Slow-Pitch at 96 M.P.H.? : In a Softball Outfield, Angels Find a Noteworthy Fastball for Their Bullpen

Times Staff Writer

Relief pitchers don’t grow on trees, true, but the Angels have been out of the woods for some time. Here, they’ve pieced together a bullpen by turning over stones, exploring vacant lots and rummaging through dustbins all across America.

Donnie Moore was found three years ago on the Atlanta Braves’ unprotected list, chosen by the Angels as their compensation for losing free-agent outfielder Fred Lynn to the Baltimore Orioles.

DeWayne Buice was spotted south of the border with a twice-broken right arm, toiling on the forgotten fields of Nuevo Laredo in the Mexican League.


Greg Minton was located in the unemployment line, one week after his unconditional release by the San Francisco Giants.

And now, from another part of the world, comes the Angels’ newest, and most unlikely, bullpen candidate, a 24-year-old rookie who saved 18 games in 18 chances this winter while pitching for San Juan.

Bryan Harvey, 1987 Puerto Rican winter league record-holder and most valuable player, was discovered by the Angels four years ago on a slow-pitch softball field.

In Mooresville, North Carolina.

While playing in the outfield.

Actually, it didn’t happen precisely that way, but it’s close enough. At the time Harvey was first sighted by an Angel scout, he was passing his summers as an outfielder for Howard’s Furniture of the local Super Slow-Pitch softball league. This was the industrial strength level of softball--”You can’t get much higher than that,” Harvey says--where men are men and biceps are built for bludgeoning home runs. But it wasn’t baseball, a sport Harvey hadn’t played competitively for two years.

It took a couple of Howard’s teammates to persuade Harvey to loosen up his old arm and pitch a game for Mooresville in the state semipro baseball tournament. Harvey pitched the game, all right. He worked nine innings, blew away the opposition and basically became the talk of the town.

Word quickly spread to other towns. Alex Cosmidas, then an East Coast scout for the Angels, heard about Harvey’s Nolan Ryan impression and invited him for a two-day tryout. Cosmidas watched Harvey throw twice and saw enough to offer him a minor-league contract.

That was August, 1984. One year later, Harvey had completed his first season of professional baseball with 111 strikeouts in 81 innings at Quad City. Two years after that, following stints at Class-A Palm Springs in 1986 and Double-A Midland in 1987, Harvey had amassed 257 strikeouts in 192 minor-league innings.

“He was just overpowering kids at that level,” says Bill Bavasi, the Angels’ director of minor league operations.

This winter, Harvey was still overpowering them--only this time, the batters were grown men, many of them members of major league rosters. In 30 innings for San Juan, Harvey struck out 39 hitters. He went 2-1 with a 2.05 earned-run average and a league-record 18 saves. He was named most valuable player of the Puerto Rican League, becoming the second Angel to win that award in the last three years.

The first was a minor-leaguer named Wally Joyner in 1985. And we all know what happened after that.

At the Angels’ training camp, similar heights are being predicted for Harvey.

“The scouts who saw him this winter, that’s all they talked about--’My God, have you got a pitcher there,’ ” said Preston Gomez, Angel special adviser. “They told me he was unhittable down there.”

Bavasi: “He’s accomplished so much so fast that our expectations are still catching up to him.”

Angel Manager Gene Mauch: “If he throws enough strikes with the kind of stuff he’s got, it doesn’t matter what league he pitches in. The big leagues, Puerto Rico, Midland--he’d be effective anywhere.”

So what was Harvey doing, just 3 1/2 years ago, moving furniture and barnstorming softball fields in North Carolina?

“I quit school, got married and got a job,” said Harvey, who dropped out of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte after his freshman year for one reason: “I didn’t like going to class.”

Harvey had enough promise as a high school pitcher to earn a scholarship to UNC Charlotte, but he was never all that interested in scholarship. So after a frustrating introduction to major-college baseball--”I got hit around pretty good,” he recalls--Harvey decided to chuck it all for a life of diapers, sore backs and beers after softball.

As a softball player, Harvey swung a pretty decent aluminum bat. “I was a .600-something hitter,” he said. Of course, so was just about everybody else.

He played in the outfield alongside his father, Stan, and he knew his assignment well. “We’d go touring around on weekends, trying to raise money, and all the people wanted to see were home runs,” Harvey said. “So we hit home runs.”

But Harvey was not built for long-ball potential. In the land of slow-pitch, guys who stand 6 feet 3 inches and weigh 190 pounds are known as slap hitters.

So it was a good thing baseball happened along again for Harvey.

Harvey made the trip to the major leagues in almost a blur, earning a two-week trial with the Angels last May when John Candelaria was placed on the disabled list for the first time. Harvey made his big-league debut on May 16, in the ninth inning of an Angels’ 4-2 loss to Baltimore.

Awaiting Harvey, in order, were Cal Ripken, Eddie Murray, Fred Lynn and Ray Knight.

The inning provided an instant scouting report of Harvey. He struck out Ripken, looking, and retired Murray on a sharp ground ball to second base. Then, he walked Lynn, wild-pitched twice and left Lynn on third base by getting Knight to fly out deep to left field.

There it was, in one tidy package, the pros and cons of Harvey’s game--the wickedness, and the wildness, of his fastball.

Today, Harvey charges those wild pitches to a severe case of nerves.

“I got scared,” he said. “After the first batter, it started to set in more and more. When Murray hit that hard one to (second baseman Mark) McLemore, I started wondering, ‘What am I doing here?’ ”

A return to Midland and a successful summer there--20 saves and a 2.04 ERA--helped restore Harvey’s confidence. And any lingering self-doubts were apparently erased by his winter in Puerto Rico.

Now, Harvey is in position to win the fourth spot in a five-man bullpen. With a fastball that has been timed at 96 m.p.h. and a forkball that clocks in at 85, he is already the hardest-throwing reliever in camp. He knows that if he gets those pitches over the plate often enough this spring, he’ll be on the opening-day roster in April.

“My chances here are pretty good,” Harvey said. “I’m going to make them notice me.”

Angel Notes

Position players were scheduled to report to the Angels’ training camp Tuesday and as expected, first baseman Wally Joyner was not among them. Joyner has said he wanted to have his 1988 contract signed before arriving to camp and is still waiting for the Angels to improve on their offer of $330,000. “I’m not reporting for two reasons,” Joyner said by phone from his Placentia home late Tuesday night. “First and least importantly is that there’s a misunderstanding between myself and management concerning my contract for 1988. But the most important reason is that by attending spring training without a contract leaves me in a situation where if I have any injury, I lose my negotiating rights for this year.” Joyner was asked how long he intended to wait if no progress in negotiations is made. “The mandatory reporting date is March 2,” he said, “and my understanding is that (General Manager) Mike Port plans on renewing everybody on March 3. At the very latest, I’ll be in camp March 3.” In other words, Joyner cannot be considered a holdout--and thusly subject to fine--until March 2. Said Barry Axelrod, one of Joyner’s agents: “Tuesday and Wednesday are only voluntary reporting dates. He’s not required to be there until March 2. We still have some time.”

Angel Manager Gene Mauch, one the Joyner situation: “I think Joyner knew after last year that he was one year away from being in the driver’s seat. He’s riding shotgun as hard as he can right now. Next year, he’ll be able to move over the the left side.” Joyner becomes eligible for salary arbitration for the first time in 1989. . . . The Angels did sign a couple of first basemen Tuesday--rookie Jim Eppard and second-year man Mark Ryal. That brings the number of unsigned Angels to 12. . . . The Angels also signed former Kansas City Royals outfielder Darryl Motley to an Edmonton contract. Motley, a member of the Royals’ 1985 World Series championship team and a .245 career hitter, will report to the club’s minor-league camp in Mesa in mid-March. . . . To help ease Johnny Ray’s impending transition from second base to left field, the Angels have hired Lee Walls as a special assignment coach this spring. Walls, formerly with the Oakland A’s organization, will assist batting coach Rick Down in working with Ray and the other Angel outfielders during training camp.