February 1, 2023
By Kevin Glew
Cooperstowners in Canada
It was a bad year for Major League Baseball, but 1981 was a great year for baseball in British Columbia.
In a year in which a players’ strike wiped out nearly two months of the big league schedule, three future major leaguers were born in Canada’s westernmost province.
First, Colorado Rockies ace Jeff Francis (North Delta, B.C.) was born on January 8. Just over four months later, Minnesota Twins slugger Justin Morneau (New Westminster, B.C.) was introduced to the world. And finally, on November 30, dominant Oakland A’s right-hander Rich Harden (Victoria, B.C.) was born.
This trio competed against each other in the B.C. Premier Baseball League. Harden was a member of the Victoria Mariners, while Francis and Morneau starred for the North Delta Blue Jays. They also played together on a provincial all-star squad that competed in a tournament in Manitoba in 1999.
And with Harden’s election to the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame on Wednesday, they will be teammates again. Harden will soon have a plaque hanging in the same room as his fellow 1981-born B.C. major leaguers in the St. Marys, Ont.-based shrine. Morneau was elected in 2020 and Francis was honoured in 2022.
“I absolutely remember those guys, and playing against them growing up,” said Harden on Wednesday. “I was an outfielder and I didn’t pitch a whole lot and I remember facing Jeff Francis. He was a tall lefty but he didn’t really throw that hard at that time, but he was tough to hit.”
Harden, who averaged more than a strikeout an inning during his nine-season big league pitching career, also remembers competing against Morneau, who he now lives near in the Minneapolis area.
“I see Justin quite a bit. I saw him today,” said Harden. “We play a little game of pickup hockey outside and kind of talk about the old days.”
Harden shared that on the 2023 Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame inductees conference call on Wednesday afternoon. The longtime A’s righty will be inducted into the ball shrine, along with former Blue Jays and Montreal Expos left-hander Denis Boucher (Lachine, Que.), rifle-armed ex-Blue Jays outfielder Jesse Barfield and legendary Manitoba baseball coach and executive Joe Wiwchar, in a ceremony in St. Marys, Ont., on June 17.
The four new inductees will be honoured alongside former Blue Jays first baseman John Olerud and legendary Expos broadcaster Jacques Doucet who were elected in 2020 but have not been able to attend the ceremony.
Born in Victoria, B.C. in 1981, Harden honed his pitching skills in the Layritz Little League and with the aforementioned Victoria Mariners of the B.C. Premier Baseball League.
Out of high school, the young right-hander was selected by the Seattle Mariners in the 38th round of the 1999 MLB draft, but he declined to sign. He re-entered the draft in 2000 and was chosen in the 17th round by the Oakland A’s. However, before signing with the A’s on May 18, 2001, he dominated for a season with Central Arizona College, going 11-2 with a 2.14 ERA in 18 games, striking out 127 batters in 96 2/3 innings.
Harden began his professional career close to home with the Class-A Short-Season Vancouver Canadians, posting a 3.39 ERA in 18 games in 2001.
“That was an amazing experience,” said Harden of beginning his pro career in Vancouver. “Looking back on that now, it was probably one of my favourite things in my career . . . being able to start my career there in that stadium which was basically [my] hometown . . . It was definitely special and something I won’t forget.”
Harden would enjoy a breakout campaign in 2002 when he went a combined 12-6 with a 2.94 ERA, while striking out 187 batters in 153 innings in 28 starts between High-A and Double-A. His efforts earned him the A’s Minor League Player of the Year award.
He continued to progress rapidly and he’d make his major league debut on July 21, 2003, at the tender age of 21, and permit just one run on four hits in seven innings against the Kansas City Royals in a 6-1 A’s victory.
“Being a 21-year-old kid coming into a rotation with Barry Zito, Mark Mulder, Tim Hudson, guys like that and being a part of it, there was definitely a feeling of camaraderie,” recalled Harden of his first season with the A’s. “They really took me under their wing and really helped me fit in and feel like I belonged there. And being a part of that was such a cool experience.”
But as much as he was enjoying the big leagues, Harden, just 21, was also learning on the fly.
“I really didn’t know much when I came up,” he said. “I didn’t really have the best command. I hadn’t figured that out. I threw hard. I had some decent off-speed pitches, but really putting it all together, it took me some years to really learn that.”
After going 5-4 with a 4.46 ERA in 15 appearances (13 starts) in 2003, Harden became a mainstay in the A’s rotation for the next two seasons. After setting career-highs with 31 starts and 189 2/3 innings in 2004, he went 10-5 with a 2.53 ERA and struck out 121 batters in 128 innings in 2005.
Following two injury shortened campaigns, a rejuvenated Harden put up ace-like numbers with the A’s in 2008, going 5-1 with a 2.34 ERA in 13 starts. That July, he was dealt to the Chicago Cubs where he continued his dominance, going 5-1 with a 1.77 ERA, allowing just 39 hits and striking out 89 batters in 71 innings, in 12 starts down the stretch. He completed that season with a combined 10-2 record and a 2.07 ERA with 181 strikeouts in 148 innings in 25 starts.
With help from A’s pitching coach Ron Romanick, Harden altered his mechanics prior to that season due to a nagging shoulder injury.
“I implemented a lot of changes to work with what my arm was giving me,” said Harden. “And it was very effective. It was probably the best command I’ve ever had . . . I was only using two pitches – fastball and changeup – and I was able to pitch with two pitches and locate. And my shoulder was in really bad shape at that time and I was able to have my best season, which was really kind of crazy.”
Harden says he didn’t change his approach on the mound when he moved from the pitcher friendly Oakland Coliseum to the hitter friendly Wrigley Field.
“My swing and miss percentage was really high, so going from Oakland to Wrigley, I really didn’t change anything,” said Harden. “I just wanted to continue to pitch the way I was pitching, challenging hitters with two pitches – fastball and changeup. It’s funny at that time, every scouting report had me throwing the split, throwing a slider, throwing a curveball and it was really just a changeup and a four-seam fastball.”
Harden returned to the Cubs in 2009 and fanned 171 batters in 141 innings in 26 starts prior to finishing his major league career with single seasons with the Texas Rangers (2010) and the A’s (2011).
One regret Harden has about his pitching career is never being able to suit up for Canada at the World Baseball Classic. As a kid, he dreamed of pitching for his country more so than pitching in the big leagues.
“I’m very proud to be a Canadian and I’m very proud of my country and I think that [pitching for Canada] would probably be the biggest thing for me,” said Harden.
The B.C.-born right-hander was coming off surgeries just prior to the 2006 and 2009 World Baseball Classics and in 2013 he wanted to pitch, but he just couldn’t physically.
“I was out with my shoulder injury that I pitched with for four years, but I was very limited in the pitches I could throw and I was really struggling physically and wasn’t able to do it. So that was tough,” said Harden.
Overall, Harden seems content with his baseball career, which included nine seasons in the big leagues. As a major leaguer, Harden had a 59-38 record and a 3.76 ERA in 170 appearances. His 949 strikeouts and 17.9 WAR rank sixth all-time among Canadian big league pitchers, while his 160 starts rank 10th among Canucks.
For his efforts, he was inducted into the Greater Victoria Sports Hall of Fame in 2018 and now will join his 1981-born B.C. teammates, Francis and Morneau, in the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame in St. Marys, Ont.
“I’m really looking forward to going out there this summer and being a part of the weekend and getting a tour of the museum, too, and seeing all of the history,” said Harden.