While he sailed around the world serving his country as a weapons officer in the Navy, Mitch Harris always knew his goal was to play major league baseball. The St. Louis Cardinals drafted the star right-handed pitcher out of the Naval Academy in the 13th round of the 2008 draft and knew he would have to complete his military commitment before he could join their organization.
Harris finally did in 2013 and was invited to big league spring training this year. He impressed the Cardinals with his low-to-mid 90s fastball and split-finger pitch. And finally, on Monday night, Class AAA Memphis Manager Mike Shildt called Harris down into the hotel lobby where the team was staying to deliver the news he had been waiting to hear all his life.
“He just said, ‘You know those days you wondered on the ship if you’d ever make it, all the hard work? What was your end goal?’ ” Harris recalled Tuesday afternoon, before facing the Nationals in D.C. “I said it was to make it to the big leagues. And he said, ‘Well, congratulations, you did it.’ It meant a lot. It’s nice to finally say that the dream has begun to come true.”
Harris isn’t a typical major league rookie. His path to this point wasn’t normal. He is 29. He spent five years in the Navy stationed in Norfolk, Va. He reached the rank of lieutenant. He went on three deployments. With the U.S.S. Ponce, he went to the Persian Gulf twice, and with the U.S.S. Carr, Harris went to Russia on a diplomatic mission and then to South America on a drug operation. Military life is active but not enough for a pitcher. The flight deck on the U.S.S. Carr wasn’t big enough for Harris to play catch to keep his arm in shape, though the U.S.S. Ponce worked.
“I threw on the flight deck when we could, depending on how the seas were, but it wasn’t often,” Harris said. “Depending on what type of operations we were doing, or if I had watch, if I could do it or not. So we would if we had the opportunity.”
His throwing partner? The cook on the ship who was from the Dominican Republic and grew up around baseball.
“He was about the only person I truly trusted to throw with, because I was scared I’d hurt anybody else,” Harris said with a laugh.
After he served his five years in the Navy, Harris joined the Cardinals. He started at low-A State College at 27 and moved his way up Memphis, which he reached in earnest this season. He wanted to earn his way to the majors and he did his best work in spring training. He had logged only 3 2/3 innings at Memphis this season when the Cardinals had a roster spot open up. Outfielder Peter Bourjos was placed on three-day paternity leave and the Cardinals called up Harris, only fittingly, before their series in Washington.
“It’s a fantastic story,” Nationals Manager Matt Williams said.
When in the academy, Harris said he went to games at RFK Stadium but never Nationals Park. He has received about 20 ticket requests from friends but most are already Nationals fans that live in the area and had their own tickets. His parents made it to Washington on Tuesday morning.
“I think one of the more special things: I sent a text over to my first [commanding officer], my first ship,” Harris said. “He’s actually stationed now in the Pentagon. His office overlooks the ballpark. He’s going to be here [Tuesday night]. There’s a bunch of guys I went to school with, people who are still in the area. So, yeah, it definitely means a lot to me to do it here in our capital.”
Harris is still in the Naval reserves, attached to U.S. Southern Command. He is in a special program that allows him to fulfill his obligations all together in a four- to six-week period during the offseason. It is easier to accommodate his baseball dream now, but during active duty is was harder to see this becoming a reality.
“There were times when I doubted it,” he said. “But I think the toughest part is when you have a dream, if you tell yourself you’re not going to be able to do it, you’re setting yourself up for failure. So I told myself the whole time that there was going to be a time where I was going to get a chance to do this. So I tried to make sure the whole time to tell myself that this was going to happen. And that was the best way to go about it. I’m human. There’s definitely days where I thought there’s no shot, no chance I was going to do this. But here we are.”
When Harris appears in a game, he will become the first Naval Academy graduate to do so since Nemo Gaines, who threw 4 2/3 innings for the 1921 Washington Senators before retiring from baseball and returning to active duty. Harris, an Ocala, Fla. native, was lightly recruited out of high school and wound up with the Navy by chance. But now that he has reached this far, he will serve as a rare example to those behind him that both a professional sports and military career are possible.
“At the Academy, you can’t recruit high-end prospects that other colleges can do,” Harris said. “Because that’s not the purpose of the Academy. But I think it means a lot to them, to be able to say this is the type of people we have come through here. We have a lot of talented athletes that sometimes are swept under the rug. They might not have the size or the talent that others have. But it shows the hard work and perseverance and attitude they instill in us there. I think it means a lot to the Academy.”