Monday, March 29, 2010

The Curveballing Ambidextrous Greg Allen Harris

by Jane Charnin-Aker and James G. Robinson

The curveballing, ambidextrous Greg Allen Harris -- not to be confused with another Greg Wade Harris who pitched at approximately the same time -- bounced around the NL before landing with the 1984 NL champion Padres. Roughed up by the Cubs in the playoff opener, he allowed a NLCS-record six earned runs in one inning. He came into his own after his 1985 sale to Texas, leading AL relievers with 111 strikeouts and posting a 2.47 ERA. He went 10-8 (2.83) with a staff-high 20 saves in 1986, but in 1987 he both started and relieved, went 5-10 without a save, and was released. He had missed some games that season after injuring his elbow flicking sunflower seeds to a friend in the stands.

Harris caught on with the Phillies, but was waived in August 1989 after a year-and-a-half of solid relief work. He signed with the Red Sox, beginning a five-year Beantown tenure that would include some of his most productive years in the majors. Helped by Sox starter Mike Boddicker, Harris adapted his curve to a variety of pitching motions. The experiment paid off -- his first two seasons, spent in the rotation, produced 24 wins. Harris' ERA dropped from 3.85 to 2.51 after he returned to the bullpen in 1992, and he made a league-leading 80 appearances in 1993.

Harris' heavy workload soon took its toll. He moved to the Yankees after starting the 1994 season with an 8.38 ERA, and pitched just three games for his new team before the strike hit. Harris' unusual ability to pitch with both hands led to some tension between him and the Red Sox, who forbade the ambidextrous hurler from throwing lefty. GM Lou Gorman insisted it would "make a mockery" of the game, leading Harris to grumble, "Boston is so conservative. People are afraid to try anything." In a muted show of defiance, Harris usually chose to wear an ambidextrous glove on the mound.

But just before his retirement, while pitching for the Expos in 1995, the veteran hurler finally became the only twentieth-century pitcher to throw from both sides of the mound. After Harris (pitching righty) retired Reggie Sanders to start off the ninth inning of a game against the Cincinnati Reds on September 28, 1995, he turned around to
face the left-handed Hal Morris.

Harris issued a free pass, thus becoming the first ambidextrous
major-league pitcher since Elton "Ice Box" Chamberlain of the American Association in 1888. Nerve-wracked, he stayed a southpaw and induced a ground-out from Eddie Taubensee, closing out the inning by retiring Bret Boone as a righty. The last pitcher to use both hands in a pro game had been Bert Campaneris, who did so in 1962 while playing for Daytona Beach in the Florida State League. (JCA/JGR)

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Willie Davis Gone, But Never Forgotten

Willie Davis holds six team records,
including most career hits (2,091) and
triples (110). Herb Scharfman/SI

Dodgers speedster will live on forever in franchise lore

No one knew Willie Davis better than Tommy Davis, his Los Angeles Dodgers teammate.

Because they shared the same last name, many thought they were brothers.

"We were as close as brothers," said Tommy as he recalled his memories of Willie, the Dodgers player they called the "3-Dog" because of his uniform number and his blazing speed.

The headline in the Los Angeles Times on Wednesday on the passing of Davis at the age 69 declared: "Brilliant on the field, troubled off."

It's not a description that fits the memories of Tommy Davis.

"I think of Willie and I think of a guy who was always laughing," he said, "and he had that great laugh. He loved his family, loved his golf and loved his race horses.

"He lived his life the way he wanted to live it. I think Willie enjoyed each and every day. We were roommates for six years and we shared great times and great memories."

"The first time I saw Willie was at Dodgertown in the spring of 1959," he continued. "We were put together with several other players to run a 60-yard dash. I remember that Maury [Wills] was in our group and I figured Maury would win the race with me right behind him, because I could run in those days.

"Willie left us in the dust."

When Dodgers scout Kenny Myers signed Willie Davis out of Roosevelt High School in Los Angeles in 1958, the fleet-footed youngster was regarded as a candidate for the 1960 Olympic team. He once ran a 9.5-second 100-yard dash in high school and set a city record in the long jump.

In Willie Davis' first two Minor League seasons, with the Reno Silver Sox in a Class C Minor League in 1959, and with Spokane in the Pacific Coast League in 1960, Willie led both leagues in runs, hits, triples and batting average. His composite batting average for his first two years: .352.

He stole 33 bases for Reno and 30 for Spokane.

"Willie has only begun to run," said Pete Reiser, a former Dodgers great who tutored Davis as a member of the team's Minor League department.

Reiser couldn't have been more on target, as Davis became the Dodgers' regular center fielder in 1961, and in the next dozen seasons ranked in the top-10 in stolen bases in the National League each year. He finished his 18-year Major League career in 1979 with 398 career stolen bases and a .279 batting average.

Davis remains the all-time Los Angeles Dodgers leader in hits, extra-base hits, triples, runs scored, at-bats and total bases.

It wasn't just Davis' stolen bases that caught the fancy and fascination of Dodgers fans. It was his style, his flare and the blazing speed that saw him go from first to third with his helmet flying off in the process.

"I once saw him score from second base on a sacrifice fly," recalled Tommy Davis.

He was a fan favorite on Dodgers teams that included the likes of Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale, Wills, Jim Gilliam, John Roseboro, Johnny Podres, Ron Fairly, Wes Parker, Jim Lefebvre, Frank Howard, Claude Osteen, Wally Moon, his great friend Tommy Davis and others.

These were the players who eased the transition of the Dodgers' move from Brooklyn and the teams of the "Boys of Summer" while building a foundation of great popularity for Dodgers baseball in Los Angeles.

Davis was traded by the Dodgers to the Expos after the 1973 season, and although his shining star in Los Angeles lost its luster as the years went by, the memories of "3-Dog" in Los Angeles remain in the minds of long-time fans.

Willie Davis never tried to hold onto stardom or fame. He lived his life, as Tommy Davis described, in his own style.

He lived quietly in Burbank, Calif., near Dodger Stadium, and would show up at the stadium from time to time for various events. Every January he would call for tickets to the L.A. Open because golf was his passion. He once told a friend that meeting golfing great Ben Hogan while he was a member of the Texas Rangers was one of the highlights of his time in baseball.

Willie would often go for a walk around his Burbank neighborhood and have his 9 iron in hand so he could always be in contact with a club. He was a good enough player to lower his handicap to a 3 at one point.

My son, Jeff, called me on Tuesday to say that he was sorry to hear about the passing of Willie, and Jeff relayed the story that he once saw Davis walking along with a golf club in Burbank and stopped to say hello and give his regards.

"How did you know it was me?" inquired Willie.

"Everybody in Los Angeles knows you, Willie," replied Jeff.

Davis was surprised to be recognized and remembered.

The fact is those of us who were fortunate to know him, and the fans who cheered him, will never forget Willie Davis.

Fred Claire was a member of the Los Angeles Dodgers from 1969-98, serving the team as executive vice-president and general manager. He is the author of "Fred Claire: My 30 Years in Dodger Blue."