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Mudville: July 23, 2024 9:59 am PDT

The Curious Case of Bubba Harkins

In March of 2020, Visiting Clubhouse Manager Brian “Bubba” Harkins was terminated by the Los Angeles Angels without warning or explanation.

First, full disclosure.

I hired Bubba Harkins as the California Angels Visiting Clubhouse Manager in 1990 after seeing him perform admirably for 10 years as an Angels batboy.

Background:  What does a Clubhouse Manager do?  Essentially, no club can function without one.  On the visiting side (as was Bubba’s assignment) when a visiting club would come to town, often with its equipment arriving at Anaheim Stadium in the early morning hours, the Clubhouse Manager and his helpers would be the ones to make sure all was unloaded, laundered, and equipment properly placed in each player’s locker. Sometimes all of that is an all-night endeavor especially should there be a day game the following day.

Once a series might get underway, the Clubhouse Manager is then there to serve the players, meet their needs and try to make them comfortable.  Need shoelaces? See Bubba. Want to send flowers to your wife?  See Bubba. Forget to leave tickets for someone? See Bubba.

During a game itself many times Clubhouse Managers don’t even leave the clubhouse.  Players often come in during the game needing this or that.  However, the Clubhouse Manager also serves as an extra set of (security) eyes and ears keeping unwanted or unauthorized personnel out of the clubhouse area (theft of paraphernalia can be a thriving business in and of itself).

Have a recalcitrant Clubhouse Manager? Or a Clubhouse Manager not quickly responding to players’ requests? Chances are, whether such be on the home or visitors’ side, club management will hear about that faster than immediately. And thus, a problem will arise for a Clubhouse Manager should they not comply with whatever request a player might have (unless highly illegal).

Let alone word spreading to other players that the Clubhouse Manager is a tough guy to work with.

All in all, being a Clubhouse Manager can be a demanding job, and a delicate  balancing act between serving players and the interests of the employing club. As best we know, in Bubba Harkins, the Angels had one of the best for 30 years.

Now to the point of all of this. Consider Bubba Harkins who had served as the Angels’ Visiting Clubhouse Manager for all of those 30 years with never even a (known) hint of impropriety, lack of cooperation, ineffective operation… or anything else negative. Summarily, outgoing, personable, and baseball-knowledgeable with the highest level of integrity known.

Nonetheless, Bubba was suddenly dismissed by the Angels in March of 2020 with no explanation from the club. (Question: was Bubba allowed to clean out his office of 30 years? Even under supervision of security?)

Somehow, subsequent to Bubba’s dismissal, stories began to emerge that Bubba was providing a “foreign substance” to visiting pitchers in his clubhouse.

According to reports, the particular “foreign substance” in question was originally invented by an Angels pitcher (who, in turn, instructed Harkins how to make the “stuff”) about 20 years ago.  Consider, as well, the mention in Gabe Lacques’ USA Today story of January 9, 2021 referencing Harkins’ conversation with Justin Verlander wherein (according to Harkins) Verlander said words to the effect that MLB had allowed “foreign substance” activity to go on for “100 years”.

“Are we to understand that when Juan Marichal whacked John Roseboro over the head with a bat some 55-56 years ago that it was the fault of the Clubhouse Manager for providing Marichal with a bat? ”

Apparently the genesis of this most current controversy, as reported by Gabe Lacques, came to a head when Trevor Bauer – who ultimately won the 2020 National League Cy Young Award – divulged his opinion in February of 2019 that 70% of pitchers utilized foreign substances to improve their grip on the baseball.

(To this writer this seems to be a further indication that Bubba Harkins was not the only person in MLB having anything to do with foreign substances. Realize that some of that “70%” — if anywhere near accurate— would have likely included players in the National League — clubs to which Bubba Harkins would not have had any regular access as an American League Clubhouse Manager).

Three days after Bauer’s disclosure of his 70% opinion, MLB distributed a memo from Chris Young, then MLB’s Vice-President of Baseball Operations, stating (as quoted by Lacques in his January 9 USA Today article: “Although not expressly addressed in the Official Baseball Rules  (emphasis added) under the policy of our office Club personnel are strictly prohibited from providing… or otherwise facilitating the use of foreign substances by players on the field” Further, that violations “will be subject to discipline by the Commissioner including suspensions without pay”.

Two points here.

1. This MLB memo would seem to indicate “everyone stop any involvement whatsoever with any foreign substances right now, or (going forward) you will face discipline”. No retroactivity seems to be addressed. Otherwise, countless players would be facing discipline going back years into history.

2. The memo details “including suspension without pay” as the ultimate penalty for (future?) violations. Not termination.

Note: It is interesting that, by the language of the Young memo, it specifies that “Although not expressly addressed in the Official Baseball Rules…”, it apparently concludes by stating that certain club personnel would be in violation of the Official Baseball Rules if they dabble in anything having to do with “foreign substances”. So, although it doesn’t really say so in the Rules you will be in violation of the Rules going forward?

Juan Marichal and the rest

Juan Marichal (27) moments after clubbing the Dodgers' John Roseboro with a bat. The Clubhouse Manager was not dismissed. (Photo: Bettmann/CORBIS)

Do they make this up as they go along? Are we to understand that when Juan Marichal whacked John Roseboro over the head with a bat some 55-56 years ago that it was the fault of the Clubhouse Manager for providing Marichal with a bat? MLB and Angels lawyers would no doubt poo-poo that analogy with a barrage of nonsensical differentiations, but I believe it makes a point in Harkins’ favor.

The original “leaks” about Bubba suggested he was only supplying the substance to visiting players – to the disadvantage of his own employers, the Angels. Certainly that would have been less than honorable, but it begged the question (knowing Bubba’s character and history with the Angels) as to why or how the Angels were not using the substance as well.

However now things begin to clear a bit. According to an ESPN story by Alden Gonzalez, Harkins identified about a dozen visiting players to whom he supplied the “foreign substance – dubbed ‘Go Go Juice’ ” (but, again, only upon request of the players) while also naming about a dozen Angels players who were in the habit of using the foreign mixture within the recent past, let alone over the past 20 years.

So, why was Harkins fired under a mysterious cloud of illegalities when the same activity was taking place in the home clubhouse and very possibly in other MLB clubhouses?? And was the Angels Home Clubhouse Manager terminated at the same time?

Here is where the plot thickens.

It is my understanding that the Angels Home Clubhouse Manager (also reputed to be a loyal employee with high integrity) continued to serve the Angels through the 2020 season.

Bubba Harkins on a golf cart

Former Angels Visiting Clubhouse Manager Bubba Harkins (right) is at the center of the controversy surrounding foreign substances being distributed to MLB pitchers. (Photo: Keith Birmingham / Pasadena Star-News)

Harkins filed a lawsuit against the Angels (and MLB) in August of 2020 alleging defamation (among other charges) and pointing out that no one else in MLB has been penalized as a result of the Chris Young memo.  ESPN’s Alden Gonzalez reported that the Angels filed a motion to dismiss Harkins’ suit in early November and that a hearing on the matter is now set for January 21, 2020.

Personally having found it curious that Harkins was terminated but not the Home Clubhouse Manager (at that time), I have now heard that the Home Clubhouse Manager was terminated about one month ago (probably under the “cover” of Covid-19-related terminations).

To me, that raises a question. With much support and reason seemingly trending toward Harkins, did Angels attorneys decide “we need to let the Home Clubhouse Manager go so we can maintain we got both to clean up the matter” as an element of the team’s and MLB’s defense?

Or, as some speculate, was the Home Clubhouse Manager let go as a result of a new Angels General Manager wanting his “own man” in the home clubhouse? (Wanting your own Scouting Director, Assistant GM, etc. perhaps understandable… but clubhouse people??).

Another interesting thing to me. I understand Chris Young is a fine fellow and this is not an attempt to paint him poorly. But, one can find it coincidental that Young was a visiting player who was quite possibly in Bubba Harkins’ visiting clubhouse at Anaheim during the 2014, 2015, 2016, and 2017 seasons.  Has anyone ever asked Young if he ever used the substance in question or knew about it? Just wondering.

As high-quality a person as I understand Chris Young to be (and I personally doubt that, by his stellar reputation, he would have ever utilized foreign substances), how ironic would it be if MLB were to have tried to enforce the restriction on substances retroactively (as apparently the Angels are trying to do) and had to then discipline the author of their own memo prohibiting such activity – had he ever been found to be in violation?

So why would Harkins be penalized retroactively (by either MLB or the Angels)? Especially when ESPN’s story indicated the Angels were advised Harkins had been in violation of a Rule (which even MLB allowed was one which from he was not expressly covered) “that had never been strictly enforced”?

Gaylord Perry

Indians SP Gaylord Perry gets just short of cavity searched by an umpire looking to find foreign substances on his person.

There is one last possibility. Was Harkins dismissed because of some other offense? Should we look for the Angels and/or MLB at the upcoming January 21 hearing to come up with some other allegation (perhaps producing some cloudy picture of a person hauling off an ATM and claiming it is Harkins)?

As I have known Brian Harkins for 40 years (overall), I wish them luck in what I presently feel are misguided allegations.

In October of 2019 I wrote a letter of recommendation for Bubba. Here is the last paragraph of that letter… meant sincerely:

“Simply put. If I were to (again) be given the responsibility for the operation of a Major League Club, Brian (Bubba) Harkins would be one of the first people I would hire.  And, at that, not hire him as a clubhouse manager but in some higher executive position befitting what I know of his ability in all areas”.

Ultimately, is this writer wrong in his appraisal of Bubba Harkins? Did the Angels terminate him for some (yet unstated) nefarious reason? Why wouldn’t the Angels just confront Harkins with MLB’s memo of February 28, 2020 and tell Harkins “if you are doing this…stop immediately or (then) face discipline or termination”? (My bet is that Bubba Harkins would have stopped sooner than immediately).

Hopefully, some fair and clear-minded judge will be helping us with the answers to these questions sometime after the hearing scheduled for Thursday, January 21.

If Covid-related travel circumstances permit, trust that I would be willing to pay my own way to be in the courtroom on January 21. Seeing lawyers for MLB and one of its clubs squared off against a former 40-year employee who deserved better should be interesting.

Mike Port spent over 40 years in professional baseball. He began as a player, becoming a minor league GM as the result of an injury. He advanced to the Major League level where he served the San Diego Padres in the positions of Director of Promotions and Director of Player Development. Mike then worked as the Angels' Director of Player Personnel, Chief Administrative Officer, and eventually their General Manager. Port was the founding President of the Arizona Fall League, then joined the Boston Red Sox as Assistant General Manager, Vice President of Baseball Operations and (interim) General Manager. He left the Red Sox to become Major League Baseball's Vice President of Umpiring. He was the only guy signed by Hall of Famer Duke Snider (then a Padres Scout) to ever make it to the Big Leagues, just not as a player.

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