Nationals' Willie Harris still hopes to become a regular guy

"In my heart, I'm an everyday player," said Willie Harris, who played five positions last season. (Toni L. Sandys/the Washington Post)
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By Adam Kilgore
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 22, 2010

VIERA, FLA. -- In his two seasons with the team, Willie Harris has come to understand and accept the contrast between how the Washington Nationals view him and how he views himself. He wants to, and believes he can, be one of the lucky players who shows up in the clubhouse and barely has to glance at the lineup card. Harris arrives at the ballpark most days and wonders.

Harris has grown accustomed to a fluid job description, and this season it will include serving as part of a platoon in right field created to replace Elijah Dukes. Harris would like a chance to earn the position full-time, but he realizes the Nationals prefer his versatility. Still, there exists a slim possibility the role could grow into the elusive aim he has wanted his entire career: a regular position.

"In my heart, I'm an everyday player," Harris said. "In my contract, that's not who I am. In their eyes, that's not who I am. That's fine. I love where I'm at. I love what I'm doing for a living. I wouldn't want to be doing anything else. But at the same time, I would love to play a lot more. That's not how it goes sometimes."

The utility label, Harris knows well, can be a blessing and a curse. He wants to play every day and, Manager Jim Riggleman said, he could on several teams. To the Nationals, though, Harris is more valuable playing all over the field and coming off the bench.

Last year, Harris did a lot of nothing and a little of everything. "That's my job, man," Harris said. "Utility guy." He started 82 games but played in 137. He played center field 63 times, left field 45 times, second base 19 times, third base four times and right field once. He pinch-hit 27 times and pinch-ran three times.

"He just finds his way into the lineup," Riggleman said. "He's a comforting guy to have on a ballclub. We really like the role that he fills for us."

Harris's contributions added up. His 137 games last year were more than any National except Ryan Zimmerman and Adam Dunn. His 323 at-bats ranked seventh on the team. Riggleman invented a phrase and called him a "regu-tility player" -- in between a regular and a utility player.

Riggleman plans to pencil Harris's name into the opening day lineup in right field, a designation that typically implies ownership of a position. For Harris, it comes as happenstance. Riggleman wants an additional left-handed bat in the lineup against scheduled Philadelphia Phillies starter Roy Halladay.

"It's not easy playing at this level," Harris said. "I might play opening day. But think about that name he said. What's fun about facing that guy?"

After the season's first game, right field may be manned by any number of players. Mike Morse and Justin Maxwell had already been identified as candidates, and Sunday Riggleman included Roger Bernadina in the group.

"I've been told it's a possible platoon," Harris said. "That doesn't mean that's what it's going to be. And besides, I don't take anything to heart, anyways. If I talk to the skipper, I talk to the GM, that's what it is that day. Things change overnight.

"Everybody wants to play every day," Harris continued. "Unfortunately, some guys get labeled as utility guys. I'm in that category in their eyes. Everybody has their own opinion. Me personally, I'm an everyday player, regardless if it's right field, center field, left field, third, second, wherever."

Although Harris played right field only once last year, he will receive more playing time there this season. He wishes the vacancy arrived in a different manner. Harris became close friends with Dukes during his time in Washington. They played catch before practice, and Harris was one of the first Nationals to call Dukes after his release.

"I love the guy, man," Harris said. "It really is weird. I'm not excited or happy the opportunity came that way. No one ever is. No one ever is happy for one of their friends to get released that way. As a matter of fact, any teammate, you never want to see them get released or hurt."

The news shocked Harris, but he quickly moved forward. His job, after all, is to be ready for anything. This year, he hopes that includes closing the gap between what the Nationals think of him and what he believes about himself.

"You just never know," Harris said. "You go out there, you work hard, you bust your butt, that's all they really want you to do, anyways. If you go out there and give your best effort, what more can you ask for?"

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