Gene Harris – 1990 Topps

March 12, 2011

The Thighmaster?

Or is he reliving his days as a defensive back for Tulane? What’s going on Gene?

Gene Harris was one of the gazillions of Expos pitching prospects that emerged in the late 80’s (and also one of the way too many pitchers named G. Harris at that time as well). It was fabulous for me, because I got to see many of them in Indianapolis.

Harris had some raw talent. He got on the prospect map after a darn good 1988 in Jacksonville, and then was part of the Mark Langston deal which also netted the Mariners Brian Holman and some big tall goofy looking dude named Johnson. Dunno what became of him. (Heh…)

In the majors, Harris had some issues with command. Case in point, his 1990 season in Seattle. 38 innings, 43 K’s, 25 unintentional walks, 5 home runs. The K’s are great, but the walks and homers aren’t good for a relief pitcher.

Gene was more down than up for Seattle, and then after a rough start in the bigs in 1992 was sent to San Diego for a minor leaguer. He spent some time down in Vegas and then finished the year strong for the Padres.

The Padres were going through on of their periodic house cleanings, and there was an opportunity for Harris in 1993 to be a solid contributor. He did that and more, winning the job as the closer. Sure, it was a closer for a 61-101 team, but the alternatives at the beginning of the year were less than stellar. Three members of the bullpen (Kerry Taylor, Mark Davis and Roger Mason) went 0-15 that season.

San Diego was still jettisoning expensive parts and Gary Sheffield was one of the parts to go. He was sent to Florida and in return one of the young players the Padres received was Trevor Hoffman. Now Hoffman had a story already. He was a converted infielder who just started pitching in 1991 and was already in the bigs. He also was the brother of former Red Sox shortstop Glenn Hoffman.

People were abuzz over Hoffman’s potential. The Marlins had Bryan Harvey, and they thought they didn’t need Hoffman. The Padres were collecting youngsters and thought Hoffman would be a good compliment to Harris.

Harris did save 23 games, but had eight blown saves and wasn’t exactly the next Goose Gossage or Rollie Fingers. Heck, he wasn’t really the next Butch Metzger. Wait, yes, yes he was…anyway…

The next year Jim Riggleman, the manager, had Harris start out as the closer.

I think the words I’m looking for are ‘unmitigated disaster’.

Harris was credited with four save opportunities. He had no saves, and three blown saves, and no holds. He gave up eight walks and 21 hits in 12 1/3 innings. (One save situation wasn’t a blown save, nor a hold, since he pitched 0.0 innings but didn’t blow the save. Fun!)

He sealed his fate in San Diego, though, when he complained about being used for a multi-inning save against Pittsburgh on April 12. The Padres were up 2-1 in the bottom of the eighth. Andy Ashby is cruising, and gets two quick outs. But he gives up a single to Jeff King and Riggleman waves in Mark “Well Removed From His Cy Young Days” Davis to face Orlando Merced. Merced walks on a full count, and so with runners on first and second and two out in the bottom of the eighth, and his team clinging to a 2-1 lead with the heart of the Pirates lineup at the plate, Riggleman waves in Gene Harris, the closer.

Dave Clark grounds a single to right, and King scores. Orlando Merced goes to third. (Yes, Tony Gwynn was playing RF, and that may be a big reason why the less-than-fleet Pirate runners got two bases on that single.)

Al Martin grounds a single up the middle, scoring Merced.

Don Slaught grounds a single to right, scoring Clark.

Harris got pinch-hitter Jerry Goff to end the inning, but a 2-1 lead turned into a 4-2 deficit, and Rick White closed out the win for the Pirates despite a double by Billy “Without” Bean.

From what I remember (and in reading an article a few days later by Buster Olney who was the Pads’ beat writer at the team), Harris was unhappy. But not with how he pitched, but that Riggleman used him in the 8th, as the closer. It was the first time I ever heard of a pitcher being upset because he came in too early during a save situation. And he let Riggleman have it in the media. Of course, Harris didn’t tell Riggleman he was upset before spouting off, so that went over well.

A few days later, Olney reported that Trevor Hoffman was going to be the closer “for now”.

Soon after, Harris was sent to Detroit for Scott Livingstone and some other guy that I don’t care to look up. OK, it was Jorge Velandia. See, not worth the effort. Then he was taken off the Detroit roster and signed by the Phillies then traded by the Phillies to Baltimore for Andy Van Slyke.

That’s how far Van Slyke had fallen. Traded for a guy with a fragile elbow and an attitude problem on his fourth team in two years. Harris barely pitched for Baltimore, tried to come back with the Reds, Pirates and Mets, and was last seen pitching in Norfolk in 1998.

I think the lesson is clear. Ok, lessons.

A. Don’t look like a dork on your baseball card.

B. If you are not a ‘proven’ veteran, don’t complain to the manager how you are being used out of the bullpen when there’s a guy ready to take your place that can hold the job for…oh…15 seasons or so.





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