Dodger Players Are Having Problems, They Can Call On the Pitching
Coach, the Hitting Coach — or the Team Psychiatrist
By GARY LIBMAN,
TIMES STAFF WRITER
Copyright © 1994 Times Mirror Company 000031732
Los Angeles Times Monday April 4, 1994 Home Edition View Part
E Page 1 Column 2 42 inches; 1493 words Type of Material: Profile
VERO BEACH, Fla.--As balls crack off bats nearby, Herndon Harding
Jr. and a player walk across a radiant-green diamond, starting
a loop through the outskirts of Dodgertown. They stroll past an
orange grove, through a golf course and behind a stretch of tall
weeds before returning to the playing fields.
This is how team psychiatrist Harding performs open-air therapy.
He may make the 40-minute loop around the spring training site
half a dozen times a day, with any one of 210 players for the
Dodgers and their minor league teams. The athletes also approach
the doctor in the training room or the dining room, and he sometimes
appears in uniform in the outfield before minor league games.
face to face can be confrontational," Harding says. "When I'm
standing beside a player shagging flies, he and I are together
on the same side, looking at the problem out in front of us. It's
as though the problem is not between us, figuratively or literally."
on a typical day during training camp, Harding attends meetings
and talks with players, unless there's a game at Holman Stadium.
Then he sits in the stands and roots for his clients. Most of
his conferences, about 65%, involve relationships--with girlfriends,
wives, children, stadium heckleri, coaches and others. An additional
30% deal with concentration or other baseball performance problems,
and the rest with drug and alcohol abuse.
a realist. He's not here to study us, but to help us," says pitcher
Orel Hershiser, scheduled to start for the Dodgers on opening
day Tuesday. "He's (also) a constant. You could have a close friend
on the team (whom you talk to) and that guy could get traded or
released. Dr. Harding isn't going away."
Harding, 39, the great-grand nephew of President Warren G. Harding,
graduated from Loma Linda University medical school and most recently
worked as chief medical director for the Ohio Department of Mental
Health. The opportunity to be among the pioneers in this specialty
lured him to the Dodgers 3 1/2 years ago. Only a handful of major
league teams employ psychiatrists.
In addition to his spring training duties, Harding attends most
home games at Dodger Stadium and visits minor league teams when
the Dodgers are on the road. Players can call his 800 number anytime.
a player came to us and said, 'my shoulder is killing me,, we
would get him help," says Fred Claire, executive vice president
of the Dodgers. "By the same token, if a player says I have a
(psychological) problem, we're able to call upon a trained expert.
That's a good position for the team to be in.
Harding follows traditional psychiatric practices, but working
with players in stadiums has forced him to modify his interviewing
techniques. Meetings often occur in public view.
players and coaches know I've worked with professional golfers,
that I've trained dogs and horses, so anyone could be talking
(to me) about golf, animals or any number of things," Harding
says. "No one assumes there's a major, serious issue being discussed."
A player occasionally asks him to break a strict confidentiality
rule to intercede with management. In a recent staff meeting,
for example, a coach complained that a player wasn't hustling
and was performing poorly The psychiatrist knew that the player's
separation from his wife had affected his concentration, so he
asked the player if he wanted him to talk with the coaches. The
protected the content of our sessions, as I always do," Harding
says. "I said that right now the player's going through some personal
things, and that it wouldn't take more than a couple of weeks
until he was back in form."
Helping players of all abilities is the primary goal.
minor league players are trying to decide whether they should
stay in baseball. There are a number who think, 'It's OK to be
here, it's a nice job, but it's really my dad who wants me to
do this.' (And) there are at least two guys who the staff feels
will not only be major league players, but impact players.
paid by the Dodgers, but I'm here for the players' best interest,
with the belief that if they can get their lives off the field
in order, they will perform better on the field. For some, the
best way to get their lives in order may be to leave baseball.
That helps the Dodgers by opening a space for someone who really
wants to be there."
Those who stay in baseball sometimes argue with the management.
One Dodger pitcher feared his career was in jeopardy because he
wasn't being used in games.
was furious to the point of being out of control," Harding recalls.
"He was feeling like punching out the manager. He felt that if
his career was ending, he couldn't hurt his future by slugging
the manager, so he might as well do it and get some satisfaction.
wouldn't tell him not to. I have players look at different angles
so they can make choices. I told him a story about a man who bought
a newspaper from a surly vendor but wouldn't let the vendor destroy
his mood." The athlete cooled off.
Fans can also cause turmoil. Edmonton rooters tormented a player
on the Dodgers' Albuquerque farm team by calling him a slang term
for a homosexual.
reality, he had quite a reputation with his teammates as a ladies'
man," Harding says.
The psychiatrist helped the player by explaining the psychology
of hecklers: They're just "exposing their own issues in public."
Players say they've approached Harding because he's not a bearded,
pipe-smoking Sigmund Freud look-alike who puts them on a couch
and probes their deepest secrets.
He's an athletic-looking guy with a wife and a young child, just
like many of them. Half the Dodgers' major league roster and scores
of the 170 players on eight minor league teams have consulted
might talk about something I'm dealing with (in) bringing my kids
up," says Hershiser, a hero of the 1988 Dodger World Series victory.
"Something I can't get out of my mind during a workout."
Harding advised Hershiser, whose sons are 5 and 9, to put his
problems on a shelf until he has time to deal with them.
have someone say I can relax and concentrate on baseball and there
will be time later to deal with this other problem is like giving
you permission to let it go, even though you know it yourself,"
Hershiser says. "I think he's (also) helped me deal with disappointments
with other people. I have a tendency to be such a perfectionist."
Pitcher Tom Candiotti says he also talks often to Harding. "When
I came to the Dodgers (as a free agent two years ago), I was trying
to see where I fit in," he says. "I've asked about my children
and different situations."
Dr. Gregory Collins, a psychiatric consultant for the Cleveland
Browns and the Cleveland Indians, says athletes are "very good
at what they do, but often don't have a well-developed repertoire
of coping skills."
The Dodgers began sensing the need for someone to help players
become more effective on and off the field a few years ago.
had enough (personal issues) in our organization where players
were under great stress," Claire, the executive vice president,
says. "we had reached out a time or two to help players where
needs had identified themselves."
Harding was recommended by Dr. Christopher Jobe, a former classmate
at Loma Linda and the son of Dr. Frank Jobe, the Dodgers' orthopedic
consultant. The fourth-generation psychiatrist got the job even
though he hadn't worked with professional athletes or played ball
after Little League.
But, "He was athletic. He wore regular clothes. He had a regular
haircut," Frank Jobe says of Harding. "Those are little things,
but the kind of things that mean a lot to a player. Psychiatry
is about getting the players, confidence and trust, so you can
Harding also admits that he was only a lukewarm fan of the game
when he started. "Had I been a rabid fan, I probably wouldn't
have had the needed emotional distance to help the stars as persons,"
Some skepticism greeted his arrival.
of us thought, 'What's going on here? What's the game coming to?,
11 says former Dodger Burt Hooten, now pitching coach for the
San Antonio farm team.
Just imagine what the reaction of the irascible Ty Cobb or rambunctious
Babe Ruth might have been.
game was different," says Dodger hitting coach Reggie Smith, a
former player. "We were more macho. We were probably more closed-minded
from the standpoint that we'd like to handle our own problems.
It meant we were less manly if we had to receive outside help.
would look at it as, this guy's got a problem. Problems at that
time were somewhat of a death sentence. What do you do with a
problem? You get rid of it."
Although some players and coaches say it's difficult to assess
Harding's work because it's confidential, most agree that his
know what the players I've worked with are doing," Harding says,
sipping a soda while watching an exhibition game under bright
sun at Holman Stadium. "I can look out here now and point out
players I have no doubt have been brought up to another level
of play . . . through the work I've done. That's a neat feeling
Now that his role has been established, Harding will cut back
to quarter time with the team.
integrated into the system," he says. "My wife and I had our first
child a couple of months ago. I've been on the road for the past
3 1/2 years. I have empathy for the players, traveling and lifestyle.
But it's a long time to be away from people you love."
As he prepares to spend more time away from baseball, the psychiatrist
has started to reflect on the sport's hold on America.'
s Everyman's game," he says, pointing toward the outfield. "There's
Darryl Strawberry, who's 6-foot-5, and Brett Butler, who's 5-foot-9,
right next to each other. Both are stars with multimillion-dollar
can be skinny as a rail and throw a mean fastball. You can be
short and squat but be able to hit the ball out of the park. It
provides an opportunity for anybody of any size, even if they
don't have athletes' physiques. That's kind of the American way."
That night, Harding talks to Dodger minor league players in a
room usually reserved for showing movies. He leans on a lectern
and explains his role with the club.
A few players ask questions about getting over slumps and other
performance issues before Harding dismisses the group.
Four players stay behind. Harding speaks with three of them separately.
The fourth powerfully built athlete wants to discuss something
At 8 p.m., 12 hours after he arrived for a morning meeting, Harding
and the player begin walking the empty, narrow streets of Dodgertown.
Television noise and music flow from the players' rooms, mingling
with the sweet scent of orange blossoms. An hour later, Harding
and the player are still walking.
PHOTO: COLOR, Herndon Harding Jr., chatting with coach Manny Mota,
helps the Dodgers on the major league and minor league rosters.
PHOTO: Herndon Harding Jr. talks to Dodger major and minor leaguers
in the training room, the dining room and, sometimes, even on
the field. PHOTOGRAPHER: TRACY BAKER / For The Times
Descriptors: BASEBALL PLAYERS
LOS ANGELES DODGERS (BASEBALL TEAM)
HARDING, HERNDON JR