It Looks Fun, but Life Is No Game for Harris : Dodgers: Infielder uses much of his salary to keep his family together in inner-city Miami.
Lenny Harris plays every game for the Dodgers like a man given a reprieve.
His swings are bigger than he is. He runs the bases in fast-forward. He never slides when he can dive, and never dives when he can keep on running, forcing yet another infielder to stare at his oncoming jersey and scream for the ball.
When he finally stops, if he’s safe, he stands up and claps, same as the fans. Only he is clapping harder.
To watch Harris is to think there is no one happier to be in uniform, nor more uncertain of keeping that uniform.
When Lenny Harris is told this, he frowns.
He plays this way, he says, because it is this way.
After a typical night game, he returns home to his new wife, Carnettia, and the trappings of a $150,000 contract. When the adrenaline wears off, he falls into a peaceful sleep.
Then in the middle of the night, the phone rings. It sounds like the sirens that used to echo past his house in Miami’s depressed Liberty City area. But the sirens eventually faded. This phone will not stop ringing.
So he answers, even though he knows he will recognize the voice and the request.
“Baby brother, I know it’s hard,” one voice says, “but I need $400 for the rent.”
“Baby brother,” says another voice, on another night, “I need $200 for food.”
“Baby brother,” says yet another voice, “I need help.”
Harris hangs up and falls back into an uneasy sleep. The next morning, he will wake up, write the checks, and promise he will never do this again. A morning later, he will break that promise.
As the youngest of nine brothers and sisters, most of them mired in the poverty and problems of inner-city Miami, Lenny Harris worries about plenty more than statistics. As the leader of a family split by the death of his mother six years ago, he needs more than applause.
He plays hard not because it looks good, but because it pays well. Because he needs to keep on writing checks.
“I feel like I’m my family’s last hope,” Harris said this spring. “If I can’t put my family back together again, nobody can.”
On April 16, Harris was given the best chance of his young career. When Jeff Hamilton’s torn rotator cuff in his right shoulder sidelined him indefinitely, Harris and Mike Sharperson were made the team’s platoon third basemen, with the left-handed hitting Harris starting against right-handed pitching.
In his eight games at third base since, he has had eight hits in 26 at-bats for a .308 average with five runs batted in and three stolen bases.
“We have no problems going with Sharperson and Harris at that position for however long it might take,” Manager Tom Lasorda says. “We feel very comfortable with both of them.”
That’s encouraging, and those are good numbers, but Harris wants more. He says he will prove to the Dodgers that he can be the full-time starter.
“They will see,” says Harris, 25. “I will show them.”
He is not being cocky, just practical. He says he is not the kind of player who can afford to talk about being a starter one day .
“A lot of guys sit around the clubhouse talking about the future,” he says. “Well, I ain’t looking to the future. I can’t. I live day to day, just like my family lives. And I play day to day, like every day is my last one.”
The Dodgers believe him.
“A lot of players have energy, but Lenny shows energy,” says Joe Amalfitano, the third base coach. “He has speed, but he also has quickness. That’s what unsettles other teams, quickness.”
Harris says he has learned you can never be too quick.
“You see, in my life, I never know what is going to happen, one day to the next,” he says.
There was the time he received a phone call about his father’s roof caving in. Harris had to find money for a new roof.
And last winter, as he and his wife were planning their February wedding and honeymoon cruise, one of his five older sisters was having a drug problem and needed to enter a rehabilitation center. Harris canceled the cruise and paid for her stay.
“Now she’s out, now she’s saved,” Harris says. “None of my family is in any serious trouble. I just want to keep it that way.”
Harris, acquired by the Dodgers last summer from Cincinnati as part of the trade that also brought outfielder Kal Daniels from the Reds, has not always felt this need to head the family.
Although he grew up in tension-filled Liberty City, in a house on the busy street that led to the local hospital, he says his childhood was relatively stable. His father, Arthur, worked at a local fruit market; his mother was a maid at a Miami Beach hotel, and together they kept the family close.
“Lenny was the kind of guy who, if his friends didn’t want to take him home on time, he would leave them and walk home,” recalls Joe DiFalco, his former baseball coach at Miami’s Jackson High. “His family was very strong.”
Every ounce of that strength was needed in May, 1980, during the Liberty City riots.
“My parents made us stay in the house, and all night long we heard those sirens going past,” Harris says. “I’ll never forget the sound of those sirens.”
Feeling that his life had been saved by this tight family, it was only natural that when Harris was signed by Cincinnati as a fifth-round draft choice in 1983, he gave his entire $32,000 bonus to his mother.
“It wasn’t no gift,” Harris says. “She worked 30 years for it.”
But his mother soon became ill, and the family’s troubles began. The split started in the spring of 1984, when Harris was summoned home from the Reds’ minor league training facility in Tampa.
“I asked my sister over the phone if everything was all right with my mother, and she said yes, but that I should still get home,” Harris says. “Then I get into the Miami airport, and my sister still won’t tell me anything. I finally walk in my door, and my Dad is in tears, and my brother tells me, ‘She’s gone.’
“I couldn’t believe it. I fainted.”
In the ensuing years, as Harris rose through the minor leagues, homecomings became less noteworthy. Although his eight siblings still lived in Miami, he says there were fewer people to welcome him.
“Everybody started slipping away,” he says. “My father was always having to ask people to come over and see him, and that ain’t right. When all of us would get together, we would argue. We were becoming less and less of a family.”
In September of 1988, Harris finally made the major leagues with the Reds. Even though he was making the minimum salary of $62,500, with a raise to $71,000 last year, it looked like big-league money to him.
“So, he started giving it all away, doing things for everyone in his family,” says DiFalco, now a close friend. “He was very concerned about the family situation and didn’t know how to help, so he took care of everybody.”
He bought his father a car. He bought his sister a car. He began paying rents, and repaying debts.
“My family is fighting for survival,” Harris says. “It’s the least I can do.”
Says DiFalco: “Maybe the reason Lenny looks so loose on the field is, he feels more pressure to keep his family happy than to play baseball. It’s like, baseball for him is the fun part.”
Fun for Harris is a game such as the one last Aug. 23, against the Expos in Montreal, when the Dodgers asked him to play outfield for the first time since he was a child. Harris shrugged, smiled and said fine. Twenty-two innings later, he was still smiling, having made a leaping catch in left field and gotten a career-high five hits.
“The only problem was that I got tired just walking out to my position,” Harris said afterward.
Fun for Harris is also a game such as the one April 21 against Houston. He had gone hitless in 12 at-bats to open the year, but was he worried?
“I just know that ball will fall in,” he said before the game. “Good things will happen to me; I can just feel it.”
Two innings into the game, everybody at Dodger Stadium was feeling it, after Harris had tripled in his first at-bat against Astro starter Jim Clancy. It was the start of a run of four hits in eight at-bats with three RBIs.
He is a streaky player, with streaks not only of hitting, but of generosity and caring and pain.
On Feb. 17, he was married. Several members of his family missed the wedding. He was deeply hurt.
“We are still split; I have not gotten everything together yet,” Harris says. “But I will. Everything will turn out all right. We’ll all be happy.
“I know I can’t be no Superman. But I can try.”