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Dollar Sighs

Harrington Is Stinging Over How Talks Broke Down With the Rockies and Wonders What Today's Amateur Draft Holds for Him

June 05, 2001|STEVE HENSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It's the seventh game of the World Series. Matt Harrington is on the mound.

His ultimate dream never has changed.

In this version, though, the scene has shifted to a never-never land of the horrific and absurd, what one might imagine as the result of too much garlic, too many anchovies on late-night pizza.

Harrington is pitching in Minnesota for a team called the St. Paul Saints. The opponents are the Fargo Redhawks, not a big leaguer in the bunch. The game carries World Series-like weight only for Harrington, a 19-year-old right-hander from Palmdale, who in a year has gone from the nation's top prospect to . . . what?

Man of principle or imprudent fool?

Steel-nerved negotiator or misguided greenhorn?

The night is cold. Harrington's shoulder is tight. Seated in a Seeks New Starttight knot behind home plate are men with radar guns and piercing eyes, major league scouts who will determine his future in today's amateur draft.

Dream time is over, and Harrington knows it.

"I have to prove I am the same guy I was a year ago," he said.

He retreats behind the mound, takes a breath and rubs the ball. He reflects on a year of intense emotions, the euphoria over being drafted No. 7 overall by the Colorado Rockies, the bitterness as negotiations dissolved into finger-pointing, the frustration at not being in top form for this year's draft.

Before stepping on the rubber, he relives events that transformed him from America's hottest prospect to Minnesota-mired man of mystery, events that graphically illustrate the dynamics of present-day negotiations--a team trying to hold the line on escalating bonuses, an agent trying to push the bar ever higher, and the sense of entitlement felt by an unproven player with a 97-mph fastball:

* In the days before the 2000 draft, Harrington's advisor, Tommy Tanzer, informs teams his client wants a signing bonus of $4.95 million, a figure arrived at by taking the bonus of the top pick in the 2000 draft and adding 25%, the average annual increase the last 10 years.

The teams picking ahead of Colorado are cash-strapped and only the Minnesota Twins seriously entertain the idea before dropping out two days before the draft.

The Rockies are ecstatic. Tanzer has several conversations with Josh Byrnes, the Rockies' assistant general manager, and believes Byrnes has agreed to pay what Harrington seeks.

* A week after the draft, four Rocky representatives visit Harrington and his parents, Bill and Sue, at their Palmdale home. The players picked before Harrington have signed, and the highest bonus is $3 million.

Byrnes calls Tanzer the next day and denies having said the Rockies would meet the $4.95-million figure. Tanzer becomes angry and the seeds of mistrust are sown.

"I heard him say $4.95, but we did not agree to it," Byrnes says. "We reserve the right to take any player and negotiate. In this instance, because Matt got so much attention, implicitly they felt we didn't have that right."

Says Tanzer, "He lied. I haven't been un-mad since."

* In late June, the Rockies jolt Harrington with an offer: $2.2 million. They increased it to $3.05 million about six weeks later, telling Harrington he will be the highest-paid player in the draft.

Tanzer's four other first-round picks all sign. In 19 years as an agent, Tanzer has had 19 first-round picks, besides Harrington. All signed within two months of the draft.

* On Aug. 1, Joe Borchard of Stanford, the 12th player drafted, signs with the Chicago White Sox for $5.3 million over four years. Tanzer reminds the Rockies they had said Harrington would be the highest-paid player.

The Rockies offer $4.9 million, but want to spread it over nine years and would require that Harrington forfeit his arbitration rights.

* On Sept. 1, Harrington takes out an insurance policy that, in the event of injury or illness, will pay the difference between the amount of his signing bonus and $5 million.

Colorado General Manager Dan O'Dowd becomes directly involved and on Sept. 5 makes two offers. One is a complicated long-term proposal to reach the $5.3 million figure through performance incentives, among them a scale of innings pitched.

"We felt like we could offer $5.3 million for the satisfaction of their ego and this was our mechanism to do that," Byrnes said.

The other offer is $3.7 million over two years that, with interest, would grow to $4 million. It is the highest minor league offer made to a high school player and the best the Rockies will make.

The offers are rejected in a letter written by Tanzer and signed by Harrington. Addressing the $4 million, the letter says, "That is essentially $950,000 less than what the Rockies committed to pay before the draft. My reasoning to turn down this offer should be obvious."

Byrnes again denies agreeing to the $4.95 million and O'Dowd tells the Denver Post, "I can't worry about what was said or wasn't said."

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