Scott Servais, now the Mariners manager, was in the center of an infamous 16-minute brawl between the Cubs and Mets. “It got pretty biblical,” says Pete Harnisch, who instigated the fight against his former teammate and close friend, Servais.
PEORIA, Ariz. — Scott Servais is very happy to have former major-league pitcher Pete Harnisch in the Mariners’ organization as a special assistant in player development. He believes Harnisch’s outsized personality, as well as the knowledge gained from a 14-year career, will help at both the major- and minor-league level.
Yet the new Mariners manager knows that the first question that comes up, always and forever, when the names Servais and Harnisch are linked, is about the wild and crazy incident at Shea Stadium on May 11, 1996.
“What incident are you referring to?’’ Servais asks with mock innocence before adding with a sheepish smile: “No, there’s really only one.”
And what a whopper it was — a ferocious 16-minute brawl between Servais’s Cubs and Harnisch’s Mets, with those two going after each other to instigate the melee. It is still cited when any list of the best baseball fights is compiled.
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“We’ll never get away from that,’’ Harnisch said. “I remember I was right and he was wrong. Other than that, I don’t remember a whole lot about it.”
That statement is slowly disproved as Harnisch rehashes the brawl, which resulted in Servais’s first and only ejection in an 11-year career in the majors, as well as an eight-game suspension for Harnisch. Among the nine players and coaches ejected from the fight was Mets reliever John Franco. That wouldn’t be notable except for the fact it was “John Franco Day” at Shea Stadium in honor of his recently achieved 300th save.
In providing the backstory, it’s important to note that Harnisch and Servais had been teammates, and buddies, on the Astros for four seasons, 1991 to 1994.
“Lunch every day, dinners on off days every night,’’ Harnisch said. “We were very close. We’ve always been very close. He’s as good a person as I’ve ever met in my life. It’s good to be surrounded by people like that.”
Hold that thought, because things weren’t quite so rosy between the two when Harnisch stood at the plate in the fifth inning, two outs, bases empty, knowing what was coming.
In the first inning, Cubs pitcher Kevin Foster had thrown one near the head of Mets catcher Todd Hundley. Harnisch had responded by hitting Foster on the elbow when he came to the plate. That irked Servais, who told his old buddy as he ran past him after a groundout, according to the game account in the Chicago Tribune: “Why do you gotta hit Kevin? We’re not throwing at Todd.”
Harnisch had escaped retaliation in two previous at-bats because he came up with runners on base. But with the bases empty, facing Cubs rookie Terry Adams in the fifth, Harnisch knew he was a marked man.
“That was probably the slowest walk to the batter’s box I’ve ever had in my career,’’ Harnisch said. “Typically, I wanted to get up there and get out of the box, but it took me a while to get up there that time. The rest is on video, as they say.”
The video shows Adam’s pitch going behind the knees of Harnisch, umpire Greg Bonin quickly jumping in front of Harnisch as he stared out at Adams, and Servais jawing at Harnisch from behind. Suddenly, Harnisch lunged at Servais and punched him — Mark Grace called it a “sucker punch” in a postgame interview — and it was on. Next thing you see is Servais throwing Harnisch to the ground.
Here’s Servais’s version of what happened after Adams’ errant pitch: “Pete starts yelling at me, ‘That’s BS, blah blah blah.’ I said, ‘Pete, come on man, you started it, you hit our guy.’
“The umpire stands a little bit between us. I did not have my mask on at the time. I think I’d taken it off for whatever reason — bad move by me. Pete kind of hit me in the face. And I went crazy. I went after him, picked him up and tackled him, and it went crazy from there.”
In a postgame interview, Harnisch said: “I wasn’t even talking to Scotty. He jumped in there and started talking all sorts of stuff.”
And Servais told reporters after the game, “I’ve got a young guy on the mound and he starts yelling at our pitcher. I can’t let that happen. I’ve got to step in the middle of that. That’s what I did, and he thought it right to take a punch at me.”
Both benches cleared, of course, and as the Tribune described, it wasn’t your typical baseball patty-cake fight: “There were fists thrown, jaws punched, welts raised,” they wrote. According to game reports, Servais suffered a scratched nose and had a red mark on his jaw and “Harnisch had a few knuckle marks of his own.”
Action erupted all over, spreading toward the dugout and the backstop area behind home plate. At one point, the fighting subsided, only to break out anew. Hats and gloves were strewn all over the field, and the crowd of 23,237 was on its feet roaring.
“It was a good one,” Servais said.
“It got pretty ugly,’’ Harnisch said. “We had some born-again Christian guys throwing haymakers and stuff. It got pretty biblical.”
After order was finally restored and Harnisch had retreated to the Mets clubhouse, he found himself sitting with the other Mets ejected players, including Franco, who had been right in the middle of the brawl. Without their closer, the Mets relinquished a two-run lead in the ninth, only to win it on a walkoff homer by Rico Brogna.
“We were at our lockers, in our shower shoes, baseball underwear and T-shirts, sitting there,’’ Harnisch recalled. “It’s registering — what the heck just happened? Dead silence. John’s locker was next to me, and he goes, ‘John Franco Day. You got me thrown out on damn John Franco Day.’ We just started laughing at that.”
Harnisch and Servais, however, didn’t speak for several weeks afterward. One day, when the Cubs were in Philadelphia, the phone in Servais’s hotel room rang at about 2 a.m. after a game. This was before cellphones were widespread, don’t forget. It was Harnisch, matter of factly asking Servais, “Hey, dude, what’s going on?”
“What do you mean what’s going on? I haven’t talked to you in like three months,” Servais said, adding, “We talked a little about it then. Who was right or wrong, it really doesn’t matter at this point.”
Harnisch said the precursor for his ice-breaking phone call was a 30th birthday party thrown for him a day earlier in Houston. Servais’s wife, Jill, attended, along with their young son, Tyler.
“They came in with a police officer’s outfit, put handcuffs on me and threw me in the pool,’’ Harnisch said. “It was pretty cool. I called him and told him the story, and we moved on from there. So, really, Jill and Tyler kind of settled it.”
Servais and Harnsich quickly fell back into their close friendship. Now their signature fight is more a source of amusement than ire. In looking back with the perspective of 20 years gone by, both blame the heat of the moment and their competitive nature.
“When the game is on, fans see guys shaking hands before the game, and nowadays maybe a little too much at times,’’ Servais said. “But when the game starts, all that stuff gets put away.”
“We were very close friends then, as we are now,’’ Harnisch said. “We got through it. It was a hot day, I was battling on the mound, he was battling behind the plate for his pitcher. It was a tough day. Cooler heads did not prevail, for the moment. They have now.”
In fact, when Servais took over the Angels’ player-development department, he brought Harnisch in three years ago as a special-assignment pitching instructor. With the Mariners, Harnisch will be working with their minor-league arms at various affiliates during the season. But he’ll also spend time with the major-league team, particularly when the Mariners are back east. Harnisch, who won 111 games and made an All-Star team, lives in New Jersey.
“It’s been a big, big plus on the developmental side, passing along some of his information,’’ Servais said. “Pete’s got a huge personality, which is a lot of fun. Our players enjoy it, and our coaches enjoy it.”
Harnisch believes that Servais will have success as a manager despite his lack of prior experience even at the minor-league level.
“Not even an issue for him,’’ he said. “He’s one of the most organized, knowledgeable people I’ve ever known. … He loves players. Relating to players is never going to be a problem. In this day and age, that’s a big part of it. He’s got it all buttoned up in the right areas. I don’t foresee any issues at all. I think he’s going to be great at it.”
Meanwhile, Servais plans to show a video of the fight at one of the Mariners’ morning meetings in the near future, knowing his players will get much merriment out of it. Especially with the two principal combatants on hand.
“It was one not necessarily to be proud of,’’ Servais admitted.
But as he is well aware, it’s one incident that’s never going away.