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He still loves baseball, but will it love him back?

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By JOHN ROMANO, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times
published June 16, 2002

He loves this stuff. The smell, the sounds, the look. Every ballpark is different, yet they all feel the same. They feel like home.

When everything was going sour, when it seemed he was forever tilting in the wrong direction, he could always find another ballfield. He would drive around neighborhoods in Southern California and discover a high school team working out. Most of the guys knew him and the rest seemed willing to learn.

Baseball always had been good to him, even before it had made him a local legend. This is what his family knew. His little brother played, his dad coached, his mom did whatever was necessary to keep the games going.

"We're baseball people. Our whole life is baseball," he said. "If we're not at the baseball field, then we're probably home sleeping."

Man, he loves this stuff.

You know, he would play this game for free.

So why did he refuse to play for $4-million?

* * *

In Matt Harrington's life, nothing is as simple as it seems.

When the Rays selected him in the 13th round on June 4, they got themselves the draft's most engaging enigma.

Here was a kid, two years ago, who looked like the best pitching prospect in the nation. A high school right-hander who could throw 96 mph and had the heart of a champion. A baseball-roots type.

Everyone wanted a piece of Harrington. Scouts were calling his house. Agents were making pitches to represent him. Colleges were sending letters.

"Even when he was throwing bullets up there in high school, he was not a cocky kid," Rays scout Fred Repke said. "He comes from good people. And he's really, really worked hard all his life."

Just look at him now.

Harrington went from the No. 7 pick in 2000 to No. 374 in 2002. He has pitched a total of 39 innings in organized ball the past two years. He has filed a lawsuit against his former agent. He is pitching for $25,000 a month for the Long Beach Breakers of the independent Western Baseball League. His salary will fall about $3.9-million short of a bonus once offered by Colorado.

"I think I've handled it better than anyone in my family," Harrington said. "My mom and dad have had a harder time with it. They're older, they understand more about the struggles of life. Me? I don't know. In a way, I just want to say, 'Screw it.' I just want to play baseball.

"But at the same time, I want to be treated right. I want to be treated the way I try to treat others. I've always tried to be respectful toward other people. That's all I've ever wanted through this whole thing. I think that gets lost sometimes. It's gotten lost with teams, fans, everyone."

As soon as he says this, Harrington pauses. It's as if he knows what you're thinking. He knows what everyone is thinking.

This is the fool who torpedoed his dream. The teenager from a modest background who looked down his nose at $4-million.

* * *

So what happened? How did it all go so wrong so fast? It depends on which lawsuit you want to believe.

There was little doubt Harrington was the jewel of the 2000 draft and agent Tommy Tanzer was making sure everyone understood this.

While it is against baseball rules to strike predraft deals, Tanzer made it known it would take $4.95-million to sign Harrington. He came to this figure by taking the $3.96-million the Rays had given No. 1 pick Josh Hamilton in 1999 and adding 25 percent.

Just as Tanzer suspected, the first half-dozen teams in the draft were scared off by the money demands. This left the Rockies at No. 7.

Tanzer has since stated, repeatedly and passionately, that Rockies assistant general manager Josh Byrnes agreed to the $4.95-million before the draft. Byrnes, just as vociferously, disputes this.

The sides clashed quickly and viciously, each accusing the other of various falsehoods. Before long, it seemed to be less and less about money and more about egos, principles and precedents.

The Rockies tried to bypass Tanzer and deal directly with the Harringtons. They began with a $2.2-million offer and eventually got to a two-year package worth about $4-million. The Harringtons did not jump at the offer and the Rockies eventually pulled it off the table.

For the longest time, the Harringtons claimed it was a matter of principle. They felt the Rockies had not lived up to their early assertions.

The tune has changed somewhat in recent months. The Harringtons fired Tanzer and recently filed a lawsuit alleging the agent provided bad advice.

"The Rockies made an offer that was imminently reasonable and fair and well within market value," said attorney Jeffrey Metzger, who is representing the Harringtons in the lawsuit. "(Tanzer) told the kid, 'Don't worry, we'll shoot for more.' He told them the offer wouldn't be taken off the table.

"He played fast and loose with that kid's career."

Attorney Alan Milstein, who represents Tanzer, calls the suit vague and "laughable." He points out the Harringtons were repeatedly quoted saying they were making the decisions and not Tanzer.

The Harringtons also are pursuing compensation from an insurance policy purchased during negotiations with the Rockies. The policy would pay the difference between Harrington's actual signing bonus and the $4.95-million he was seeking. That is, however, if he can prove his loss of value was caused by shoulder stiffness he began experiencing last summer.

Tanzer, meanwhile, has filed a defamation suit naming the Rockies and well-known Denver baseball writer Tracy Ringolsby, among others, as defendants.

"Several people used the Harrington-Rockies episode as a means to disparage Tommy's reputation," Milstein said.

Legal issues aside, there is plenty of blame to share. Did Tanzer allow his emotions to affect his counsel? Did the Harringtons confuse respect for cash?

And was anyone thinking of what was best for Matt?

* * *

It was a gamble. Everyone acknowledges that much. It was made worse when the Harringtons threw good money after bad.

When it was clear a deal was not going to be reached with the Rockies, Harrington began preparing for the next draft. He headed to the independent Northern League where outcasts like Jose Canseco and Darryl Strawberry had revived their careers.

In the weeks before the 2001 draft, Harrington hurriedly tried to work back into pitching shape. But his fastball lacked some of its zip. Just as bad, it seemed as if he was blackballed. Few scouts came out to watch. Teams appeared to have little interest in a young player with an inflated sense of value.

He slipped into the second round where the Padres took him at No. 58.

The $4.95-million was long gone. But now the Harringtons seemed intent on recouping as much of the $4-million Rockies offer as they could.

Harrington continued pitching in the Northern League in the hope of convincing the Padres he still was a premium prospect. His shoulder grew stiff and his performance was well below par.

The Padres offered $1.2-million.

Harrington turned it down.

A year later, he is in another independent league, he listens to the derisive chuckles from the stands and saw himself tumble to the 13th round.

The fastball that once consistently hit 95-96 mph is around 90-91. Harrington, 20, has not developed quality breaking pitches and scouts openly question his desire to get his career started.

The plan appears to be similar to last summer. Harrington will continue pitching in the Western League while trying to recapture his former glory. It is his only hope, whatsoever, of gaining leverage in talks with the Rays.

It is a poor way to prepare for the big leagues.

"He's very open-minded and earnest about becoming a better pitcher," said former major-leaguer John Curtis, who is the Breakers pitching coach. "But the problem is he's caught between two worlds. He's trying to demonstrate the high school velocity is still there to market himself and his skills, and that's coming at the expense of his pitching education."

In two years with St. Paul and Long Beach, Harrington is 0-3 with a 7.15 ERA. He lost Wednesday night against the Solano Steel Heads, but gave up one run in six innings.

"Six innings," he said. "That's my longest outing since high school."

* * *

The Rays would like to sign Harrington as soon as possible but are willing to be patient. Scouting director Dan Jennings said any offer will be based on 2002 evaluations and nothing else.

As for Harrington? He has given up wondering. A week after the draft, he said he still had not talked to agent Scott Boras about strategy.

"I'm playing baseball. That's all I want to do. And I'm going to do whatever it takes to reach the majors," Harrington said. "The other stuff I don't worry about. I've learned not to anticipate anything."

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