Catching Up with the Modern Era’s First “Switch-Pitcher”

Catching Up with the Modern Era’s First “Switch-Pitcher”

By K.P. Wee

(Image courtesy TCDB.com) 

One of my favorite baseball players during my childhood was Greg Allen Harris, the right-handed pitcher who pitched 15 seasons in the big leagues between 1981 and 1995.

All these years later, I’m writing a book about my childhood baseball heroes, the ones whom I enjoyed reading about from the back of their baseball cards.

When I reach out to Greg A. Harris (aka “The Original Greg Harris”), he refers to himself as Greg Sr., as his son is also named Greg Harris (or, as Greg A. explains, “LG” or “Little Greg”).

(To avoid confusion, as there were three Greg Harrises in pro baseball in the second half of the 1980s, with two of them reaching the majors, the Greg Harris whom I am talking to is Greg A. Harris. The other one who pitched in the majors in that era was Greg Wade Harris, or Greg W. Harris, between 1988 and 1995. The third Greg Harris, known as Greg S. Harris, reached only Double-A in the Padres organization and pitched professionally between 1986 and 1989. Interestingly, all three spent time with the Padres organization.)

Greg A. Harris seems a little surprised to learn that someone from Vancouver, Canada (where I live), is writing about him. “What’s this about ‘baseball card heroes’?” he asks.

The chapter that I’m devoting to Greg A.’s career will be in that book, but for now I’m sharing an excerpt from it, if you will, highlighting the one accomplishment that everybody seems to ask him about. You see, 25 years ago this month, Greg became the major leagues’ first “switch-pitcher” since Tony Mullane pulled it off way back in 1893, when he pitched with both hands for the Montreal Expos against the Cincinnati Reds on September 28, 1995.   

Although Greg, a natural right-hander, pulled off that feat in 1995, it was something he’d wanted to do for about a decade. I know from reading the papers during his career that in Boston, where he pitched from 1989 to 1994, Red Sox management didn’t let him do it, calling the idea of pitching with both hands a “mockery” of the game.

When asked to recall that part of his career, Greg circles back to his time in Texas, when he thought he had a real shot at the feat. “Lou Gorman was my first GM with the Mets [in 1981]. But when it came to ’89, he was the GM for the Red Sox. He’s the one who picked me up off the Phillies, to set up Lee Smith and then Jeff Reardon. I had patience with this. In ’86, that’s when it would’ve happened. The left-handed stuff started in August. [Manager Bobby] Valentine and [pitching coach] Tommy House had a meeting with me and said, ‘Hey, we want to see what you’re capable of doing.’” 

Valentine made a deal with him. “One, throw 30 out of 35 strikes,” Greg recalls. “[Two], have a breaking ball. [Three], throw at least over 80 miles an hour. I was 83, 84 [throwing left-handed]. I already had a curveball. I had a cutter, sinker, and changeup. Right-handed was 89, 90. But as a lefty, it doesn’t matter how hard you’re throwing. Tommy and I got together every three days. We’d do a bullpen. He put me through some fundamentals. We’d play catch about 90 feet. I would throw the ball five yards in front of him… Then, you had to get on the mound. A lot of this stuff I already could do, but he just didn’t know it. We could be at home or on the road. I’d be doing the football throwing, way early before anybody gets out there. There were some good places you didn’t get distracted. 

“When September comes around, Valentine says, ‘Hey, let’s have you throw batting practice.’ Batting practice was not for our players. We got Bobby Valentine; Joe Ferguson; Art Howe, our hitting coach; Toby Harrah [who was in his final season in the big leagues]. Those were the guys I threw to. All of those guys weren’t that far off out of baseball. They weren’t slouches. They could pick up a bat and hit. These guys said, ‘Hey, he’s ready.’ Now all of a sudden, they weren’t hitting me like the first couple of times. The stuff was moving better. The curveball was sharper. Valentine was so pissed; he couldn’t hit me at all.” 

But near the end of the season, Valentine changed his mind. “Valentine has a meeting with me, ‘That was quite a distraction from the great year that you had being our closer, the left-handed thing.’ Spring training the next year, he brought in more left-handers. I worked all winter knowing that, ‘Hey, we almost did it. I’m going to be ready to do it.’ I figured I was going right back to be the closer. How cool would that be? That was a dream for me. It’s not a joke. It’s not a farce. It’s not a mockery of the game. It would have been an advantage, like a switch-hitter. Think about it. If I’m out there, pitching right-handed late in the game, and they’re going to pinch-hit with their left-handed hitter. Now what? ‘Wait a minute, you put a lefty up there, he’s going to turn around and throw left-handed. Whoa. How’s that strategy going to work?’ Think of how that would’ve messed up the opposing manager. That’s my thinking. 

“I have my six-fingered glove. I’m all serious. I’m going out there. Everybody knows. The umpires know. Because this is where all the umpiring crews knew these rules. American League president Bobby Brown had implemented that during the 1986 season as another set of rules, other than the regular baseball rules, that the umpires needed to know, just in case it happens. Which it almost did.” 

Greg is referring to the seven rules that the American League office originally came up with for him. “I know one of them was when you come into a game, you have to declare which arm. You have to finish the batter with the arm you started with—even though switch-hitters can switch unless they get two strikes. If you hurt your left arm, you can’t come back later and use it in the game. Some of them are pretty ridiculous, but the majority of it was pretty legit.

“Then ’87 came around. And all of a sudden, the left-handed stuff just didn’t happen. They wouldn’t let me do it. But I still kept doing it [on the side as part of] my normal routine.” 

While the 1986 Rangers employed five left-handers on the big-league club, only Mitch Williams, with 80 appearances, was used consistently out of the bullpen. Mike Mason was primarily a starter, and Mickey Mahler, Ricky Wright, and Ron Meridith didn’t see much action. The following year, things were different. In spring training, the Rangers tried out more lefties. During the season, left-handed reliever Paul Kilgus (who in December 1988 would be traded with Williams and four others to the Cubs for Rafael Palmeiro and Jamie Moyer) was called up from Triple-A in June and southpaw Steve Howe was signed a month later, meaning Harris had virtually no shot to pitch left-handed. 

Greg, in fact, was released at the end of the 1987 season. “Then, I went over to the Phillies and continued doing it there, just waiting for somebody to say, ‘Go ahead. We want to see it.’” 

In his stints in Philadelphia (1988-89), Boston (1989-94), and the Yankees (1994), he wasn’t allowed to pitch left-handed in a game, either. Seasons went by, and he did whatever his clubs asked him to do, whether it was start, pitch in middle relief, or close. He pitched effectively between 1988 and 1993, winning 42 games with 16 saves and a 3.42 ERA—and realized he might never get a shot to pitch in a game with both hands. 

But he finally got his chance late in the 1995 season in Montreal, after having pitched nearly 1,500 innings in the major leagues right-handed. 

“I thought when I got to a point in my career where I don’t think I’m going to be able to get a chance to do it, then I was just going to do it out there without anybody’s permission. But, as it turned out, when I was with the Expos in ’95, we were down in Miami, playing the Marlins. Felipe Alou, the manager, called me over, about the second game of that series. ‘When we get back up to Montreal, I’m going to have you throw left-handed because, one, it’s good for the game, and two, I want to see it.’” 

Alou was vague as far as when Greg would get his shot. The veteran pitcher figured it would come in either the second-to-last day or the final day of the season. “He said ‘near the end of the season.’ As it turned out, we had a four-game series with the Cincinnati Reds, who’d already clinched their division and were just going through the motions. It’s Thursday. About the seventh inning, we were just getting shellacked, and at Olympic Stadium, the bullpen is down the right-field line but there are no seats. You have to sit in the dugout. The relievers are on the far end of the dugout. 

“We were all sitting down there and, all of a sudden, Felipe Alou said, ‘Go on down to the bullpen and warm up—with both arms.’ I was like, ‘What?’ You want to talk about wanting to throw up. My body went limp. My legs were numb. ‘Whoa. This is really going to happen.’ But I was expecting it to be Saturday or Sunday, not Thursday. We’re getting wiped out, so why not. The problem is everybody in the stands knows what’s happening. I wanted to surprise everybody when I went out there [on the mound].

“I warmed up with both hands. I’m going out for the ninth inning. We have a right-hander, Reggie Sanders, coming up first. He’s right-handed. Guess what? I warm up right-handed. The other rule is you don’t get extra warm-up pitches. Think about it. I’m going to throw right-handed, and I warm up right-handed. I throw one pitch, and he grounds out to short. Hal Morris comes up. He’s strictly a left-handed hitter. I change at the back of the mound, but I don’t get a warm-up pitch. That’s why it took a while for me to find the strike zone. Eventually, everything got closer and closer, but I ended up walking him. 

“Ed Taubensee is strictly a left-handed hitter. I got real lucky because normally that’s Benito Santiago’s place,” Greg continues, referring to the fact Santiago, a right-handed batter, had left earlier in the contest. “Taubensee took over. I go 3-and-2 on him, and he hits a nubber in front of home plate. Morris goes to second. The next batter’s Bret Boone, who’s right-handed. Again, I don’t get a warm-up pitch. Remember, I only threw one pitch to Sanders. Now, I’m coming back right-handed. Boom, he fouls it straight back.” 

It broke the plexiglass behind home plate, and in the booth was Ken Singleton, the color analyst for the Expos. “His famous line,” recounts Greg, “is ‘Now we definitely know which arm he throws harder with!’ But Boone hits a comebacker, and I throw to first and end the inning.” As far as Greg is concerned, the outing wound up being perfect. “Two right-handers, two lefties, and I was able to get an out left-handed.” And he also didn’t give up any runs. 

Sadly, though, the historic performance was also the second-to-last appearance of his major-league career. “I threw again on Saturday, and that was it.”

That was indeed it. The Expos didn’t re-sign him in the off-season, and no other team picked him up, either. To me, that was odd. After all, Greg had an outstanding year in 1995. For a bad Expos team—Montreal finished dead last in the NL East—he was 2-3 with a 2.61 ERA in 45 appearances, giving up 45 hits with 47 strikeouts and 16 walks in 48.1 innings. 

I’ve always felt the Expos could have used him the following year. The small-budget Expos would go 88-74 in 1996, finishing just two games behind the wild card-winning (and underachieving) Los Angeles Dodgers. Couldn’t Greg A. Harris and his experience have helped the Expos win at least two more games? I tell him that I recall reading USA Today during spring training 1996 (I read A LOT about baseball in the papers in my childhood) and I can still remember a quote from Felipe Alou saying that Harris’ phone number was a good one to have. 

Apparently, that call never came. “I was 39 at that time,” Greg explains. “[Teams were saying], ‘You’re getting old.’” 

The good news, though, is he did get to pitch with both hands before he was done in the big leagues. And he actually accomplished quite a lot in his 15 years in the big leagues. He was a member of the San Diego Padres’ first World Series team in 1984. He saved 20 games in Texas in 1986. He was a starter on the 1990 AL East champion Red Sox, winning 13 games. He appeared in an AL-best 80 games in 1993. He even owned Jose Canseco, striking out the Bash Brother in each of their first six head-to-head battles, and nine of the first 13 (between 1985 and 1990). 

And his glove is in Cooperstown.

You see, the day after he became the majors’ first “switch-pitcher” in more than 100 years, the National Baseball Hall of Fame, recognizing Greg’s achievement, asked him for a ball or a signed picture. Greg countered by offering his six-fingered glove instead; the fact that the Hall even approached him was a pleasant surprise. “Was somebody in the Hall of Fame staying up late watching that game in Montreal?” he asks rhetorically. But Greg A. Harris definitely does appreciate the fact he’s recognized—and remembered—for that one quirky moment on September 28, 1995.

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