27 DUPACR: Pete Harnisch
OK, for those who remember Pete Harnisch, you likely are wondering why of all people I’d pick him to represent #27. Certainly, Craig Swan would be a more appropriate representative. Indeed, I was very close to choosing “Swannie”, since he was the best pitcher the Mets had between Tom Seaver and Dwight Gooden; in fact, many refer to that time period as “The Craig Swan Era”.
And truth be told, I also considered Randy Milligan — despite the fact he had exactly two plate appearances as a Met (one strikeout, one walk). Milligan was one of those minor-league phenoms I fell in love with based on reports out of Tidewater and Jackson that I read on a weekly basis in The Sporting News and Baseball America. That was a long time ago, when we didn’t have the internet to instantly look up stats, there was no sports talk radio, and, unless we had the bucks to pay for SportsChannel, we had to wait until 11:23 PM (just before the weather) to find out the final score of the Mets game on WPIX-11 or WOR-9 News. Back then, the only thing we knew about minor league baseball was what was reported by The Sporting News — a magazine produced on newsprint that was supposed to arrive every Wednesday but often didn’t make it to your mailbox until Friday or the following Monday or Tuesday (especially during the winter months). Eventually, in the late 80s, Baseball America became available north of the Mason-Dixon line, and it was around the same time that I began following the slugging exploits of Milligan in both BA and TSN. My fervor for Milligan reached an all-time high when I was able to see him live, on my TV screen, when ESPN broadcast the AAA All-Star game. There was one point when Milligan was described as “one of the best prospects in baseball” by the New York Times, and was highly coveted by the Nantai Hawks of Japan. Unfortunately, Milligan never did much as a Met, mainly because he was blocked by Keith Hernandez, and was eventually traded to Pittsburgh for Mackey Sasser. Eventually, he had a few decent seasons with the Orioles — for whom he is now a scout.
But wait, this post is supposed to be about Pete Harnisch — and I’m sure you’re on the edge of your seat wondering why in the world I’d choose the pitching version of Richie Hebner. OK, maybe he isn’t as despised by Mets fans as much as Hebner, but he’s close.
If you weren’t around or don’t remember, Pete Harnisch and Bret Saberhagen were supposed to be #1 and #1A at the top of the rotation in 1995; two aces whose presence was sure to guarantee the Mets the Eastern Division. Mind you, 1994 was the Year Without A World Series; a strike ended the season in early August. It was around this point that many (myself included), had completely given up on MLB; but that’s another story for another day. Despite the strike still being intact through the winter (and until the following April), the Astros somehow managed to sign reigning MVP Jeff Bagwell to a 4-year, $27.5M deal. Don’t ask — I’m still not sure how one signs a player who is technically on strike. In any case, by signing Bagwell the Astros had to clear some payroll. Through some convoluted set of circumstances that I still don’t understand, Houston’s ace starter Pete Harnisch was eligible to become a free agent, but the Astros were able to trade the rights to him to the Mets — who in turn had exclusive rights to negotiate with him until the following April. They eventually signed him to a 3-year, $9M contract (big bucks at the time), the strike ended, and the Mets had two aces at the top of their rotation in Harnisch and Saberhagen — who had gone 14-4 in the abbreviated season. By the way, ’95 was also the year of the ill-fated Sports Illustrated cover displaying “Generation K” — so to us, at the time, with two veteran aces and three potential stars on the staff, it appeared to be 1986 all over again.
As it turned out, Generation K flopped, and the Saberhagen-Harnisch duo combined to go 7-13, both of them struggling with injuries and tossing exactly 110 innings each. Harnisch’s season ended with shoulder surgery to repair a torn labrum in August, and he went 9-14 as a Met over the next two seasons — battling insomnia, Lyme disease, and depression in the process — before being dealt to the Brewers on August 31, 1997 for a non-prospect minor leaguer. Of course, Harnisch eventually made a comeback — not in a Mets uniform — beginning the very next season as a member of the Reds, for whom he didn’t miss a start and won 30 games from ’98-’99. Timing is everything, isn’t it?
But again, why have I chosen Harnisch, who represented so much of what went wrong with the Mets in the 1990s, as my #27?
It’s completely personal; Harnisch spent his college days on the mound for Fordham, competing in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC) — the same league that I played in as the catcher for St. Peter’s College. I missed facing Harnisch by two years — he left after his junior year in 1987, and I started my freshman year in 1989 — but there was still a vague connection for me, particularly because of a story linking Harnisch and St. Peter’s.
In 1988, Harnisch was one of top pitching prospects in the country, eventually drafted at the end of the first round of the draft. For the Fordham Rams, he had a career 21-3 career, a 2.29 earned run average and 213 strikeouts in 204 innings. His final season was particularly impressive, as he went 8-1 and led the Rams into the NCAA Regionals. The one game he lost that year? To the St. Peter’s Peacocks, in a 10-inning, chilly, rain-soaked contest that was a dual shutout until SPC scratched out a run in the bottom of the 10th. The winning pitcher was Doug Falduto, who pitched all 10 innings, matching Harnisch pitch-for-pitch. Falduto usually played one of the corner infield spots and batted third in the lineup for the Peacocks, who had no home field, 10-year-old uniforms, one scholarship to split among 16 players, and spent most of that year fighting the Manhattan Jaspers to stay out of the MAAC cellar. The story always stuck with me because the Peacocks had no business beating Fordham that year, and certainly had no business beating Fordham with Harnisch on the mound. Fordham nearly made it to the College World Series, losing to Georgia in the Regionals — but in that series, Harnisch beat Georgia in a game that matched him up against Derek Lilliquist, another future MLBer who was perhaps the top LHP in the country at the time (and the #6 pick overall in the ’87 draft). So when Falduto — who wasn’t primarily a pitcher — beat Harnisch, it was kind of like David beating Goliath, and it represented one of the basic beauties of baseball: that anyone can beat anyone on any given day, regardless of who has the better collection of talent.
Though this was very much a personal story — and I hope I haven’t bored you — the point was to express the concept of hope that spring training brings. We look at the Mets’ roster and see a collection that does not appear to have the wherewithal to contend for the NL East crown in 2011. It could be said that the Mets are David and the Phillies are Goliath — just as St. Peter’s was to Fordham in 1987. But the games are not played on paper, they’re played on a field, and so anything can happen. It could be wishful thinking to believe the Mets could make the postseason in 2011, but because it’s baseball, they do have a chance. That’s why they play the games, right?
The countdown thus far: