* On this day in 1995 Greg A. Harris worked a scoreless ninth for the Montreal Expos with his team trailing the Cincinnati Reds 9-3. Shane Andrews hit a grand slam in the bottom of the ninth to make the final 9-7, but that’s not why people remember the day: Harris faced four hitters — two left-handed hitters, two right-handers.
By Danny Gallagher
The term ambidexterous is not a familiar one with many people, let alone baseball people. You would have to look it up in a dictionary.
Greg A. Harris did make the term a somewhat fashionable one almost 20 years ago when he pitched both as a southpaw and as a right-hander in a game against the Cincinnati Reds. He became a switch-pitcher.
For nine years prior to Sept. 28, 1995, Harris had wanted to throw both ways but managers like Bobby Valentine of the Texas Rangers vetoed the idea.
It was Expos manager Felipe Alou, who gave his blessing to Harris with the team not in a pennant race of a season when the club was decimated by a spring-training fire sale: Marquis Grissom, Ken Hill and John Wetteland were traded and Larry Walker wasn’t offered a contract.
Over the years, baseball purists had regarded the possibility of an ambidexterous pitching as mockery of the game. On the other hand, how many complain that there are switch-hitters?
In August, 1986, Valentine and Rangers pitching coach Tom House agreed that they would consider Harris’ request if the team wasn’t involved in a playoff race. Eventually, Valentine backed out because the Rangers were battling down to the wire in the AL West with the California Angels, who eventually won.
When he joined the Expos, Harris didn’t pitch the idea to pitch from both sides.
“But what amazed me is that Felipe knew about me wanting to do it,’’ Harris told me in the 1990s. “He wanted to see it happen, that it would be good for the game. In previous years, the media would throw the idea in the manager’s face wherever I was playing. With Felipe, I didn’t do any campaigning.
“Anyway, we were in Miami on our last road trip and as soon as we showed up there, Felipe kind of kidded me: ‘Are you ready to do it?’ There was a possibility it could happen in Miami. Then before the second game in Miami, Felipe said we should do it at home in front of our fans. But we were losing big in that first game back home on a Thursday and I was warming up in the bullpen and Felipe wanted me to warm up both arms. I was prepared for Saturday (Sept. 30) but he’s telling me to do it Thursday. So it kinda caught me by surprise.”
When Alou asked Harries replied: “You betcha’’
So all of a sudden, Harris was in the game to start the eighth inning. Leadoff hitter Reggie Sanders was a right-handed swinger so Harris threw his customary right way. On the first pitch, Sanders grounded out to short. Up came lefty-swinging Hal Morris. Modern-day history was in the making.
“What Felipe made clear is that if I didn’t get Sanders out, then he didn’t want me to throw left-handed,’’ Harris said.
But Sanders had been retired and Harris was finally realizing his dream. He took his left hand out of the special, six-figured glove made for him by Mizuno and placed his right hand into it.
Here he was, a slender, 6-foot-1, 165-pound, non-star of 14 big-league seasons, about to make history. At age 39. At the end of his career. How cool. Yet, he was a nervous wreck.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been that nervous,’’ he said of the moments before pitching to Morris. “Everybody could see that I was real nervous. It was finally happening. I’d waited so long and now the opportunity was there. Physically, I was ready but mentally, it was mind boggling. My heart was really beating.’’
That nervousness translated into a pitch being thrown through the opposite batter’s box to the backstop. Not a great start. He ended up walking Morris on four consecutive pitches.
“I was so wild,’’ Harris told me. “So now I was in the stretch position and still pitching left to Eddie Taubensee, who was batting left.’’
Finally, Harris got into a rhythm. The first pitch was a strike, then the next two were balls. On the 2-1 offering, Taubensee fouled one out of play. Then there was another ball.
“On the 3-2 pitch,’’ Harris said, “he hit a nubber off the bat in front of the plate. Joe Siddall, the catcher, threw him out at first.”
As Taubensee told me years ago, “I tried to wait on the ball on the 3-2 pitch because he was pitching slow but I was way out in front. He threw slower left-handed than he did right. Real slow. I saw him warming up in the bullpen and he was throwing left-handed. I knew he was able to throw left-handed. The day before, we’d heard that he wanted to throw left in a game. The Expos weren’t in contention so he was in no position to hurt the team.’’
After Taubensee was retired, righty-swinging Bret Boone came up so Harris became a right-hander again.
“He hit an 0-1 pitch that broke the plexi-glass in the box seats behind home plate. Remember that? Then I threw a breaking pitch that he hit for a nubber and I threw him out at first.’’
What didn’t please Harris was that the only scene shown on the subsequent highlight reels was the pitch that sailed past Morris to the backstop.
“That’s typical of baseball. What I did went off professionally,’’ Harris said.
A day later, the Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, N.Y., called and asked Harris if he would donate the glove so it could be placed in a showcase section called Development of Equipment.
Of course, Harris said yes.
“I told them I would bring it there personally. I didn’t want to mail it. Being unique as it is, I didn’t want it to get lost. Nothing else has been made like it. The glove I donated was made in 1986 and it had kind of turned real white,’’ he said, chuckling.
Harris has in his possession about 10 other similar gloves, all under patent by Mizuno. Each time he showed up for spring training, Mizuno had two gloves waiting for him. The first glove was made for him in 1986.
“I can’t wear a regular glove anymore,’’ Harris said. “With this special glove, if you put your hands side by side with the palms facing you and then fold them over, well, that’s what the glove would look like. It’s pie-shaped in the middle.’’
When Siddall went to spring training in 1996 in Melbourne, Fla., where the Marlins were stationed, Siddall received a heckuva surprise when a parcel showed up in the clubhouse. Inside the package was a replica of the glove used in the historic game. Siddall was very touched by Harris’ gesture.
“The glove was preserved in a case and there was a plaque with the date of the game on it,’’ said Siddall, who is currently a Blue Jays’ broadcaster. “It’s a great commemorative piece. What he did that game was a fun thing more than anything.
“We were out of the race for a playoff spot so everyone thought he would do it before the end of the season. When he threw the pitch to Morris to the backstop, my first reaction was that I was hoping he wouldn’t do the same for every pitch. I was hoping he could legitimately pitch left and that he would throw better.’’
And Harris did throw better. What he did was the first time anyone had pulled off the feat in the so-called majors since Elton (Ice Box) Chamberlain turned the trick for Louisville in the American Association in 1888.
Not knowing if anyone has done it since Harris did, I asked MLB PR guru Pat Courtney.
The answer: ‘’No one has.’’
Funny thing, Harris’ career ended the day following his switch-pitching episode. He threw right-handed that day and never pitched another game in the majors.
Danny Gallagher is co-author with Bill Young of the book Ecstasy to Agony: the 1994 Montreal Expos, which can be obtained in stores across Canada and through chapters.ca. It is also available in ebook format through Kobo and Kindle.