Athletics

Athletics

STOCKTON -- The Rich Harden jersey atop the first base dugout immediately takes you back. It was a thought we mentioned over and over again as the group of people watched the nine-year MLB veteran pitcher warm up.

"He's still got it," I thought as he threw to Stockton Ports' third baseman Jonah Bride.

Harden was ready to throw out the ceremonial first pitch Sunday for the A's Single A-affiliate in the blistering heat as Bride tapped him on the shoulder with his glove and shook his hand. 

It had been eight years since Harden threw his last major league pitch. In his final game on Sept. 25, 2011, a 6-5 A's win over the Los Angeles Angels, he threw five strikeouts across six frames.

The now 37-year-old spent nine seasons pitching in the majors in which he accumulated a career 3.76 ERA across three teams -- seven of those years he spent as a member of the A's. 

I asked him what he had been up to since he last walked off a major league mound, and he grinned when he shyly looked down and said he had been asked that a lot. 

"So when I was done, my son was actually born around the same time so it was kind of an easy transition out of baseball," Harden told NBC Sports California. "It really kept me busy, I was so fortunate to be able to be at home with him and then I had a daughter so I’ve been doing the family thing for a while. I’ve been helping out here and there with a few baseball teams."

 

Harden recently helped out with a tournament team in the Minnesota area where his wife is from. That's where he and his family go for the summer to avoid the high-temperatures of the Phoenix area where they call home. But those around the team don't recognize him as the former big league thrower who would give opposing teams headaches.

"It’s been so long," Harden said, doubting anyone would know who he was. "But I really enjoy talking to the kids and giving back a bit with all the knowledge I've gained over my career, you know?"

Harden was coaching 10 and 11-year-olds which is such a unique age in sports. I asked him what you could possibly teach this age range and transition everything he's learned in his career to the youth. And there's a lot he can teach them, he mentioned.

"I feel like at times it's hard to like get it all in there because there is so much I have learned," Harden said. "At a young age what helped me was the mental side of the game, dealing with adversity and just being tough out there -- not letting those outside things bother you. That’s a huge part of what I like to teach. I feel like so many people just get into the mechanics of everything, which is good, I mean you really need to work on that, but at the same time, I like working on the mental side of it and your mentality on the field."

Harden spent the majority of his 20's with the Green and Gold. Despite those seasons with the team, Harden was shocked to know A's fans still think of him so highly and he left an impact on them. 

"I honestly didn’t know I still did but it’s pretty cool," Harden said. "My time with the A’s was really special, I loved the people, the fans, and the people working for the A’s and everything around it. I mean it’s like home for me and it’ll always feel that way. Even though I’m getting older and it’s like it was a long time ago it’s still, you know -- coming up to Stockton here seeing the A’s shirts and the green gives me a lot of pride knowing I played for the A’s. The support I got from the fans was amazing."

 

Harden also had no idea he was a thorn in the side for other teams he had to face -- in a good way, I explained to him. 

"I guess I hadn’t really thought about that, but I always wanted to go about how I play out there not really showing any emotion, just being tough out there," Harden said. "If runners got on base I mean I would take pride in shutting them down."

Harden admitted that competitive edge never goes away. And while that stays the same, he noticed how drastically different the game of baseball is, starting with analytics.

"The game now is all about the spin rates and more statistics and numbers and I haven’t really kept up with all the changes," Harden said. "Talking with some players I train back in Arizona, some minor league and big league guys there, just talking to them about the game it’s different."

The in-depth analysis the recent years of baseball have introduced to us have Harden intrigued -- especially if those were to be around while he was at his peak. 

"A lot of the guys talk about spin rates and stuff like that," Harden said. "I would be interested to see where I was with that stuff when I was healthy and throwing well. It’s interesting"

One thing that continuously went unnoticed was how Harden lit up and smiled every time he talked about his children. His daughter is four, and his son is six. He's been getting into baseball and hockey, something Harden said he never forced upon him.

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But becoming a dad was what changed everything. 

"It definitely softened me up a bit," Harden said. "And you realize there are more important things out there."