An Astro Re-entry?

April 11, 1994|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,Sun Staff Writer

It's over now, at least for the time being. The Orioles made their play for pitcher Pete Harnisch and came up one untouchable player short of a deal that would have righted an old wrong and further reinforced a vastly improved team.

Harnisch, who left Baltimore three years ago in the long-regretted deal for first baseman Glenn Davis, would have been another perfect pickup in the Orioles' off-season push to overtake the Toronto Blue Jays in the American League East.

Assistant general manager Frank Robinson knew that. That's why he spent months trying to construct an offer that would persuade the Houston Astros to part with him.

Astros general manager Bob Watson knew it, too. That's why he steadfastly insisted that outfielder Jeffrey Hammonds had to be included in any deal that wrested Harnisch away from Houston.

That's where it still stands. Robinson says he has not given up hope of completing the deal later in the season. Watson says that the price remains the same. Harnisch, the once and perhaps future Oriole, says he hasn't given the thing a second thought.

"It's tough not to be aware of all that, with the media calling me all winter asking about the rumors," Harnisch said recently, "but I don't think there is going to be a trade. I think everybody made a big deal about really nothing. To tell you the truth, I never thought I was going there."

He certainly won't be arriving any time soon. The season has begun, which usually means that the next real trade rumors you hear will be in July. Harnisch was the Opening Day starter for the Astros. Hammonds is the everyday right fielder for the Orioles. That doesn't figure to change unless there is a dramatic change in circumstance for one club or the other.

"I asked for one guy, and he couldn't give me that one guy," Watson said. "I told him I want that one guy or Pete Harnisch is my Opening Day pitcher. I had a need to fill in right field. They had a guy who fit. It's not too hard to figure out who that guy was. They wouldn't part with him."

Hammonds isn't going anywhere. The Orioles are still stinging from the decision to send Harnisch, Curt Schilling and Steve Finley to the Astros for Davis in January 1991. Harnisch and Schilling were among four former Orioles pitchers who started for other teams on Opening Day this year. The club does not relish the thought of Hammonds turning up on the All-Star team in another uniform.

"Guys like him don't come along every day," Robinson said. "We want him to perform here. We were very upfront about that right from the beginning with [the Astros]."

Perhaps it's just as well. Harnisch was a popular young player in Baltimore, but he never has clamored to come back. He speaks glowingly of the fans and the city, but does not have particularly fond memories of his time in an Orioles uniform.

He didn't really emerge as a quality starting pitcher until after he went to Houston, where he ranked among the National League leaders in ERA his first year and has been very productive for a team that has not been as competitive as the Orioles. He was quoted in 1991 as saying that the secret to his newfound success was forgetting everything that (former Orioles pitching coach) Al Jackson taught him in Baltimore, but his outlook has softened considerably since then.

"The best thing for me was getting out of there," Harnisch said. "Hard feelings? I don't know if I would put it that way. I was just glad to get out of there."

What about coming back? The Orioles have a new manager and a new pitching coach. They also have a new stadium, though it is not as forgiving as the cavernous Astrodome. Harnisch is noncommittal. He probably would prefer to play at home in New York, but most of the trade talk has centered on Baltimore.

"It's really a hard thing to explain," he said. "I really don't think about it. I'm here. My job is to be here. I don't sit around thinking about pitching for the Orioles again. My job is to pitch here."

Loose translation: "Don't assume that I'm eager to come back."

The fact that Watson was interested in trading him was curious in itself. The Astros are one of the favorites in the National League Central, and Harnisch might be the most dependable pitcher in the starting rotation. He was 16-9 with a 2.98 ERA in 33 starts last year.

The Orioles' desire to reacquire him is curious, too. It is unusual for a club to make that kind of organizational admission of guilt, but the Glenn Davis deal was so clearly a mistake -- in hindsight -- that the club has had plenty of time to come to grips with it.

"They made a trade they thought they had to make at the time," Har- nisch said. "It's easy to say now what they should have done."

Robinson is Harnisch's biggest fan in the Orioles front office now, but he acknowledges that he was far more willing to part with Harnisch than Schilling when the deal was made.

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