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Pete Harnisch - Bringing It Home
03/04/2009 - By Chad Safran
After A Major League Baseball Career, Life Goes on for Pete Harnisch
After a career in which he spent 14 seasons in Major League Baseball, Pete Harnisch is enjoying life in Monmouth County with his wife Donna and two sons, Jack, 8, and Nick, 4. He and Donna, who have been married more than 13 years, met through Pete’s college roommate at Fordham University in the Bronx. Pete was a pitcher for the school’s baseball team and his future brother-in-law, Kevin Condon, was the Rams’ shortstop. Pete first visited this area in 1984 and made it his permanent home in 1992 – first in Howell and then in Colts Neck.
Pete, who grew up in Commack, New York, rooting for the Yankees, spent just over 1 year in the minor leagues following a standout career at Fordham. He made his major league debut on September 13, 1988 for the Baltimore Orioles against the Boston Red Sox in Fenway Park, just 10 days shy of his 22nd birthday. He went on to pitch for four other teams (Houston, the New York Mets, Milwaukee, and Cincinnati), compiling a record of 111–103, with a 3.89 ERA and 1,368 strikeouts.
While many baseball players would call this a career, spending their time traveling the globe, launching their own business ventures, or remaining in the game in some capacity, Pete has kept an attachment to the sport through coaching. But you won’t find him at a big league ballpark; instead, he does his instructing on a much more local level…in Colts Neck…helping out not just with the community’s baseball program, but also basketball and soccer. And it is something he truly loves, especially since the winter months limit his participation in his other favorite sport – golf.
Pete recently sat down to talk baseball with Living In Colts Neck.
LICN: When did you know you wanted to be baseball player?
PH: I played everything – played street hockey, baseball, football, basketball, soccer… I played organized soccer until high school, [but] I wanted to be a baseball player ever since I was a tiny little kid. Someone would ask me, “What do you want to do?” and I would say, “I want to be a baseball player.” I never believed I was going to be a baseball player. Even in college, when I was starting to really throw hard, I never believed it. I never believed I was going to be there until I was actually there, which I think helped me a lot.
LICN: You were drafted 27th overall in the amateur draft by the Orioles in 1987. What were your expectations after being drafted at that level?
PH: None. The main reason why I was able to stay in the major leagues and have the career I did was because I always looked at the next rung on the ladder. I was good in little league and really good in high school, but I was on JV in 10th grade and I only played varsity in 11th and 12th grade, so it was not like I was a superstar when I got into high school. When I started doing really well and started to surpass some of the people around me, I didn’t realize it. At the end of junior year I looked at college as an opportunity to get an education. When I got to college and kept progressing, and people were starting to talk in my junior year about me being a first-round draft pick, I thought, “That’s great. I’ll be ahead of the game…get out of school, get a signing bonus, have some money in my pocket, plus I’ll have an opportunity.” I still didn’t think I was going to the big leagues and making a career out of this. Every level I got to I just worked hard. I looked at it as an opportunity to get that next opportunity. I never looked at the end game, and that’s a big reason why I had the career I did. When I talk to talented baseball players I tell them to not look too far down the road.
LICN: When you first came up who put you in awe?
PH: No one really. I respected all the guys, and I know how much hard work it took to get there and what the odds are of getting to that situation. In that regard you are in awe of all the guys. Cal [Ripken, Jr.] was probably the biggest guy I played with them, but I wasn’t in awe of him because he was such a humble guy. He was approachable; he’d talk to you…maybe Eddie Murray. There was a little more awe around him when I got to the big leagues. He was a little more reclusive. He talked more to the veterans; didn’t really talk to the young guys. He was a nice guy. I really didn’t play with a lot of big, big stars.
LICN: Being traded is part of life in professional baseball. What is it like to be in that situation? What effect did it have on you and your family?
PH: I’m sure it could have an effect on certain guys, but I didn’t care. I had a good friend (Curt Schilling) go with me when I got traded to Houston. I never took it as they were getting rid of me. I didn’t care; it didn’t bother me. Later on I would have preferred to stay with Houston (when I got traded to the Mets) because we were so close. We had a lot of young guys [in Houston] who were really close. We were in first place when the strike hit in 1994. We had some team that started to develop. We were very close; besides the fact that we were getting good we were really just a close bunch of guys. We really had a good time.
LICN: You made one All-Star game during your career – in 1991. What was that moment like?
PH: It was something special…quite an honor. It was weird to be in my third year in the big leagues and be 5-7 at the All-Star break and leading the league in ERA. I remember Lou Piniella picked me. I remember going into the locker room and having to sign all this stuff. They have this signing room with all the memorabilia. I am signing next to guys like Paul Molitor and Kirby Puckett (both Hall of Fame members). I’m thinking, “What am I doing here?” It was a surreal experience.
LICN: After some time with Houston you were traded to the Mets, following the 1994 season, and spent almost three seasons with the team. You had some ups and downs with that club. How would you describe your time there?
PH: I loved it. I would have to say my first year and most of my second year I had a great time. The team was terrible…The Mets were at a crossroads. We had a fun bunch of guys [and] I had a blast. I enjoyed Dallas Green (Mets manager who was fired on August 26, 1996). Prior to butting heads with the other guy who was hired (Bobby Valentine, Green’s successor) everything was great. I was coming home. I had the house in Howell. I would drive back and forth every day unless there was a day game after a night game (then it was pointless). I stayed in my own bed every night. I would have lunch every day and drive into Shea. It was great.
LICN: You had some interesting moments with the Mets, including a brawl with the Cubs that lasted nearly 15 minutes, resulting in a $1,000 fine and an eight-game suspension. How does something like that occur?
PH: It’s just one of those things. Guys get frustrated; they throw [the ball] at people and you want to back up your player. We got a couple of runs early and the guy threw right at Todd Hundley’s head. Then the pitcher came up to bat later, and I fired one right at him. It’s one of those things where you feel like you want to protect your player. Then I come up the next inning and I know they are going to get me at some point. I came up with men on 1st and 2nd, no outs, so I was 99% sure I wasn’t going to get hit then. I got the bunt down no problem, but when I walked up to the plate before the bunt, the catcher (one of my best friends, Scott Servais) started yapping at me. It was getting kind of heated. The fight started later with him. When I came up later in the game with two outs and no one on I knew I was going to get it. I didn’t even move. I said to myself, “Just take it.” I closed my eyes, hear the thing go whistling by, and it skips off the backstop. I started yelling at the pitcher, Scotty started yelling at me; he kept getting closer and closer. I pushed his face back and…I wound up under 50 guys. There was no bad blood between the teams, but it was a nasty fight; it got to be really bad between the teams.
LICN: The 1997 season was a difficult one for you; you spent several months on the disabled list for depression. You came back in August and made four more starts before being sent to the bullpen at the end of the month, resulting in a confrontation with Valentine. A few days later you were traded to Milwaukee. Do you look back on everything that happened that season?
PH: I don’t. I think I would harp on it more if it had destroyed my career; if I had never pitched again, which honestly, the way I felt and as sick as I was that summer, I didn’t think I would pitch again. And I took a nothing contract the next season to go to Cincinnati. I went there for $250 grand, with no incentives, and was going to be happy to make the team. I had no problem with my arm, and I got sick. I feel like I am probably a lot stronger now for having gone through what I went through. I don’t think much about it. I went to Cincinnati and had a great year the next year. It might have been the best of my career. It was a bad team and I pitched great. I bounced back from it and I had a great few years in Cincinnati. When I do look back all I say is that I was able to bounce back and it did not end my career.
LICN: You pitched in the major leagues for quite a long time (1988 – 2001). How would you rate your satisfaction with your career?
PH: I was very satisfied. At the end I made one mistake. I had minor elbow surgery my last year with Cincinnati (2001) to fix a tendon in my arm. My ligament was okay, my rehab was fabulous, my throwing program was fabulous…I was throwing 200 feet as hard as I wanted on flat ground. The only mistake was that I should have gone back to Cincinnati. They were in tune with the rehab and what had to be done. I signed with Colorado, and the first day they had me throw a full workout, which I didn’t know I wasn’t supposed to be doing. So I was supposed to throw 15 to 20 nice easy straight pitches off the mound…I threw [for] 10 to 12 minutes like all the other pitchers, throwing breaking balls… It was the first day of spring training and afterwards I could not lift my arm. I threw the rest of spring training biting the inside of my mouth, throwing every other day trying to get my arm in shape. I had an MRI just before opening day…the whole elbow was destroyed. The thing I had fixed – the ligament – was torn. I was going to blow it off, but I got the whole thing fixed. Rehab was going great. I went back to Cincinnati again (in 2003) to the Triple A (minor leagues) to get my arm in shape, and was on a timetable to be back May 15th. The Reds gave up 20 runs the first few games and panicked. I was supposed to stay in Florida another 3 or 4 weeks and throw every 5th day in extended spring training, so they throw me into Triple A in Toledo in 15° weather on April 7th and I pulled my hamstring. That set me back a couple of weeks. The doctor said it was going to be 12 to 15 months (post surgery) before I had full velocity back, and I was 9 months post surgery and pitching in Triple A. I was getting blasted every game, throwing 85 to 87 mph. It went back and forth for a few months like that and they released me. I had 10 Triple A starts and my ERA was like 8. The mistake I made was leaving Cincinnati and going to Colorado. If I hadn’t left, I wouldn’t have had that second injury.
LICN: So why did you leave Cincinnati?
PH: I thought I was going to get a better deal somewhere else. They were offering me no money [and] wouldn’t give me a guarantee. The other team did. I felt like I was in the big leagues for 12 years and I deserved a major league deal. I wasn’t looking for the moon, but they wanted to sign me to a minor league contract for $2,000 a month and bring me into the minor league camp. I found someone who gave me a better deal and a guarantee of another year on the roster. With the other deal, they could have cut me anytime they wanted. Looking back, for the few hundred grand I guaranteed myself, it was the wrong decision.
LICN: Describe your on-field demeanor. Were you different on the field than off it?
PH: I’m a pretty competitive guy, pretty much all the time; pretty outgoing. I like to have a good time. When I played professionally, I was very competitive on and off, but to another level on the field. I did some things to some of my best friends that I wasn’t proud of to win a game. But I am considerably different on the field than I am off.
LICN: You have been out of the game for a while now. What do you miss most?
PH: The guys. It’s a tough adjustment going from that. I tell my son that I had a pretty good life before I had kids, but I don’t really know how. I enjoyed the heck out of what I did. I was in a perfect position. I pitched one night and joked around for 4 days. I was always doing something. I took that as my role. I worked hard – a lot of physical fitness. I enjoyed the camaraderie…the competition when I was on the field. When the sweat broke and the first inning was over and I was in the heat of the battle…I miss that.
LICN: What do you miss the least?
PH: I don’t miss the politics – seeing roster moves made, favoritism played. A GM (general manager) brings a guy in who clearly isn’t going to be the guy, and you have a buddy who deserves the job…it’s frustrating to see a friend who has a wife and a couple of kids, who really deserves a spot, sent to Triple A over another a guy.
LICN: What would you be doing if you hadn’t made it in baseball?
PH: I was in school for accounting, in the business school at Fordham. I guess I would have done what everyone else does – go to college and find a job. I know I would have worked hard no matter what, because that’s the mindset I’ve had with everything I’ve done.
LICN: What has life been like after baseball?
PH: Great. I miss the guys, and there were certain aspects I missed about the game the first year or two after I was done. I don’t watch a lot of baseball. I’ll watch when my friends are playing for an inning or two. I haven’t watched a whole game in forever! I’m so involved with my children. I feel extremely fortunate to be able to spend as much time with them [as possible]. You get to experience a lot of things that other people don’t because they are working. There are little things like picking up my kid from school or being around if something funny happens in the afternoon, when I could be in an office somewhere. I’ve been coaching baseball, soccer, and basketball in Colts Neck for 4 years, and I love it. I love the interaction with all the kids. It’s really turned into a passion for me.
LICN: What about living in Colts Neck and Monmouth County do you and your wife enjoy most?
PH: The town’s changed a lot…my wife will tell you it’s changed since she was little, but even I have seen it change since my first visit. Development has been unbelievable. It’s a laid-back place. Where I grew up on Long Island, Jericho Turnpike runs right through Commack and you can’t go anywhere. It’s not the city, but there are tons of cars and lights everywhere. This place has very few lights, and I know how long it’s going to take me to get anywhere. It’s a beautiful town. It’s still rustic enough, and I look over the golf course every day. I am fortunate and very happy to be here. I like this town a lot. I have made a lot of good friends here; by coaching the kids, we developed another set of friends now. Also, my wife’s whole family is around.
LICN: What are your goals for the future?
PH: I love the coaching and teaching aspect of the game. There is only so much you can offer little kids; you can’t get into the mental side of the game. It’s just teaching fundamentals, which I love. I feel ike I have a lot to offer older kids – high school kids looking to play in college and college players looking to be pro players. I’ve considered giving lessons and clinics as a business opportunity. There’s a lot of it out there, and I see a lot of bad instruction. I see older kids pitching, and they are so robotic you can tell the kids who’ve had lessons and those who haven’t. You can teach kids how to be fundamentally solid and the right way to play the game, [but] that might slow down the winning curve. Or you can teach the kid how to get the ball from point A to point B, and the coach doesn’t care. In the long run, that doesn’t make them better players. I am very much into building a solid, fundamental base and teaching them the right way; whether they win or lose, I don’t care. People have been asking me for years, “Will you work with my kid? Are you going to do lessons? Are you going to open up a place? Can you help this kid out?” I’m not doing that at this point, but I am considering it as a business opportunity down the road or [maybe] getting back into the pro game. I’m not worried about that now. I am enjoying the heck out of what I am doing now with the kids. I know something will come along; whether that’s 6 months or 18 months or 3 years from now, I don’t sit around worrying about it. I am enjoying coaching the kids and look forward to the next practice. It’s great interacting with them. My wife says, “You’ve got to get a job.” I could do that. I could do a lot of different things, but that would change things around here.
Favorite Restaurants Tavolo in Long Branch and Rosario’s Deli in Freehold
Favorite Music Billy Joel
Favorite Movie Jaws
Favorite television show M*A*S*H
Pet Peeve Parents who are overly competitive and pushy with their kids in athletics, trying to make them into professional athletes
Three people you’d like to dine with Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis, actor Alan Alda, and comedian Dennis Miller
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