September is testimony to baseball’s resiliency, to its inexhaustible capacity for regeneration. The sport follows the seasons through spring and summer, as the pennant races develop, and it comes to a wonderful, full flowering in October, with the play-offs and the World Series. Yet just as the chances of 22 of the 26 big-league teams begin to wither, in the last month of the regular season, suddenly there is new hope for growth and improvement. September call-ups–the phrase used for minor-league players brought up for their first taste of big-league ball, when rosters expand from 25 to 40 on the first of the month–are unique to baseball, and a marvelous idea they are. In other sports, the season goes bad and there is nothing for solace but the faraway balm of next year. In football, basketball, and hockey there is nothing but the abstract hope of a high draft pick; if the season has been a complete loss, the draft pick is so high that a fan can safely guess which of the talented college or junior-hockey stars will be available. Yet even here, the fan must fantasize about what the team will be like with the new, young star, how he will fit into the team’s character. In baseball, with its necessary slow nurturing of college, and high-school talent, its requisite years in theminor leagues, its never-ending process of adjustment and readjustment, the minor-league phenom comes to the majors at the end of the year, when all hopes of postseason play are gone, and he gives us a new sense of hope. It’s amazing that as the ivy of Wrigley Field develops a tinge of brown, we can already see the buds of next season.
On the first Friday of this month, we got our first glimpse of Mike Harkey as he ran against the backdrop of that same ivy in Wrigley Field. We had been awaiting his arrival for months, since he got off to a fast start at the Cubs’ AA minor-league affiliate at Pittsfield, Massachusetts. In fact, we’d been watching him intently since the spring, when Baseball America named him one of the top prospects in the Cubs’ system. He was the Cubs’ first draft choice a year ago, and, while his numbers in a shortened season at Class A Peoria were not astounding, the magazine said his repertoire of hard fastball and sharp-breaking slider was reminiscent of Bob Gibson. He got off to a good start, as we said, this season, and he carried on the fine pitching after being promoted to AAA Iowa. Altogether, his record was 16-4, his earned-run average under 2.50: outstanding figures at any level. When Iowa failed to make the American Association play-offs, Harkey joined the Cubs along with four other phenoms just as soon as the rosters were expanded. Harkey, however, was the brightest prospect, the one the team. expected most from–almost, for better or worse, the future incarnate.
We spotted him immediately. He ran with a heavy motion, the product of large thighs and relatively small calves. He wound his way back and forth in a line of several other pitchers. Batting practice went on in the foreground, but our eyes were on the outer reaches of the field. He had already thrown that morning for manager Don Zimmer, we later learned, who was impressed. When the last group was through hitting and stooped to gather the stray baseballs, Harkey walked in with the other pitchers and was immediately surrounded by three reporters. They went into the dugout to talk.
Harkey is a large man, and we emphasize “man” because, it needs the emphasis: he is just 21. He sat in the dugout with his arms stretched out across the back of the bench. His face is wide, cheeky; there is still a smattering of baby fat about him. He is listed at six feet, five inches, 210 pounds, but the 210 is probably a conservative estimate from a Cal State-Fullerton media-relations assistant. His hair is short but long enough to be curly, and he has a well-trimmed mustache. His looks could be described as somewhere in the middle between Billy Dee Williams and William Perry. His eyebrows are thick, and above them appears the one line on his young face: a deep furrow of concentration. Answering questions, he looked the reporter in the eye in receiving and looked away in responding. He was comfortable without being calm, watchful without being nervous, composed without being contrived.
Harkey was not eloquent about himself–what player is at 21? what 21-year-old is in any field?–but neither were his answers simple or prereadied. The funny scene toward the end of Bull Durham, where the phenom pitcher uses all the cliches he’s been taught by the veteran catcher, is repeated often enough in the real-life majors, but with the all-purpose phrase “It’s my job” replacing the old-fashioned “I’m just trying to help the team.” Harkey, to his credit, did not seem prepared like some rookie pitcher or some presidential candidate for this ambush; each answer was considered as he looked off into the corner of the dugout. He described himself as a power pitcher, with a repertoire of fastball, slider, curve, change-up, with the fastball of course the number-one pitch. He said his progress this year had been mainly due to his developing ability to change speeds, something he believes he had too often called on a year ago at Class A but used with more moderation this year; in other words, tactics had to be learned, but most important was that he remember his natural strengths. He expressed some envy for pitchers such as the White Sox’ Jack McDowell, who made a quick jump to the majors, but added that in hindsight he probably wasn’t ready for the majors last year and felt ready this year. He was asked–humorously, but with a mocking edge–just how fast this fastball is. He looked off into the corner of the dugout and said, “Upper 90s.”
His fastball was not in the upper 90s when he went to warm up the following Monday before the second game of a doubleheader with the Philadelphia Phillies. He was obviously nervous, taking deep breaths between each pitch. He shook his head over his disappointing fastball and, again and again, went back to work on his breaking pitches. The fastball might not have been up to his standards, but it was fast. It left his hand with a mind of its own and exploded, sailing high and right. Phenom bullpen catcher Rick Wrona and then Damon Berryhill were both hard-pressed to keep it reined in.
It was a sunny, cold day, better suited to a Saturday afternoon of college football than to a Labor Day double-header–theoretically one of our last tastes of summer. In fact, we had abandoned our chilly, breezy seats in the upper deck for a few innings of warmth in the sun behind the Cubs’ dugout, and had stayed on through the first game, which the Cubs won behind Rick Sutcliffe by a football score of 14-3. Harkey’s debut was the cause of some excitement; hundreds of us were gathered near the bull pen to watch him warm up. When we returned to our seats behind the Cubs’ dugout, we found ourselves chased out by a family arriving for the second game. We found other seats nearby and settled in with some coffee and cocoa.
When Wayne Messmer introduced the 1988 Chicago Cubs (1989 would have been more correct), Harkey ran to the mound–just as Ferguson Jenkins used to, only at a faster rate. He quickly warmed up, still taking those deep breaths between pitches. His first pitch, a fastball, sailed high, as did his second pitch. His third pitch sailed off the batting helmet of Philadelphia leadoff man Phil Bradley. An inauspicious start. Zimmer ran to the mound to comfort Harkey–a nice touch, Zimmer at his best–Bradley jogged to first base, and another few deep breaths later Harkey went back to work. He threw two strikes to Bob Dernier and got him on a force-out on a breaking pitch. Then Berryhill took a Harkey fastball and gunned it down to second to get Dernier trying to steal. Chris James popped to shortstop, and despite the hit batter, Harkey had survived the first facing the minimum number of hitters on a mere 11 pitches.
The Cubs welcomed Harkey in the usual manner, leaving men on second and third in a scoreless first inning, just to give him a taste of what he’s in for. In the second, Harkey found that his fastball–timed, this afternoon, at 94 miles an hour by scouts sitting with the Trib’s Jerome Holtzman a few rows behind home plate–was not fast enough to get by in the majors: Ricky Jordan pulled one down the third-base line, and it skittered past Vance Law. Harkey continued to mix his pitches, however, throwing a number of hard sliders in this second inning. Juan Samuel pulled a curveball to Law, who booted it, but Harkey again got out of the inning, getting Lance Parrish and Steve Jeltz to pop up.
The Cubs scored twice in the second, and this did much to settle Harkey down. He continued his brisk runs to the mound every inning, but his demeanor once on top of the hill grew more ordered. He is of a jumbled appearance; he has not yet grown into his own body. Looking at some parts of him–his legs and face–a person would think he is heavy, at other parts–his calves and arms and neck–a person would think he’s thin. Below the furrowed brow he has a solid jaw, however, and he thrust it forward here and settled into a rhythm. He has a simple, effective motion, much like Jeff Pico’s–but with one embellishment: he points his toe in kicking his left leg. This, as I remember from a pitching manual written by the Braves’ old Bob Shaw, is meant to stretch the leg muscles, to keep them flexible and ready to accept the weight on the stride, and, of course, to instill a rhythm in the delivery. Old-timers who remember Shaw will probably also remember this toe-pointing touch in the deliveries of the Cubs’ own Joe Decker and the Houston Astros’ Larry Dierker, as well as a more exaggerated toe point in the left-handed deliveries of Steve Carlton and, before him, of Sandy Koufax. Harkey, however, is not likely to have been influenced by any of these pitchers. In any case, along about the fourth inning he was in his rhythm. He was mixing his pitches well, changing speeds, throwing an increasing number of curves, yet going to the fastball to strike out the dangerous Parrish. “Rock and fire” is the old phrase for this sort of pitching, and that’s exactly what Harkey did.
Oh, he was raw, to be sure. He is not Dwight Gooden, sprung seemingly from the head of some mound god or goddess in Florida. He booted a bunt attempt in the fifth, and as the game went on he was increasingly likely to point his off-speed pitches tentatively toward home plate. (And in his second outing, last Sunday, he balked a run home from third base.) Yet the material is undeniably there. He lacked his good stuff, yet toughed it out like a veritable Sutcliffe, confounding the Phillies by mixing a liberal number of breaking pitches in with his fastball. He worked out of a jam in the sixth, then left the game in the seventh after phenom center fielder Doug Dascenzo misjudged a fly ball for a two-run triple.
The unfortunate outcomes of this and last Sunday’s games shouldn’t be dwelt upon. The Cubs are at a point where the win-loss record no longer matters this year. Their future exists not next week, but in the pitcher who looks off into the corner of the dugout as he says he throws in the upper 90s. We asked him if he had modeled himself on any other pitcher, if he had admired any one hurler as a child. He responded that, no, all he was worried about was Mike Harkey, but he wasn’t brash in saying so. It’s tempting to be disturbed when one finds that a phenom doesn’t have the same appreciation for the game that an intense baseball fan feels at the age of, say, 10 or 11. Yet we should remember that it is, after all, a difficult game, and that to expect any one player to be both talented at playing it and eloquent about discussing it–at least at age 21–is perhaps a bit much. This realization should allow us to better appreciate players in the mold of Pete Rose, Keith Hernandez, and Ted Simmons.
Anyone who throws the ball as hard as Mike Harkey does knows he’s in command of his own future as far as playing major-league baseball goes. Besides which, anyone who reaches the majors–for however long, at whatever time of the year–has already left enough dead bodies behind him in Little League, Connie Mack, high school, college, and all the various levels of minor-league ball to know that according to any reasonable standard he is among the elite in his field. Mike Harkey has a confidence, but not an overconfidence. When another writer asked what he hoped for as a major-leaguer, he said, “I don’t ‘hope’ anything, I’m gonna win.”
He concluded by saying, “I want to have fun and throw strikes.” If that’s a cliche some minor-league catcher taught him, that minor-league catcher is going to end up a major-league manager someday, in the not-too-distant future.