Nats' Harris Has a Handle

(Toni L. Sandys - The Washington Post)
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By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 22, 2008

First lesson: You count on nothing. Life as the 25th man on a baseball roster is heavy with lessons, most of them learned the hard way, and Willie Harris knows the first one especially. When you come to spring training, don't count on starting. When you play well enough to look like a starter, don't start thinking like one. When you start thinking like one, you're already failing your job description.

It's complicated, all of these guidelines, but Harris, named yesterday as the National League's player of the week, can thank them for his career. What he does is inseparable from what he's learned. His career as a utility player -- this season for Washington, he's played six positions, hitting .248 -- translates better into aphorisms than statistics. "The offseason is the most important season," he said. "The game is learned by sitting and watching." "Every day you won't get two hits, but you can still put together a good at-bat."

Here's a good one: You fight for everything; you're guaranteed nothing. Last year, with Atlanta, Harris had a six-hit game. He batted .270 in 344 at-bats. Then, in early December, Harris was hitting in the batting cages he has at home. The phone rang. Frank Wren, Atlanta's general manager, had news. Atlanta was cutting him loose; sorry, no space. "Do what you've got to do," Harris said, disgusted. He called his agent. He needed a fifth new team.

Twenty-fifth men use rejection for fuel. Harris stewed just enough. He wasn't good enough for the Braves, but oh well. He signed a week later with the Nationals, just a one-year deal, always a one-year deal. When you can play so many positions, you love the National League. That was Harris's thinking. He also thought about playing against Atlanta -- "because with them," he said, "there's this extra chip."

Progress came slowly, and then all at once. Out of spring training, Harris made the team but rarely played. The Nationals couldn't win, and Harris couldn't contribute. But then, he caught two breaks. One center fielder, Lastings Milledge, pulled his groin. His replacement, Roger Bernadina, went 5 for 40. Harris got hot, then hotter. Since Milledge's injury June 28, Harris is 22 for 57 (.386). Since Bernadina's demotion, Harris is 11 for 22 with a .621 on-base percentage. He's walked seven times. He has a triple, two doubles and two home runs. Manager Manny Acta calls his at-bats "tremendous." Teammate Austin Kearns says he has "just so much to offer."

Play like that, though, and you smack into another realization. You're never a starter for long. Harris won't be, and he's fine with that. He grew up in Cairo, Ga., Jackie Robinson's home town, rooting for the Braves. The other kids idolized center fielder Dale Murphy, the big hitters like that. Harris watched second baseman Mark Lemke. The little guys made survival an art, a form where work trumps ability.

You need some help, of course. Harris had a high school football coach, Steve Bench -- "the meanest and toughest," Harris said. "I mean, it was all or nothing with that guy." Bench screamed at Harris from the day he reached high school. Needed him to work harder. The team was in the weight room one day, Bench watching everybody, making certain they finished all 20 reps on the squat machine, and he caught Harris cheating; he'd stopped four reps short.

"I did 20, coach," Harris said.

Bench knew better, called Harris a liar.

"I had to get back in there and start over, do 20 again," Harris said. "And from then on, I didn't like the guy, but you know when you're young and in high school, you don't know what they're getting you ready for? Obviously, he was getting me mentally ready for this."

Last long enough as a 25th man, and you judge yourself on your mind and your effort. "Hell days" -- those are Harris's offseason mornings, when he rises at 6 a.m., runs two miles, takes his daughter to school and returns to the weight room. Harris feels no need to recount the details of his latest series -- how he reached base five times in a row Sunday; how he started the game with a patient, leadoff walk; how he homered for the sixth time this season, remarkable given that he entered the year with seven home runs in 1,243 at-bats.

Instead, Harris talks about the unseen details. On Saturday, for instance, Atlanta's pitcher was Jair Jurrjens, a rookie, and right off the bat, Harris solved him like a crossword. Just by watching from the bench between at-bats.

"Runner on first base, 1-0 count, he goes change-up," Harris said. "Runner on second base, his first pitch was a change-up. Okay, so that's his go-to pitch. And as a hitter, you're thinking, 'Okay, I'm going to see a change at some point. I'm not confident enough in myself to just sit on that change-up, but I know it's coming at some point. So maybe I can foul it off to get to the fastball.' And that's what I did when I hit a triple. I hit the fastball, but first, I fouled off the change."

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