By Andrew Astleford
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 4, 2008
ANNAPOLIS -- Ten years from now, Mitch Harris imagines himself stepping onto a major league pitcher's mound, stronger for realizing two, seemingly opposite dreams.
By then, he will have served his country. And when teammates ask about his life sailing vast seas, Harris might answer, his deep voice pouring with pride, "I was a Naval Academy graduate, and I was able to fulfill my commitment as well as continue my professional baseball career."
The statement would mark an improbable journey's zenith.
Had Harris not caught the eye of a Navy assistant football coach before his final high school season, he probably would have played at Spartanburg (S.C.) Methodist College, a junior college, or Division I-AA Gardner-Webb.
Without Navy, Harris might not have attracted the attention of professional scouts. Last season, as a junior, the Atlanta Braves selected him in the 24th round. And earlier this year, Baseball America rated the 6-foot-4 right-hander with a 94-mph fastball as the country's No. 2 senior college prospect.
But because of Navy, his baseball future remains unknown. A grandfather's death weighing on his conscience two summers ago, Harris committed to five years of service after graduation. He will board the USS Ponce, an amphibious transport dock, on June 16 as others picked in this week's Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft begin their professional baseball lives. He's bound to active duty until age 27, a time when most prospects' paths are worn or abandoned, not charted.
To fast-track the process, he could petition for an early release. In the past, people with extraordinary talent such as former Midshipman David Robinson -- who went on to stardom in the NBA -- were granted exemptions after serving for two years that allowed them to spend six years in the reserves to satisfy their requirement. However, Harris understands conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq would make an appeal's success unlikely.
So his journey continues. It includes a paradox: The Navy made Harris's professional baseball dream possible, but his commitment to higher duty may take it away.
"I'm human," he said. "You have those thoughts. You think: 'Why can't they make this one small exception? Why can't I do this?' It's difficult, but sometimes you have to step back and look at the bigger picture and try to figure out a way to compromise both."Diamond in the Rough
Buddy Green, Navy's defensive coordinator, had never seen anyone like him. The kid in the bullpen was tall, lean and snapped pitches with precision. "He just had this presence," Green said.
It was late February 2004, and Green was visiting South Point, a high school within Green's recruiting area that's located in Belmont, N.C., about 15 miles west of Charlotte. He was friends with Mickey Lineberger, South Point's baseball coach. In recent years, Green had dropped by after college football's national signing day to catch up.
Only this time, Green's eyes were locked on the bullpen. The pitcher had size. He had power. And he hadn't signed with anyone.
Green walked into the registrar's office and requested a copy of Harris's transcript. One glance at Harris's grades and Green was giddy; Harris had mostly A's and impressive SAT scores -- a perfect combination for the selective Naval Academy.
Later that spring, Harris signed. As a freshman, he started 37 games and hit .283. He played first base and pitched 15 1/3 innings. The Midshipmen struggled, winning 12 games. Coach Steve Whitmyer was fired.
The following year, during offseason workouts, Coach Paul Kostacopoulos saw a player throwing in the outfield and said, "Boy, he could be okay." He quickly learned Harris's name.
"I looked at [the previous year's stats] and said: 'Wow, he has only pitched 15 innings? Something isn't right,' " Kostacopoulos said. "I put him on the mound within the next three or four days and knew right away that we had something."
Before long, talk of Harris's potential grew. He became the staff ace. He won eight consecutive starts, finishing 10-3 with a 1.74 ERA during his sophomore season. The Midshipmen won 32 games; a winner's mentality enveloped the program, and Harris's self-confidence swelled.
"It's neat to see how everything worked out," Harris said. "From [looking at] a junior college to a smaller Division I [school] to the Naval Academy. It's hard to beat that."
Then he faced the most important decision of his life.Making a Commitment
Uncertainty shackled Harris in the months before he determined his Navy commitment, a pen's stroke shaping his unknown. He wasn't himself. He became quiet around friends. During conversations with his parents, he spoke in introspective code. The scenarios bounced through his brain, each option pitting reason against the game he loved.
"I thought, 'Well, if I sign, there's a chance I might not play" Major League Baseball, he said. "If I don't sign, and I go to another school, there's a good chance that I could play, but I won't graduate from the Naval Academy. And I won't get to fulfill the commitment that, after two years, I really respected."
Whichever direction he chose, the selection would linger. At the beginning of their junior year, Midshipmen must decide whether to commit to service after graduation. If Harris scribbled his signature, his blossoming baseball prospects would be put on hold. If he didn't sign, two years of rigorous academic work would have been completed in vain.
In addition, a deeper influence tugged at him. Both his grandfathers, James Chamberlain (Army) and Louin Harris (Navy), had served in World War II. Nothing made them beam with pride quite like seeing Harris carry himself in that neat uniform, spine straight and chest puffed. Harris was their joy.
In July 2006, Chamberlain's battle with cancer took a turn for the worse. Non-Hodgkin's lymphoma ravaged his health; his kidneys began to fail from the treatment.
Chamberlain hadn't cried at his own father's funeral, but he thought so much of Harris that he once teared up after seeing what his grandson had become.
"Seeing him in tears sometimes," Harris said, pausing, "I wouldn't give up anything to see that."
Chamberlain died July 22, 2006. Afterward, Harris approached his decision with greater perspective. He'd come too far, he thought to himself. He was receiving a fantastic education. His family was proud of him; it would be a shame to let them down.
That fall Harris signed the commitment papers, his grandfather's emotion branded in memory. At the ceremony in Annapolis, Harris embraced friends in 15th Company. They smiled. For almost everyone, the atmosphere was euphoric.
"Now you have to stay for seven more years!" they said to him.
But something inside Harris gave him pause. The day provided direction for one area of his life. But what would become of the other?
What about baseball?Left to Wonder
Harris pulled off the road. He couldn't believe the voice on the other end of his cellphone. Had the Braves really drafted him? The same team that made Harris, as a 7-year-old boy in Lawrenceville, Ga., camp in front of the television on Sunday afternoons and recite Bobby Cox's lineup card by heart?
"Ron Gant . . . David Justice . . . Jeff Blauser . . . Fred McGriff . . ." Harris was about halfway to Bourne, Mass., to play in the summer Cape Cod League. Shock laced his voice. He dialed family and at least 15 friends. He knew signing a major league contract was out of the question, but it was an honor just to be selected.
But what if? For the first time, Harris's service commitment affected him in a real way. He began thinking about his future. How would he fulfill his duty and play professional baseball?
Few had tried. Harris was the third baseball player in Navy history to be drafted. In 2003, the Toronto Blue Jays picked pitcher Matt Foster, who played three seasons in the minor leagues before serving for two years. The Blue Jays released him in 2006. Last year the Oakland Athletics selected catcher Jonathan Johnston, who graduated in 2006. In between, Johnston had served for 18 months.
"If you look at Mitch's stature," said Harvey Shapiro, Harris's Cape Cod League manager, "my guess would be that he would go within the top five rounds if he was not involved with the Naval Academy.
"From a professional team's standpoint, when [teams] draft someone, they want to sign their choices."
And that worries Harris. He wants to experience both lives.
Harris is eager to serve his country, but he fears prime years of baseball development will be erased. He hasn't been the only one with doubts.
"I'm proud of my service. I enjoyed being an officer," said former Navy running back Napoleon McCallum, who started five games for the then-Los Angeles Raiders in 1986 before beginning his service and rejoining the team from 1990 to '94. "But the timing for me, when I was at the peak of my life as far as professional sports, you just always think in the back of your mind, 'What could have been?' "
"It's obviously a tough situation," said Navy pitcher Oliver Drake, a rising junior. "But it's one of those things where we signed on for this."
Still, Harris wants no regrets. He talks to JAG officers. He quizzes athletic department officials. He's doing his homework, hoping adult responsibility doesn't mean a childhood dream must fade.
"It only takes one person," Harris said. "If he or she is high enough in the chain of command, it only takes one person to say, 'I don't want him to do this.' "Call Waiting
On draft day, he will wait for the call. It will mark the reality of his dual desires.
The Navy: an existence he has grown to respect. The duty, the commitment, the honor of staring into a mirror, fastening a final brass button and realizing, without the slightest of doubts, that he is entrusted with freedom's preservation. What a rush.
Professional baseball: an existence of childhood fantasy. His first glove, the plastic helmet from a Braves giveaway, sandlot affairs with neighborhood kids, first and third bases fastened in his back yard's extreme corners, a neighbor's wooden fence a taunting invitation. What a life.
"I think, deep down, it's going to work out somehow," Harris said. "It might not be the best way. But give it some time, it's going to work out the way it should."
He will wait for the call. Then he will wait for his country.
Two dreams in the balance, each not possible without the other.