TORONTO -- Someone asked Pete Harnisch if he had been walking the short distance between his hotel and SkyDome the past few days. Harnisch smiled. He knew this was coming. "Yeah,"he said yesterday, pointing to his feet, "and I'm wearing shoes with steel-plated heels."
That was what he needed on the last weekend of the 1989 season, of course, when he stepped on a nail walking home from a game and had to scratch from the biggest start of his career. He was 22 and pitching for the Orioles, who were two games behind Toronto with two to play.
It was just a piece of bad luck, but Harnisch's lot seemed to run that way in his years in Baltimore. He had a satchel of potential evident to everyone, but he was inconsistent and jittery and the pieces of his puzzle just never seemed to fit. He won some games and threw a lot of innings, but the wrong things were always happening. He stepped on nails. He threw too many balls.
To reconcile that Harnisch with the All-Star Harnisch of 1991 is a difficult business. He is composed, confident, efficient, a portrait of self-assuredness. He throws strikes, moves quickly through innings. His record is a mediocre 5-7, but only because his team doesn't hit. His ERA isamong the lowest in the majors. He has been involved in six 1-0 games.
He is now a member of the Houston Astros, the Orioles having sent him there as part of a package for Glenn Davis last December. It looks bad now, but who could have guessed this would happen? The Orioles knew they were giving up a capable arm, but no one, not even Harnisch, expected him to become so successful so quickly, to make the All-Star team at age 24. Last night he pitched one inning, allowing two hits and no runs.
"It's just a little bit unbelievable, being here," Harnisch said in the National League clubhouse before last night's game at SkyDome, "but I'm soaking it up. The whole atmosphere is just exciting. All the people. The players in this room."
Suddenly life is breaking right for him. Nails don't attack his foot. The mound isn't a frightening place. Potential isn't a dirty word. It has happened in a hurry, but it has happened. "I hated leaving Baltimore, but it was the right move for me," he said. "I was happy playing there, but I'm better off now. I can't stress how much more confident I am now."
He didn't gather that confidence just because he changed leagues and uniforms. He also changed his pitching style, reverting back to the delivery he used in college and the minor leagues, when people were talking only about his potential -- not speculating, as they did in Baltimore, whether he might not fulfill it.
He'd changed his delivery because his control was poor when he reached the majors in 1988 and 1989. Instead of beginning his motion with his hands over his head, he began with his hands in front of his body and didn't bring them over his head. Al Jackson, the Orioles' pitching coach, was the one who came up with the idea. Initially, Harnisch was in favor.
"It probably kept me in the big leagues in 1989," he said. "I was in a bad way. We needed to do something. It was the right thing at first. But it never seemed natural to me. I always felt robotical. I had to talk myself through my mechanics, like, 'OK, lift your leg here, extend your arm here, do this, do that.' "
He was still using that delivery at the start of spring training this year, but was thinking about changing back. After getting hit hard in his first outing, he took the Astros' pitching coach aside. "Watch this," Harnisch said, and he threw five minutes using his old delivery and five minutes using the new one.
"You gotta go back to the old one," the coach said.
After a slow start -- he walked eight in his first regular-season start -- he has been just about the best pitcher in the National League, among the leaders in ERA, strikeouts, innings and shutouts. The huge Astrodome outfield has "bailed me out a couple of times," and so has the eagerness of National League hitters to swing at low fastballs, but Harnisch's new-found control is the reason for his success.
He doesn't blame the Orioles for tinkering with his delivery and can't say if he would have made this essential change had he remained in Baltimore. But when he says "the Orioles are doing a lot better now that Johnny [Oates] is manager," it's easy to see he wasn't totally enamored of Frank Robinson, who speculated last year that Harnisch might never be a big winner in the majors because of "poor mechanics."
Said Harnisch: "It was time for me to go. They thought I was expendable, that they were one player away and Davis was it. There are a lot of things I miss. The fans are the greatest there. So much interest in the team. And I talk all the time to Bob [Milacki] and Ben [McDonald]. But Houston is the right place for me."
All-Star Game records
Games: 24, Stan Musial, St. Louis Cardinals; Willie Mays, N.Y.-San Francisco Giants-N.Y. Mets; Hank Aaron, Milwaukee-Atlanta Braves-Milwaukee Brewers.