Smoking. Gambling. Dark chocolate. Aged bourbon. Bad addictions, all.

And then there is Rich Harden, who for an A's fan -- or just a fan of power pitching -- is like crack cocaine, heroin and LSD all rolled into one. Every once in awhile we get a pure dose of him, and we're sucked in all over again despite all those trips to "won't fall for it again" rehab.

Little wonder, too. The man is like a powerful drug, even at 3 a.m. from 5,000 miles away, as he was this past week while pitching in Japan. Harden still possesses the most seductive live arm in Oakland franchise history since Vida Blue circa 1971, albeit one that's about as stable as Britney Spears' psyche.

A's fans know this story by heart, and by heartbreak. Harden spins a lethal game, pronounces that he's finally healthy and that it's going to be all good from here on in. Then he pitches two or three more times and really starts to convince everyone that he finally can be counted upon to avoid a breakdown.

And then comes the breakdown. How many times have we seen it? Let us count the emotional scars.

Yoo-hoo, deja vu. Harden's back again to tantalize those of us who resolutely said they wouldn't become dependent on his mound magic again. In Tokyo, the right-hander rolled out some of his addictive stuff ever. The smoking heater. The criminal changeup. The filthy slider and the underwear-twisting split-finger.

Better yet, he was throwing the full bag at the world champion Boston Red Sox and making them look sick.


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Twice, he turned Manny Ramirez into Pedro Feliz, freezing him on strikeouts of absolute nastiness. Manny finally nailed one over the wall in his third at-bat, but he was the only one who did.

Over 95 pitches and six innings, Harden gave up just three hits and struck out nine. He threw several pitches in the high 90-mph range. He looked wonderful. He looked sharp. He looked unbeatable. And most of all, he looked fully fit.

But OK, where have we heard that one before? How about last year's first start on April 4, when he tossed seven innings of shutout ball and struck out seven against Seattle, then made just six starts the rest of the season?

Or how about April of 2006, when he ran his record to 3-0, made all five of his scheduled starts in the opening month, then made just five more the rest of the year, including that painful playoff start in Detroit when he couldn't find home plate with a divining rod?

Or how about April of 2005, when he was 2-0 with an 0.44 ERA after his first three starts, then wound up with just 19 starts and a mere 128 innings pitched for the year after two protracted stints on the disabled list?

Yep, here we go again. Breathe deeply, pray hard but admit this: It's impossible to resist what Harden brings to home plate.

Maybe the breakdown won't happen this time. Maybe Harden will walk the training-room tightrope and make 30 or more starts in 2008. Maybe he'll pitch 200 innings. Maybe he'll finally win 17-20 games, help keep the A's compelling throughout the summer and make a run at the Cy Young Award virtually every baseball writer has forecast for him since 2004, his last reasonably healthy season.

I don't mind saying I'm rooting hard for Harden. I love watching the dude pitch. What's encouraging is that he's still only 26 and can still salvage a sweet career if his body will just play along. He's an exceptional young man and a fierce competitor. He deserves a break, as do A's fans and the organization that has pinned so many hopes on his incredible potential to become one of baseball's best pitchers. Face it, with a healthy Harden, the A's might have a couple of World Series trophies by now.

It hasn't happened, of course, and now the A's have a very difficult decision to make on Harden at year's end if he doesn't start showing some signs of reliability. They hold a club option for 2009 on a four-year contract he signed in April of 2005 that expires after this season. He's making just $4.5 million this year, spare change for a pitcher with his abilities, but the '09 option is for $7 million.

It's hard to see Oakland exercising that option on spec if Harden has another season like the last three, even at the risk that he'll go somewhere else, discover the key to sustained good health and embark on a belated Hall of Fame career.

The other possibility is that Harden finally can string successful starts through midseason and Billy Beane decides not to tempt fate, particularly if the A's aren't doing well as a whole. He could dangle his most talented pitcher in trade on the old "sell high" philosophy.

But that would require some serious gulping on Beane's part. Yes, the A's GM managed to part with Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder and Barry Zito, but Harden is a whole different case. You can scout for years and never find the combination of talent and tenaciousness Harden has. At his best, he is the equal to the Josh Becketts of the world, the kind of ace pitcher you simply don't let get away, regardless of how fragile.

See? One brilliant outing and we're happily hooked again.

Contact Carl Steward at csteward@bayareanewsgroup.com.