MLB All-Star Game 2003

Jayson Stark

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Sunday, July 13
Updated: November 21, 5:34 PM ET
 
Harden will be coming to a MLB park near you soon

By Jayson Stark
ESPN.com

CHICAGO -- And now another ESPN.com exclusive: Rich Harden's travel itinerary to stardom, courtesy of travel-agent sources we can't reveal:

Sunday: Dazzle them in the Futures Game in Chicago.
Wednesday: Start the Triple-A All-Star Game in Memphis.
Thursday: Go back to Sacramento, pack up apartment real fast.
Friday: Head for Minnesota to meet the A's and prepare for first major-league start next weekend.
Date to be determined: Show up for previously scheduled appointment with stardom.

OK, so maybe that wasn't exactly how Rich Harden's itinerary sheet looked when he arrived at the Futures Game on Sunday, as the most buzzed about pitching prospect in baseball. But pretty close.

In a game overstuffed with the most spectacular prospects in his sport, Harden stood at the top of just about everyone's list Sunday. And that was before he racked up three strikeouts in a Futures Game inning that spewed 96s, 97s and 98s all over every radar gun in Chicago.

Next up on his parade to the big time comes the Triple-A All-Star Game. And after that, unless something changes, Rich Harden will be making his big-league debut as the most ballyhooed Oakland pitching prospect since, well, the last three.

There is Mulder. There is Hudson. There is Zito. And coming soon, to a green-and-gold uniform near you, there is Rich Harden, the official Next Big Thing -- in the Oakland rotation and everywhere else.

"I've had Hudson, and I've had Zito, and Rich has just as good stuff as those guys had coming up," said his Triple-A manager, Tony DeFrancesco. "I can't say he's going to be as good as those two guys, because they're about as good as it gets. But stuff-wise at this stage -- Double-A, Triple-A -- his stuff is as good as theirs."

His GM, Billy Beane, has called Harden the best pitching prospect the A's have had since he's been there. And the more you think about that kind of talk, the more mind-boggling it gets.

"You mean better than those three guys?" gulped one scouting director Sunday, reflecting on the greatness of Hudson, Mulder and Zito. "You mean better than those three guys who already have like 200 wins? I don't know. This guy has a great arm. But is he going to be as good as those three? Get back to me on that."

Well, we will. Some day. Stuff is stuff. Potential is potential. Greatness in the big leagues, on the other hand, is a whole 'nother deal. But for sheer buzz right now, at age 21, Rich Harden probably tops them all.

"Every once in a while, I'll sit back and think about it," Harden said of that buzz Sunday. "And it's all pretty strange. I'm used to being one of those guys who's under the radar, not getting much attention. So when I hear this stuff, it's something I just try to put out of my mind."

For the last three months, though, that hasn't been easy -- because Rich Harden is one of those rare people in this world whose appearance atop the Next Big Thing leaderboard can be traced to almost an exact moment in time.

That time was April 3 and 8, 2003 -- just over three months ago. They were Rich Harden's first two starts of this minor-league season. But they are still the most talked-about minor-league games of the year.

His totals for those two starts look like this:

13 innings, 39 hitters, 0 hits, 0 walks, 0 baserunners of any kind, 17 strikeouts.

That's one perfect six-inning start, followed by one perfect seven-inning start. Followed by a buzz that spread across the baseball map -- and hasn't stopped since.

Both of those starts came for Midland of the Double-A Texas League, against the Astros' Double-A team in Round Rock. And even the guys in Round Rock still shake their heads as they think about those two games.

"The first one," said Round Rock second baseman Chris Burke on Sunday, "was the first game of the season. So for all of us, it was our first night game all year. You're still trying to get used to the lights, against a guy who throws that hard. So you're saying, 'Yeah, well, the guy was really good. But the lights were tough. We'll get him next time.'

"But then the second game goes the same way, and you start saying, 'Hey, somebody draw a walk. Somebody throw a little bleeder out there.' But the guy was just too good. ...

"I remember that second game," Burke went on, "I had one real good at-bat, got the count to 2 and 2, fouled a pitch off, and I'm thinking, 'I'm really on this guy.' Then he just pulled one of those invisible fastballs on me -- one of those balls you think you see, but then you don't and it's by you. You're there thinking, 'I don't understand why I missed that pitch.' Then you look at the radar board and there's a 98 up there, and you understand why."

Harden describes those two spectacular evenings as "just one of those times when everything was working." But even he admits that as one perfect inning led to another and another and another, he began to realize his magic carpet was off on one special ride.

"It was hard not to think about it," he said. "I tried to push it to the back of my head. But as I got through every inning, when I went through the second and the third and the fourth, it was pretty tough."

On both nights, his pitch limit got in the way of making it to the ninth inning and living out the final out of that classic perfect-game dream. And that, of course, was "disappointing," Harden said. "But I understand pitch counts and why they have them. Just every once in a while, I think back on what might have happened if I could have thrown more strikes and gone a little longer."

Yes, he'll never know what might have happened. But he sure knows what did happen after word of those 39 up, 39 down began to spread.

He was immediately promoted to Triple-A. That was one thing that happened. And every stop on the Pacific Coast League trail, some TV crew or some guy with a pen was waiting to find out who this Rich Harden guy was. That was another thing.

It was all pretty astonishing, at least for a guy from Victoria, British Columbia, who grew up a hockey fan, hardly ever pitched in high school and probably would never even have traveled this road had he not talked his way into pitching an inning four summers ago in the Island Premier Baseball League All-Star Game (not to be confused with the Futures Game).

"I actually went to that game as an outfielder," Harden said. "But I asked to pitch. So they gave me one inning to pitch. If they hadn't given me that inning, my life could have been totally different. I could have been playing hockey right now -- or playing the outfield."

But they did give him that inning. He hit 91 mph on the radar guns for the first time in his life. A bunch of scouts began writing his name down in big dark ink. And the rest is history.

The Mariners drafted him in the 38th round of the 1999 draft, but he didn't sign because even he thought he wasn't ready yet to pitch in professional baseball. So he headed for Central Arizona Junior College, was picked by the A's in the 17th round as a draft-and-follow pick, then signed the next spring.

Since then, he has whooshed through three minor-league levels like an Acela train. In Class A ball: 142 innings, 96 hits, 185 strikeouts. In Double-A: 98 1/3 innings, 67 hits, 119 strikeouts. In Triple-A: 88 2/3 innings, 72 hits, 91 strikeouts.

"As I look back," Harden said, "it's kind of surprising how far I've jumped this fast."

But along the way, he has refined his repertoire, tightened his already-compact delivery, learned how to vary the speed and plane on his fastball and vaulted himself onto radar screens all across his sport.

For a guy who is only 6 feet 1, 180 pounds, Harden throws astonishingly hard. He launched 13 fastballs Sunday clocked at 95 mph or faster and topped out at 98. ("I grew up playing hockey," Harden said. "I've always had strong legs.")

But he also a two-seam fastball he fires up there at 92-94 mph, "a little BP fastball" he throws (for effect) at about 90, a mid-80s splitter and slider, and an 80-ish changeup he's still polishing.

"Changing speeds is the big thing he's learned," DeFrancesco said. "When he needs to throw 97, he can get there. And when he needs to throw 90, he can get there, too."

But DeFrancesco also said, simply: "He's ready."

"To have this game exposure here, for this kid, is the best thing that could ever happen to him," DeFrancesco said. "Big crowd. Major-league stadium. All the hype. The first guy to start for the World team. It's a great experience to help him learn to control his emotions. I think this was very similar to what he'll see in the major leagues."

And from every indication, he'll be seeing that any day now, too. It's the worst-kept secret in Northern California that the A's plan to call him up next weekend. And that Oakland Big Three will be welcoming its Next Big Thing.

No one knows where this story is leading after that. But it's a good bet the Oakland A's are about to be very grateful Rich Harden pitched that fateful inning in the 1999 Island Premier All-Star Game.

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.





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