A Pitcher's Dual Dreams of Delivering at Sea, on Hill

Navy's Harris Aims To Serve Country, Play Pro Baseball

Mitch Harris, who faces an uncertain baseball future, was selected in the 24th round by the Atlanta Braves last year.
Mitch Harris, who faces an uncertain baseball future, was selected in the 24th round by the Atlanta Braves last year. (By Phil Hoffmann For The Washington Post)
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 4, 2008; Page E03

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.

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