The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

To put his health and family first, Nationals executive Doug Harris steps away from baseball

Nationals executive Doug Harris, left, shown with owner Mark Lerner in 2017. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

This is the first week of the rest of Doug Harris’s life, which he hopes is long and fruitful. But this is the painful part: It does not include baseball. On Friday, he was a Washington National. By Saturday, he wasn’t. He wants the transition to be simple and quiet.

“I don’t want to answer a bunch of questions,” Harris said before fumbling for what to say next. “I feel embarrassed that I’m doing this. I don’t know how to explain it to people. First of all, I don’t want them to think I’m living off the government dime. I’m not.

“When they say, ‘What are you doing?’ I kind of leave it as, ‘I’m taking a medical redshirt.’ I don’t want to get into the weeds on this.”

Here are the weeds: Doug Harris is 51, and he is a cancer survivor. But to carry that label, he has to continue to survive cancer. After a recurrence of leukemia in 2020 and a summer being dragged through hell again, it became clear. He made it through four bouts with the disease. The best way to prevent a fifth, his doctors told him, was to put work — to put baseball — completely behind him.

That means taking medical leave, with no idea when or if he will return to the game. When Mike Rizzo became general manager of the Nationals in 2009, Harris was the first farm director he hired. He leaves as an assistant general manager and vice president of player development. This week, for the first time in more than a decade, he will flip on Nationals games from his home in Carlisle, Pa. — and feel a distance.

Boswell: The Nationals have one injured megastar. In baseball, that makes them fortunate.

“Watching it from a different lens is not very easy, because I’ve been invested,” Harris said. “So it’s hard to kind of go halfway. I’m so thankful that the staff and everybody who has tried to — they haven’t forgotten me. That camaraderie is probably the thing that I miss the most, not just with the staff but with the players. Those interactions, I really cherish them.”

The logistics for the Nationals are clear: Mark Scialabba will oversee player development, continuing a rise that began when he was hired as a player development assistant in 2006. Inside the organization, Scialabba is respected for his work ethic, demeanor and acumen. But organizationally, there’s a loss.

“I scouted against Doug for years, so I knew how organized he was, how detail-oriented he was,” Rizzo said. “When I had the opportunity to hire him, I jumped at it, and he handled the player development of a hell of a lot of good players with us. He should get a lot of credit for the hard work and dedication that it takes in that position. It’s a vital job and a tough job, and he did it well for a long period of time.”

To get Harris to the point at which he would acknowledge that he needed to take care of himself first — and that working at an intense job wasn’t taking care of himself — has been a journey. He was first diagnosed with leukemia in October 2015. He had periods when he thought he was in the clear, when he thought he could take on the full responsibilities of his job.

But the cancer kept coming back. In January 2020, he felt great — and got bad news again. That April, in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, he underwent his most recent blood transplant. Even after he checked out of the hospital following a stay that lasted nearly a month, the mix of medicines he was on left him not only with a body that had withered to 150 pounds but with a mind that was all over the place.

“It was kind of like I was taking care of a child almost,” said his wife, Lisa. “I couldn’t leave his side. I don’t want to say he was out of his mind, but …”

He would ride in the car and mess with Lisa’s car-phone charger, and rather than plug it in, he would try to take it apart. He tried to dial his cellphone — on his glasses. He didn’t understand the time of day. Lisa stumbled into a three-way phone conversation with Scialabba and Paul Menhart, then the Nats’ pitching coach, that was so incoherent she felt the need to text her husband’s colleagues to say his mind wasn’t right.

From 2017: After blood cancer, every day is a diamond for Doug Harris

“I didn’t recognize people,” he said. “I couldn’t speak very well. I couldn’t articulate anything. The simplest things were very difficult. Even though in my mind, I knew kind of what was going on, I couldn’t explain it to anybody. I was in la-la land.”

So he started to think what others already thought: Maybe I should finally, once and for all, make sure this is beaten. Maybe I should finally put aside the idea of returning to baseball. At some levels, it’s an obvious decision. But he had gone from a high school player to a pitcher at James Madison who was drafted by the Kansas City Royals and rose as high as Class AAA — and then went into scouting. Dropping a career of more than three decades can’t be done in a day.

“At first, I don’t think he wanted to believe that it was going to be difficult for him,” Lisa Harris said. “But how could it not be when he’s been in baseball since he played tee ball? That’s all he knows. The doctors encouraged him to step back and just focus on himself. But even now, it’s emotional. He’s like, ‘I’m not a National.’

“He’s embarrassed about the job thing. ‘What am I going to say to people?’ And I just tell him: ‘You’re going to tell people that you’re going to get healthy. If you can go back to work one day, that’s awesome. But if you can’t, we’re going to get through it.’ ”

Last week, Harris had a checkup. The results were encouraging. In the past, that might have had him thinking about baseball. Instead, it has him stepping back. He has a wife. He has three daughters. Whether he has baseball — that’s not the point.

“This isn’t just about being better in one year or two years,” he said. “This is about being better in 20 years.”

Read more about the Nationals:

When the bases are full, the Nationals keep coming up empty

With Stephen Strasburg’s latest injury, Washington’s foundation continues to wobble

Mason Denaburg has undergone two major surgeries since the Nats drafted him. He’s still 21.