Signs of the old Mike Harkey, the one who dazzled baseball scouts during his days at Cal State Fullerton, the one who breezed through the Chicago Cubs’ minor league system like he was the next Bob Gibson, are beginning to re-emerge.
His fastball is lighting up radar guns around the National League, as the San Diego Padres discovered Thursday. Harkey held the Padres hitless for seven innings in the Cubs’ 3-1 victory.
Harkey is healthy once again. There’s a smile on his face and more spring to his step. He’s fun to be around.
“He’s always laughing and he’s as loud as ever, just like he was in the minor leagues,” said Cub catcher Joe Girard, who caught Harkey in double A and roomed with him for a month in triple A.
Just being in the major leagues and being part of a starting rotation for the first time would be reason enough for such giddiness from a 23-year-old rookie.
But there is a lot more to it in Harkey’s case. When you have been humbled as Harkey was in 1989--when your once meteoric career takes a nosedive, bottoms out, and you bounce back and land in the major leagues, there is all the more reason to be chipper.
“I love it here in the big leagues,” said Harkey. “I want to be here all the time.”
Last year, Harkey wasn’t sure he would ever get here.
When the Cubs made Harkey their first-round pick--the fourth player chosen overall--in the 1987 June draft, they vowed not to rush him to the major leagues. But the way Harkey was pitching, there was no sense in holding him back.
Harkey made 12 starts at Class-A Peoria (Ill.) that summer, going 2-3 with a 3.55 earned-run average, and closed the season with an appearance at double-A Pittsfield (Mass.).
He split the 1988 season between Pittsfield, where he was 9-2 with a 1.37 ERA, and triple-A Iowa, where he was 7-2 with a 3.55 ERA. The Cubs called up Harkey in September and he made five starts, going 0-3 but impressing the team with his 2.60 ERA and potential.
Cub Manager Don Zimmer told writers at the time that Harkey would be in his starting rotation come 1989.
“I made a bad statement,” Zimmer now admits.
Looking back, Zimmer believes he might have put too much pressure on Harkey. But to pin Harkey’s 1989 calamity on Zimmer wouldn’t be fair. No, the blame can only be placed on the broad shoulders of Harkey, a 6-foot-5, 220-pound right-hander.
Early in spring training, Harkey developed tendinitis in his throwing shoulder, but he didn’t tell anyone.
“I tried to work it out by myself,” said Harkey, a 1984 graduate of Ganesha High School in Pomona. “I tried to throw through it, and that only made it worse.”
Harkey pitched poorly throughout spring training, and his fuel-injected fastball, normally clocked in the 90 m.p.h. range, had run out of gas.
“That wasn’t the Harkey I knew,” Zimmer said. “I couldn’t take him to Chicago throwing 82 m.p.h.”
Late in spring training, Harkey finally confessed, telling his coaches about his shoulder problems. The organization sent him back to Iowa, where Harkey met more misfortune.
After three weeks on the disabled list, Harkey tried to come back but was not at full strength. He pitched poorly, going 2-7 with a 4.43 ERA in 12 starts at Iowa.
Then, on June 25, Harkey tore cartilage in his right knee during a game at Syracuse. He underwent surgery on July 27 and sat out the rest of the season.
For the first time in his baseball career, spanning high school, college and the pros, Harkey had flopped. And that didn’t sit too well with him.
“Everything went so smoothly for him the year before,” Girardi said. “He had to understand that being a major league player wasn’t success 100% of the time. You learn to go through periods where you struggle. I’m not sure he ever had to struggle before.”
Harkey doesn’t wince when he recalls 1989. “It only would have been painful if it had been a career-ending injury,” he said.
He prefers to look at the experience as a big lesson in baseball and in life.
“I learned you can’t take anything for granted,” said Harkey, who is married and has an 18-month-old son. “In this game, anything can change in the blink of an eye. There are some people who think they have this game licked, and all of a sudden it turns on them. You have to be ready for anything, because anything can happen.”
Four months after his operation, Harkey was playing winter ball in Venezuela, where he pitched 50 innings in two months with no pain. He came to spring training in March with a healthy body and a healthy mind.
“I was able to get my confidence back during winter ball,” Harkey said. “I found out I was completely healthy and ready to go. When I had my velocity from Day 1, I knew I could pitch in the big leagues.”
Harkey pitched well enough during the shortened spring to earn a spot on the major league roster and was projected as a long reliever. But when Rick Sutcliffe went on the 21-day disabled list because of a shoulder injury, Zimmer inserted Harkey into the starting rotation.
In three starts, Harkey is 2-1 with a 2.60 ERA. He turned in his best performance Thursday, taking a no-hitter into the eighth inning before San Diego’s Phil Stephenson led off with a home run.
Zimmer then pulled Harkey in favor of Mitch Williams, who retired the Padres in the eighth and ninth innings to help the Cubs end a six-game losing streak. Chicago begins a three-game series against the Dodgers tonight in Los Angeles.
Zimmer doesn’t know who will fall from the starting rotation when Sutcliffe returns, but the way Harkey is throwing and the way Zimmer is talking, it appears as if Harkey will stay.
“He’s still getting his feet on the ground, but I think you’ll see a big improvement in him by the All-Star break,” Zimmer said. “This is the first time he has ever been in a big league rotation, and we’re not looking for miracles. As the season goes, he’ll get better and better.”
Harkey isn’t expecting results overnight. Just as the Cubs appear to be showing patience with him--allowing him to live and learn on the major league level this season--Harkey has shown patience in himself.
“There will be days when I’ll walk a few and have lapses in concentration,” Harkey said. “But the ability to be a big-leaguer is being able to bounce back.”
That’s one ability Harkey definitely has.
* NEAR NO-HITTER: Mike Harkey’s bid for a no-hitter against San Diego is broken up in the eighth. C7