Harnisch valuable on, off field

Thursday, July 23, 1998

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Pete Harnisch takes cover from Wednesday night's rain at Coors Field.
(AP photo)
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Pete Harnisch does not fit the profile. He is no longer young enough for a youth movement, and henceforth too expensive for an economy drive.

His new contract with the Reds is clearly counterintuitive, but it should not be baffling. When building a bridge to the 21st century, it is wise to start with a solid foundation.

Harnisch may not be pitching when the Reds break in their new ballpark around 2002, but he is a guy you can build on. He is a leader in Cincinnati's callow clubhouse, and the steadiest starting pitcher in the organization. Like Barry Larkin, he is more easily traded than replaced.

"The feedback I've gotten is that Pete is very good with the young pitchers," said John Allen, Reds Managing Executive. "He takes them under his wing. He's been there. He's been through the wars. And I think that's key.

"Secondly, it's a message to the fan that we do want to win and be competitive. There's all this talk about 2002, but there's several years before then and we want to get that winning attitude."

The Reds took a flyer on Pete Harnisch because his price was right and his arm was sound. His bout with depression last season so depressed his value that Reds General Manager Jim Bowden was able to find him in baseball's bargain bin.

This could be a bargain

As it became obvious that Harnisch still had excellent stuff, and that the Reds on the whole did not, it was widely assumed Bowden would trade his underpaid prize to some pennant contender desperate for a decent arm.

But absent an offer as enticing as the one Tommy Lasorda made for Jeff Shaw, the Reds began to mull the merits of keeping Harnisch for the long haul. Since Harnisch was not determined to test his worth on the free-agent market, the deal was eminently doable. The Reds will pay Harnisch $7 million over the next two seasons and have an option to retain him for 2001 for another $3.75 million. This is quite a reasonable rate for a No. 1 or No. 2 starter. Considering Harnisch's other contributions to the ballclub, it is downright cheap.

The 31-year-old right-hander will start tonight's game against Colorado with a 7-4 record, a 3.06 ERA and the undivided attention of his younger teammates. There is a professionalism about this pitcher that is worth studying, and not only when he's on the mound. "Our guys are good about doing whatever we ask them," said Rob Butcher, the Reds publicist. "But Pete came to us about visiting Children's Hospital. He goes about once a homestand, and I used to wonder how he'd get guys to go with him.

"One day I asked him, "Who are you taking with you?' And he had a couple of guys in mind. He walked up to (Scott) Winchester and said, "What are you doing tomorrow?' Scott said, "Nothing.' Pete says, "You're coming with me.' Then he did it with someone else: "Be there at 11:30.' They never even thought about saying no."

In evaluating candidates for long-term contracts, a lot of factors enter into the equation: Performance, potential, age, injuries, personality. Harnisch's concern for sick kids in the community is not enough to justify what could be a $10 million contract. Still, it helps to put an appealing face on a downtrodden franchise.

"We certainly were aware of (Harnisch's) personality traits to do good citizen type of things," Allen said Wednesday. "We thrive on those type of things in our clubhouse. We look at that on almost every player. The baseball people call it "makeup,' and it's important."

Pete Harnisch has made himself important enough to the Reds to force a revision of their master plan. Given the stated goal of building a team for a new ballpark, it was possible to perceive Harnisch's signing as a mixed message.

"Don't read into it that we're going after a World Series, necessarily," Allen said. "We're still in that rebuild-development phase. The thing with Harnisch is you know when he goes out and takes the ball that we have a chance to win that day."

On that base, you can build.

Enquirer columnist Tim Sullivan welcomes your E-mail. Message him at tsullivan@enquirer.com