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Less than three months after heart attack, Lenny Harris to rejoin Dodgers as minors hitting coach

June 5, 2010 |  6:50 pm

The spring afternoon was warm, but nothing unusual for Arizona. Nothing about the day or the individual  could possibly portend what was about to happen.

Lenny Harris, the Dodgers’ Camelback Ranch hitting instructor and baseball’s all-time pinch-hitter, was on a practice field throwing batting practice to a group of minor leaguers.

Just as he had done hundreds of times. Only this time, he suddenly fell to one knee and gripped his chest.

"I never had that kind of pain in my life," Harris said. "I didn’t know what was going on.’’

The batter he was pitching to was Matt Wallach, son of ex-Dodger Tim Wallach, now the manager at triple-A Albuquerque. Nearby were senior advisor of player development P.J. Carey and medical coordinator Jim Young.

"I remember the last kid I was throwing to was Tim Wallach’s son,’’ Harris said. "He asked me if I was OK and I said, 'No, my chest is hurting.’ And I remember hearing P.J.’s voice.

"Then my elbow started hurting a little bit more. The next thing you know, the trainer put me in a van and took me to the hospital. They’re telling me I had a heart attack and three hours later they’re saying I had clogged arteries."

Lenny Harris is 45 and just five years removed from his final playing season in the major leagues. He had just cleared a team physical, which included an EKG, four days earlier. He had no history of heart disease. No one in his family had heart trouble.

And he had a sudden, massive heart attack. The next day, March 26, doctors performed a triple bypass.

"I’m surprised I’m still alive,’’ Harris said. "I was fortunate to be right on the field in front of everyone. Usually when I get up and work out, there’s nobody on the street. I’m just running and jogging. I was lucky to be in spring training.

"Even right now, today, I’m still shocked about it. I never had any symptoms. I could run 2½ miles and not breathe hard or nothing. It was just amazing how it hit me. How it hit me all at one time.’’

Now, 11 weeks after his surgery, Harris is going back to work.

On Thursday he will report to the Dodgers’ training facility in Phoenix to start working with players selected in next week’s draft.

"For us to have him back in the field is exciting, mainly because he’s healthy more than anything,’’ said De Jon Watson, the team's assistant general manager of player development. "We miss having him around. His energy is tremendous. The kids miss him. They’re all asking about him.’’

Harris will sport a new souvenir -- "I have a beautiful zipper, man, right on my chest’’ -- and the same enthusiasm that endeared him to fans at Chavez Ravine while playing for the Dodgers for 4½ years.

He will also bring a new awareness of how random life can seem. Harris said that during a three-week period after his heart surgery, he lost three friends to a heart attack, including ex-Dodger Jose Lima.

"I thank God I’m still alive, because I went to three funerals for friends who never did get to have the surgery,’’ he said. "They died on the spot.’’

Watson said he’d just had lunch with Harris shortly before he returned to the field to resume practice not long before suffering his heart attack. Everything had seemed so routine.

"You look at Lenny and you’re not thinking he’s a sickly man,’’ Watson said. "You see how big and strong he is. He’s just recently off the field as a major league player. He has no history of heart disease in his family. There were no indicators this man was sick at all. We were all shocked.’’

Harris said he had continued to stay active after becoming a coach. He runs, works out, plays basketball. A deceiving picture of health.

"My friends were all surprised,’’ he said. "They see me working out all the time. They’re like, 'How can you have a heart attack? Every time I see you you’re running around Dade County.’ And I told them, it’s not how much you work. You can look like the healthiest guy in the world and have a heart attack.’’

Now Harris advises friends and family to have a stress test to evaluate their heart. He has resumed working out. He is back attacking life, if eating a tad more intelligently.

"Now I’m real cautious,’’ he said. "I’m really afraid of food. I drink so much juice and stuff. The doctor told me he wasn’t putting me on any kind of diet, 'I just cleaned your arteries. You’re good.’ And I was like, 'Are you sure?’ He made it sound like an oil change.’’

--Steve Dilbeck