FORT MYERS, FLA. - They should be wonderful, fond memories. They should be career highlights, moments of triumph that get you invited back to reunions, the sort of recollections that randomly make you grin years later, decades later.
But all Rich Harden can remember is the pain.
It was 2008, and the Canadian righthander was back. He had restored his reputation as a strikeout machine in Oakland, gone undefeated for 12 consecutive starts, and after becoming a trade-deadline pickup for the Cubs, somehow became even more dominant. He went 5-1 in Chicago, posted a 1.77 ERA in 12 starts and helped carry the team to a division championship.
Just imagine the thrill that year must have been for Harden. He sure wishes he could.
"It felt good to have those accomplishments, but it was not a fun season," said Harden, who is now hoping to win a spot in the Twins bullpen. "My shoulder was bad. It was really hurting every day, every pitch. But I was still able to have consistency in my feel, location and command. I was amazed by that."
So were the Cubs, who rewarded him by picking up a $7 million option for 2009. That season, that contract, cemented Harden's decision to go to war with his body: Pain be damned, he said, "I just kind of told myself, 'I'm going to keep pitching until I can't get it to the plate anymore.' "
Too much pain to bear
That's no way to live, no way to play a kid's game, but Harden didn't care. His body had betrayed him too many times, had spoiled what looked like a Hall of Fame career when he was 21 and already winning games for the Athletics. A strained oblique, a torn labrum, a sprained UCL. Hip flexors, back spasms -- all had sidetracked Harden's career.
But this? A sore pitching shoulder, the freak result of simply trying to barehand, if a little awkwardly, a one-hop comebacker to the mound? This, he vowed, would not conquer him.
"The pain was significant, every day. Warming up, pitching, even trying to sleep at night. Doing anything, really," Harden said. "But I could still get guys out. I remember one of the last games of 2008, I'm throwing as hard as I can, and it's just an 82-mph fastball. And it's just killing me. But I loosened up, gained a little velocity, and went seven innings. Gave up one run."
Doctors told him shoulder surgery was a gamble, so he chose to tough it out instead. He worked every offseason to prepare for the pain, and to try to recapture the pitching mechanics that had allowed him to be effective. It was a battle he couldn't win, though, and the results got worse every year. He signed with Texas in 2010, posted a 5.58 ERA and was released. He went back to Oakland in 2011, managed only 82 innings with a 5.12 ERA, and faced the inevitable. His shoulder had won.
"Over time, my body just couldn't do it anymore," said the native of Victoria, British Columbia. "I realized I couldn't repeat 2008. There wasn't much choice."
One more try
Still, the Twins had inquired about Harden's plans, and he was intrigued. His wife, Kelsey, is from Bagley, Minn., about 25 miles west of Bemidji, and he had always pitched well in the cold. He visited famed surgeon Dr. James Andrews, fearing the worst. Andrews, though, told him by reattaching the shoulder capsule, in effect "tightening" his shoulder, he could have a full recovery.
Harden was so excited, he scheduled the surgery within a day -- and told the Twins he was taking 2012 off.
Rob Antony, Twins assistant general manager, said he told Harden that he appreciated his integrity.
He "could have signed with us, come to spring training, and then said, 'Ahh, it's hurting again, I'm having surgery,' " Antony said. "Then we're on the hook for paying him and paying for the surgery and all the other stuff. He didn't do that. He said, "I just wanted to be healthy again.' "
For the first time since he was 9, Harden's summer was not dominated by baseball. Instead, he rehabbed his shoulder five days a week in Phoenix, with the occasional long-weekend trip to Bagley. He never attended a big-league game, and by midseason, he wasn't even following baseball.
Mostly, he was enjoying being pain-free again. "It's a big difference. It's healing, that's all," Harden said. "It's still stiff occasionally, but the pain -- no, that's gone."
No pressure with Twins
When the Twins asked about him again last winter, the 31-year-old Harden liked Antony's pitch: No pressure. Pitch when you're ready.
"We said we'll take it slow. You don't even need to try to make the team. If you're not ready, we've got time," said Antony, who signed Harden to a contract that will pay him $1 million if he pitches for the Twins. "He doesn't want to ruin all he's done to get to this point. So if needs more time, needs extended spring training, that's fine. I think he really just wants to find a home again."
The Twins foresee using him in the bullpen, at least at first as he builds strength. He goes at his pace in camp but this week threw to live hitters, full speed. Another milestone.
His shoulder is tight, but doctors say it will loosen as he uses it, and his velocity could return to the low 90s. He is also a much smarter pitcher now, having learned so much during the painful years.
"He could be a great addition," Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said. "I'm not asking him to be what he used to be. You're talking about a guy who, if he's healthy, can pitch. He knows how to get people out."
And he's excited about his new start, his new opportunity, especially since he and Kelsey are expecting their first child in July.
"I don't want to get ahead of myself, because I've worked too hard to risk it," Harden said. "But I feel really good about this."