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Harrington's so-called life pays dividends

By Lance Pugmire

Matt Harrington
Photo: Larry Goren

PALMDALE, Calif.--One day last summer--that's all--Matt Harrington paused to analyze his commitment to baseball.

With little going on except the immense heat of the Antelope Valley, Harrington received a phone call from one of his Palmdale High classmates. The boy wanted to know if Harrington wanted to join a group of kids headed to a nearby lake for a week-long break from sweating.

Harrington asked his father, Bill, if he could go.

"We can't be missing our long-toss days," Bill Harrington said. "We can't miss our throwing days."

The response prompted some reflection from Matt, who lamented, "I haven't lived a normal teenager's life."

One night later, however, Harrington received a phone call invitation from USA Baseball, which wanted the hard-throwing righthander as a member of a junior national team that would meet Japan in a three-game series in New York.

"If I had gone to the lake, I wouldn't have been there to take that call," Harrington said.

That experience provided yet another example of the essential factor that has propelled Harrington into position to be the first player picked in the 2000 first-year player draft.

Obsession has its rewards.

"Maybe I haven't been able to go to the beach or the lake or do some of the other things around here that my friends do, but I don't think too many of my friends have been able to play baseball in 15 different states, either," Harrington said. "I realize these are years that I won't be able to recapture as an adult, but baseball has helped me out so tremendously, I really can't complain.

"You know? I'm 18 years old and days away from making more money than my parents have ever made in their combined lives."

Hard Work Pays Off

The 6-foot-4, 190-pound Harrington, who has committed to Arizona State, has pitched his way into such high standing with a dominant year. It started last summer with a strong Area Code Games showing and a shutout of Japan in the junior national competition, and continued with a 10-0, 0.59 start at Palmdale High.

Harrington offers a four-pitch repertoire anchored by a 97-mph fastball, a markedly improved breaking ball and a tricky slider. In 59 innings, he had racked up 113 strikeouts and permitted a mere four earned runs on 22 hits and 20 walks.

"The emergence of his curveball has been big, but the fact that he's throwing in the mid-90s and still growing is why we're getting all of these visitors," Palmdale coach Lance Pierson said. "We originally heard he was going (to be drafted) somewhere in the 1-10 range. I think the reason that's gone up now is that people are finding out how hard of a worker he is."

Holding the first overall pick, Marlins general manager Dave Dombrowski has visited the Antelope Valley, the north Los Angeles County outpost that also counts Kevin Appier as a hometown product. Cubs GM Ed Lynch, Kevin Towers of the Padres and Kevin Malone of the Dodgers have also made scouting trips.

Intent on not tipping his hand, Marlins scouting director Al Avila confirmed Harrington is a consideration for the top pick despite the fact a high school righthander has never been the No. 1 overall selection.

"Our philosophy is that we'll take the guy who's the best available, and while I'm not going to give away our scouting report of him, I can say we carry no stigma regarding age or position," Avila said. "Let's just say he's a guy people are looking at and he's considered one of the top guys."

The Skinny

The middle of five children, Harrington grew up first playing soccer, turning to baseball as a 10-year-old, and to pitching at 11.

"I remember the first time I pitched thinking, 'Oh, this isn't for me,' " Harrington said. "I was all over the place."

He found encouragement to continue because of his velocity, which so impressed Pierson that he placed Harrington on Palmdale's varsity squad as a freshman.

"I've always wanted to be the best I could be in whatever I decided to pursue," Harrington said. "It's like a Pop Warner player who dreams of running in front of 100,000 people. Every kid who plays sports has the big dream. Whether or not--and how hard--they work for it is their choice."

With assistance from his father, an American Legion coach, Harrington has developed an extensive year-long training regimen that includes weightlifting, running, stretching and throwing. Pierson relates a story illustrating that Harrington's exhaustive work ethic is not demanded, but driven by the player himself.

"One morning, when Matt's dad went to get him up to run, there was a note waiting for him on the kitchen table, written by Matt," Pierson said. "It said, 'Don't worry, Dad. I'm already running.'

"His dad is a real hard worker and, yes, I believe he's wanted to transfer that over to Matt, but it's already there. Matt wants this."

"I've got a goal and nothing's going to get in my way," Harrington said.

Harrington's numerous bullpen sessions helped him harness his fastball, but he lacked consistency with his curveball. Jeff Kahn, an associate of Harrington's advisor, agent Tommy Tanzer, helped him find a new grip on the pitch. "Don't think about throwing it for a strike. Think of throwing it hard," Kahn said.

"The pitch literally came to me as soon as I threw it," Harrington said. "It's now a great pitch for me, one I've never lost for a full game."

Harrington said he's presently occupied with leading Palmdale to its first-ever California Interscholastic Federation championship--"People are telling me I'm a prospect, but why should that screw up my only senior year?''

He acknowledged the constant nervous anticipation linked to the draft as well. When the first round commences the morning of June 5, Harrington will be found pacing in Palmdale High.

"Nobody knows until that day, or the day before, where they'll be picked because things can change," Harrington said. "It would be great to be picked that high, to be able to say I worked my ass off and to not have any more financial worries.

"I'm not going to act like the richest person in the world. I'll go get some stuff I want, but I won't show off. My family has instilled being humble into me."

When Marlins scouts visited with Harrington recently, they conceded to him that he was on their short list of possible No. 1 picks and asked him to respond to his feelings regarding the pressures linked to being chosen first overall.

"I know it can get blown out of proportion, but I'm not the type of person who will do anything stupid," Harrington said. "I don't do a lot away from my house except play baseball. I'm really a stay-at-home person."

Even if it means missing out on a visit to the lake.

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