called Trump voters “redneck NASCAR morons” and the commander in chief “basically pond scum.”
But Leitner also made fun of himself, especially his four marriages.
A retired math teacher called the broadcaster out for saying a hustling ballplayer “gives 120 percent.”
The teacher said: “I can assure you — you cannot give 120 percent.”
Leitner replied: “I’m going to show you my last divorce settlement.”
The father of seven children and grandfather of three (all girls) was persuaded to appear by Jeff Benesch, the club’s vice president for programs.
“The honest truth is I wanted him for years to come … because I knew he was progressive,” Benesch said.
The moment came when Benesch, who works part time for Alaska Airlines, ran into Leitner about two months ago as he awaited arrival of two of his kids, “unaccompanied minors,” at Lindbergh Field.
“So we started talking and exchanged numbers, and I said: ‘Ted, you got to speak to our Democratic club.’ And we talked a little politics, so I kind of knew where he was coming from,” the club officer said. “And I called him, and he agreed to come and speak.”
Had the Aztecs played Wednesday instead of Tuesday, “it was a no-go,” Benesch noted.
“But he knew he was going to be back from his New Mexico trip,” he said. “So he said yes — and he knocked it out of the park.”
>> Subscribe to Times of San Diego’s free daily email newsletter! Click hereFollow Us: