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Gary Libman

When Dodger Players Are Having Problems, They Can Call On the Pitching Coach, the Hitting Coach — or the Team Psychiatrist Head Coach

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

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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.

"Sitting 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.

"He's 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.

"If 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.

"The 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 player did.

"I 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.

"Several 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.

"I'm 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.

"He 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.

"I 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.

"In 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 him.

"We 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.

"To 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.

"we 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 help them."

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," he says.

Some skepticism greeted his arrival.

"Several 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.

"The 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.

"Management 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 services help.

"I 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 of accomplishment."

Now that his role has been established, Harding will cut back to quarter time with the team.

"I'm 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.'

"It' 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 contracts.

"You 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 in depth.

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