On the morning of March 26, the entire Washington Nationals minor league staff assembled at the team’s spring training complex in West Palm Beach, Fla., the kind of daily occurrence that, six weeks into spring training, could feel stale. Here come the updated medical reports. Let’s go over that day’s schedule, what with three separate camps running simultaneously. Are there any issues that need to be addressed? All right, let’s go.
But here, five minutes into the 7:15 a.m. meeting, a side door opened. For the first time that spring, in slipped the boss. Doug Harris means something to every person in that room. At that moment, every person in that room meant something to Doug Harris.
“Hey, where’s the coffee?” Harris asked. The men — coaches and front-office members and instructors of all sorts — turned around.
“I don’t think they really knew what to do,” said Mark Scialabba, Harris’s top lieutenant in the Nationals’ player development department.
The thing is, Doug Harris had taught every person in that room what to do — not just in that meeting, not just on that day, not just this past spring training, but in many cases in their lives. Here he was, walking back in for the first time in spring training. This was 16 months after he went to cut his grass and could scarcely push the mower, 16 months after he first learned the ins and outs of leukemia, 5½ months after his blood transplant, which left him in bed trying to watch the Nationals and the Los Angeles Dodgers in the playoffs, only to wake up hours later, drooling on his pillow.
The cliche, of course, is that if you get cancer, baseball becomes unimportant, and of course that’s true. But there’s also a way that, if you get cancer, baseball can become more important. Not the proper turning of a double play in spring training or the adjustment of a particular player to be able to hit a breaking ball. But the entirety of it, what it represents.
“I would have crawled there,” Harris said of spring training. But doctors told him he couldn’t. He needed his strength to return. He needed the transplant to take effect. He needed to take care of not just his family or the Nationals prospects but of himself.
The 7:15 a.m. full-staff meeting at spring training, that’s the fabric of Doug Harris’s life, as routine as grilled chicken for dinner and Diet Mountain Dew as a treat. But over the winter, out of necessity, he had handed over his on-the-ground baseball life to his staff.
“There were many times,” General Manager Mike Rizzo said, “we had to hold him back.”
They had to hold him back because his personality, as his wife, Lisa, said, “is go, go, go.” They had to hold him back because he felt a personal responsibility to the players and the organization. They had to hold him back because if he felt like he could work out some days like he used to, then wouldn’t all days be like that soon? And they had to hold him back because he was an old college star and minor league pitcher, a former scout and a rising executive. They had to hold him back because he had never known anything other than baseball.
“There wasn’t one aspect that I didn’t miss,” Harris said, “from the smell of the clubhouses, the smell of the ballparks, the sunset at 8:15 in Hagerstown or Harrisburg, the trials and tribulations that you’re a part of with players and staff, the difficult conversations you have along the way where, months later, you see the rewards, driving home at night from a ballpark. There’s not an aspect that I didn’t miss.
“But,” and he paused, “that’s what I do. That’s not who I am.”
Doug Harris is 47, a husband, the father of three teenage daughters. His father was a Marine and a Pennsylvania state trooper. His mother was a churchgoing teacher. He is a man of faith, a strong Christian, but he is low-key about it all. He’s not on Facebook, not on Twitter. He makes his home in the small town in which he grew up, Carlisle, Pa. He’s private. He’s direct, efficient, a superior evaluator of baseball talent, a leader of a player development department that Rizzo regards as essential to the Nationals’ run of success. That’s who Doug Harris is.
“He’s just an unbelievable leader,” Scialabba said.
“For me,” said Ryan Thomas, the Nats’ director of minor league operations, “he’s a role model.”
“The thing I respect most about him,” said Tony Beasley, a former manager and coach in the Nats’ system, “is his honesty and his heart.”
But Harris is also, now, a cancer survivor. “It’s hard for me to hear that,” he said.
By fall 2015, Harris had risen to his current position, assistant general manager and vice president of player personnel, and already had stared at this disease — or, rather, watched Lisa stare at it, beat it back and win. Lisa had breast cancer, more than any 40-something mother of three should have to bear. Doug had seen her receive her diagnosis the day before Thanksgiving 2012 but come home and cook for the holiday meal anyway. He had watched her endure a bilateral mastectomy and chemotherapy, lose her hair but wear a wig only once. Seems that’s all the toughness one family could have.
“How did you do this?” Doug had asked his wife. “I’ve never really seen you cry.”
“ ‘I cried in the shower,’ ” Doug remembers Lisa saying. “‘I had my moments.’”
So when Doug Harris felt achy in October 2015, when he couldn’t push the mower, he paid it little mind. He had been on something like six planes in five days — instructional league in Florida, back home to Pennsylvania, out to the Arizona Fall League, back again — so feeling fatigued was probably the flu. Eventually, he went to his family doctor. A few days later, she wanted him in the office — immediately.
“Your white blood cell count is 275,000,” she told him.
“What is it supposed to be?” he asked.
“About 10,” she said.
“Well, what does that mean?” he asked.
“It’s a sign of leukemia,” she said.
Doug Harris sat there, Lisa by his side. He didn’t flinch.
“With all she’d been through,” he said, “I couldn’t let her see that.”
The instructions: Go home, pack a bag, drive 45 minutes to Hershey and check in through the emergency room. Doug did not want to tell his daughters. “They had just been through hell with their mother,” he said.
Families, though, can’t hide. His middle girl, Sydney, figured out something was wrong.
“That was really devastating, to see them so upset,” Lisa Harris said. “We had that heavy on our heart when we were driving to Hershey. And I think we even just kind of looked at each other like, ‘Are you kidding me?’ ”
In those first, frantic moments, the Harrises had no way of knowing what “leukemia” meant. In Hershey, they got more bloodwork done, and a resident in the oncology department came to address them immediately. “You’ve got CML,” and he described to the Harrises a chronic form of the disease called chronic myeloid leukemia.
“How good are you?” Harris shot back at the doctor, and Lisa elbowed him. Really?
He was good. The diagnosis was correct. What Harris learned was that CML can be treatable by just taking a pill. Harris responded so well, his white blood cells nose-diving back to a normal range, that he kept going with work. He went to baseball’s winter meetings in Nashville the next month and told almost no one about what he was going through, though he wasn’t fully healthy. He stood in line at a burger joint with Scialabba and thought only, “Don’t go down.” He was weak, and he tired easily.
“It was very, very humbling,” he said. “I wasn’t arrogant enough to think that it was insignificant.”
But by the beginning of last year, he was healthy enough to go to spring training.
During the season, Harris’s normal workload contained maybe a day off a month. It’s the baseball life. Driving from Carlisle to Woodbridge to see Class A Potomac was something like hopping in his truck to go grab a jug of milk.
So when the 2016 season began, Harris made the rounds. One day early in the season, he went to a matinee game in Hagerstown, Md. The sun shone bright, but Harris felt cold. He made the hour drive home, finished cutting his grass, shut the mower off and found a missed call on his phone. He didn’t recognize the number. Normally, those are the calls he ignores. This time, he called back anyway: his doctor’s cell.
Some news: His white blood cell count was up again.
This time, there would be no pill. There would be trips to the Mayo Clinic and to Johns Hopkins and to Penn State Hershey for evaluations. There would be chemotherapy, and there would be what’s known as a blood transfusion, which is commonly called a “transplant.” For this to happen, he had to find a match. For a match to be found, officials had to tap into a network — available through a Web site called BeTheMatch.org — that would find someone, somewhere, who fit Harris’s profile. That person would have had to have submitted to a test — nothing invasive, as little as a swab of the mouth. Lives, Harris would learn, depended on people being tested, on having their data on file, on being available to serve as a donor for someone else.
“That weighs a little heavy on your mind,” Harris said. “But the doctors kept telling me, ‘We’ll find a match.’ ”
In the meantime came chemotherapy, more than a three-day process at Penn State Hershey, then a few weeks off, then four more days of treatment. There would be no drives to Potomac or Hagerstown or even Harrisburg. There would be time spent at the hospital. And there would be time spent at home.
“He was afraid no one was going to visit him,” Lisa Harris said. What he found, instead, was an outpouring of support. Harris did not want to let too many people know about his prognosis. “He felt like he might seem like damaged goods,” Lisa said.
But over the winter, one of Harris’s best friends in the game — Beasley, the former Nats minor league manager and coach who was now serving as the third base coach for the Texas Rangers — had been diagnosed with rectal cancer. The two drew on each other for support, talking via FaceTime nearly every day. Publicly, though, they dealt with their situations in completely different ways. Beasley met with the media when he got to Rangers camp. Harris kept mum.
“When you try to keep something like that in the closet, it’s a little bit of added stress that you don’t need,” Beasley said. “I tried to free him up in that capacity, to help him realize there’s no shame in dealing with an illness. And we would tell each other: Let’s win the day together. It was like a team effort.”
Harris had no idea how deep his team was. Members of his minor league coaching staffs, front-office officials, field coordinators — they all came to the hospital and his home. All summer long, they would sit in the basement, watch the Nats’ major league game on television and talk about what it would take to make a specific minor leaguer better. Each day, Harris would talk to members of his staff dozens of times. He just couldn’t go to games, couldn’t sit behind the plate to evaluate a pitcher’s delivery or a hitter’s approach.
“That part was killing him,” Rizzo said.
But he had his methods to cope. During the times he was at Penn State Hershey, he convinced the staff to allow him to go for a daily walk. “That was my victory,” he said, and if a Nats staff member made the trip that day, they would walk with him. When he was home, he would finish his phone calls by 4:30 p.m. — right when the home team would be taking batting practice at the minor league parks throughout the Nats’ system — and he would go sit by his pool, simulating soaking in the sun that he was missing at BP.
“I’ve never sat and tried to figure out why this happens,” he said. “But I’ve become a more patient person through the process. My doctor told me, ‘You’re an alpha, and your mentality to go get this will be really good, but the hard part is you’re not in control.’ And he was right.”
He could not control missing the awards presentation at Nationals Park for the organization’s minor league player and pitcher of the year. He could not control his absence when the Nats clinched the National League East title in Pittsburgh.
On Oct. 4, two days after the major league team finished the regular season and three days before they began the playoffs against the Dodgers, Doug Harris underwent the transplant. He took in an entire bag of bone marrow from an anonymous donor in Europe through an IV line. And in a way, his march toward that staff meeting in spring training began.
Nationals doctors would not let him arrive when players reported. Rizzo told him to stay home. He FaceTimed with staff and with players, charted their progress obsessively. But until he got on that plane in late March, until Scialabba picked him up and slipped him into a hotel that night and Thomas grabbed him the next morning, he was absent. The staff meetings, normally his to run, had been ceded to others.
“What he did for all these years is he trained us to do things a certain way,” Scialabba said. “It’s not about us or our jobs. It’s about making the players better.”
But here was a moment that was, undeniably, about Harris. “I was going to address the group,” he said. He did not. He could not.
Then the men, a group maybe 45 strong, stood up and clapped.
“It was a moment I’ll never forget,” he said, “for the rest of my life.”
There wasn’t a bat or a ball or a bullpen involved. But that right there is baseball, taken from Doug Harris for a time but now back in full for all the days ahead.