Ranger Redux : A Football Helps Ex-LBCC Pitcher Bounce Back in Texas

Times Staff Writer

The crack of ball on bat echoed eerily in near-empty Anaheim Stadium. Inside the batting cage, Reggie Jackson swung and sprayed baseball after baseball through the placid afternoon air.

To the delight of youngsters next to the first base dugout, rookie Wally Joyner walked past the cage and waited for his swings before a recent game between the California Angels and Texas Rangers.

Angels Manager Gene Mauch was in the dugout, and already pacing. Rangers Manager Bobby Valentine left the visiting clubhouse and was surrounded by reporters.

It was just another major league afternoon in June, but in addition to airborne baseballs, there was a football being tossed by Texas relief pitchers Greg Harris and Mitch Williams.

That Lynwood-born Gregory Allen Harris, the 1976 California community college co-player of the year from Long Beach City College, would venture into "Wally World" with a football explains a lot about the Rangers' surprising success in the American League West race.

Short Man

The short man out of the bullpen, Harris is one of the reasons the Rangers are battling the Angels for first place. He ranks fourth in the league in saves and is one of four Ranger pitchers with ERAs near 3.00. Going into the All-Star break, Harris has a record of 3-7, is fourth in the league in saves, with 15, and has an ERA of 2.89.

The football is part of a workout program that has helped resurrect Harris' career.

The program was developed by Ranger pitching coach Tom House, who theorizes that the motions involved in throwing a football strengthen the muscles in a pitcher's arm while providing a safe method of warming up.

Soon after Texas bought his contract two years ago from Indianapolis of the American Assn., Harris switched to the football in warm-ups. The result has been better breaking pitches, which helped him save 12 games last season and lead AL relief pitchers with 111 strikeouts.

The bespectacled House, with a scholarly look and a penchant for using big words, has been tagged by players around the league as "Dr. Gadget."

But his philosophies on pitching have impressed Harris, who throws a football almost exclusively in his pregame warm-ups.

When he does throw a baseball, Harris, a natural right-hander, will alternate throwing right- and left-handed during warm-ups. Although he has never pitched left-handed in a game, he and House claim he is capable of doing it.

Left-Handed Help

Valentine "will never compromise the integrity of the game," House said of a lefty-righty switch. "It's just not going to happen in a real game. But Greg has found that working on the left hand has actually helped his right hand."

House said he believes that alternating his pitching arm gives Harris a better idea of the mechanics involved in throwing a variety of pitches. Harris agrees.

"What I can do with one arm I ought to be able to do with the other," he said.

Harris has been unimpressed by his new responsibilities.

"(Notoriety) comes in time," he said. "I'm fairly new at this. I've done nothing fancy in my career."

Harris was a self-proclaimed "rubber-armed" control pitcher out of Los Alamitos High School when he led Long Beach City College to the state title in 1976.

He would beg to play, even after having pitched the day before. He completed 17 of 20 games he started in his sophomore year. His ERA was 1.23 and he struck out an average of more than one batter an inning.

In the 1976 junior college regional playoffs, Harris drew the attention of major league scouts when he threw 24 innings in three days.

"I had a great pitcher," said Bob Myers, former Vikings coach and now the school's director of physical education.

When he left Long Beach, Harris pitched in an Alaskan traveling league, had a 15-3 record and was named its most valuable player. His overall amateur record was 58-14.

Greg's dad, Les, now dean of occupational education at the city college, recognized Greg had a "live arm" when his son was very young. "He would get on his knees and throw to me," Les Harris said. "We had five spots, the corners and the center of the plate. It helped him develop an over-the-top delivery."

'An Excellent Curve'

But Harris, because of his young age, was not allowed to throw a curve ball, now his best pitch.

"I remember the first time he threw one," Harris' father said. "He was 15, and we were camping in the High Sierras. A friend had an aluminum can and told Greg to hold it a certain way when he threw it. Greg threw it and I could see he was ready to throw an excellent curve."

Today, Valentine said, "he has the best curve ball in the game."

Harris said the football has helped him with all of his breaking pitches.

"Throwing the football has the same motion involved with throwing a sinker," he said. "The football keeps your strength up on the follow-through."

After signing with the New York Mets in September, 1976, Harris said he looked forward to professional baseball because "I love to travel." He's gotten plenty of it.

After pitching in Alaska, Harris signed with the Mets for a reported $40,000 and was assigned to their Jackson, Miss., club in the Class AA Texas League where he was 3-6 as a starter with a 5.46 ERA. A year later he was dropped to Class A at Lynchburg, Va., but returned to Jackson at mid-season. A year after that he led the Texas League with a 2.26 ERA.

After two seasons in Triple-A with Tidewater, Va., he was called up to the Mets in 1981. But after 16 appearances and a 4.43 ERA, he was traded to Cincinnati, where he became a relief pitcher. The Reds kept shuttling him between Cincinnati and Indianapolis and finally put him on waivers after the 1983 season.

Montreal claimed him and in 1984 he was on his way to his best season as a pro when he was traded to San Diego.

"It was frustrating," Harris said. "I did well in Cincinnati and still got traded to Montreal. I thought I fit in well there and they traded me."

San Diego also saw him as expendable after his performance against Chicago in the 1984 National League playoffs. He tied Championship Series records for most runs (7) and most hits (6) allowed in an inning.

'He Had the Talent'

Enter Texas.

"Bam! Everything fell into place," Harris said.

House liked what he saw in Harris and was excited about his interest in House's unorthodox training philosophies.

"He had the talent," House said. "He was on a major league yo-yo waiting to show what he could do."

Valentine has enjoyed his performances, too. "He was the only guy that came to spring training this year that I felt had a lock on the team in the bullpen," he said. In Harris, he saw "someone we can turn the ball over to that can hold (save) the game."

Harris recently bought a home in Westminster, where, he said, he likes to spend his days with his family when he's in town "because it's quiet there."

He's also found a home in Texas.

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