Long before Steven Souza Jr. became a trade chip that helped the Washington Nationals acquire two top prospects — pitcher Joe Ross and shortstop Trea Turner — he was a rebellious young minor leaguer hanging by his last thread with the organization.
Some wanted to cut Souza, who had yelled at his minor league manager during the playoffs and quit the organization. Not Doug Harris.
“I wouldn’t be in the big leagues without Doug,” Souza said.
Souza isn’t the only player who swears by Harris. “I probably wouldn’t be here right now [without him],” Nationals backup first baseman-outfielder Tyler Moore said.
Coaches admire him. “I would trust Doug to raise my kids,” Nationals first base coach Tony Tarasco said.
To the average fan, Harris is another faceless executive with a long job title: assistant general manager & vice president, player development & pro scouting. But within the organization and across baseball, he is known as the behind-the-scenes engine that has helped the Nationals’ minor league system become one of the best in the sport. He is the thoughtful, Type-A, sharp-eyed farm director who has taken on more responsibility over the years.
“He’s done a terrific job of putting together a great staff in the minor leagues and developing a lot of good players,” General Manager Mike Rizzo said. “And the rapport he has with the scouting department and the front office has been very helpful to our development.”
Those qualities mean Harris, 45, might draw interest from other teams for general manager vacancies as the season winds down.
“He’d be a very strong candidate if you look at the next wave of general manager candidates,” said Atlanta Braves President John Hart, who was the Texas Rangers’ general manager when Harris was a scout there. “This guy has such tremendous character and [a] great family. He brings a field background and scouting background into everything. He understands the whole analytics and creative pieces. But he also has really good feel for players and the game.”
A Carlisle, Pa., native, the son of a policeman and teacher, Harris was selected out of James Madison in the fourth round of the 1990 draft. He was a prospect in the low minors until he hurt his throwing shoulder. Despite surgery and spurts of success, Harris was never the same. He spent seven seasons in the minors and knew he was done playing in 1996, when he couldn’t sleep because of shoulder pain. After reconstructive surgery, he found another baseball career: amateur scout in the Mid-Atlantic for the Rangers.
“It was an opportunity to learn the other side of the game,” Harris said. “From the day I started playing, I’ve always been fascinated by it. I still am.”
Within five years, he had been given added responsibilities, including advance work before the major league playoffs. “He was a guy I relied on a lot,” Hart said.
After 12 years with the Rangers, Harris spent a season with the Cleveland Indians as a pro scout before the Nationals’ farm director position opened up in 2010. Harris had no coaching experience, but Rizzo had crossed paths with him enough on the scouting trail to appreciate his skills and personality.
“You combine a good evaluator with a very professional demeanor and very organized, [and] I thought he’d be a perfect guy to head our minor league system,” Rizzo said. “To me, a farm director has to be organized and be a good evaluator. You’re scouting and evaluating all the time.”
Now in his sixth season with the Nationals, Harris has been given expanded duties. He added the assistant general manager and vice president titles two years ago. Last winter, Rizzo gave Harris the task of managing the pro scouting department on top of his minor league duties.
“I’d never coached, but I’m a people person,” Harris said. “I love the dialogue with the kids every day. I’m not a hands-on coach. I don’t go into the bullpen. I’m not tweaking breaking balls. I’m not talking approaches to hitters. To me, it’s a bigger perspective.”
Harris — jokingly referred to by colleagues as Mr. Clean because of his shaved head and meticulous nature — spends about five hours a day on the phone, talking with coaches and staff of the Nationals’ seven minor league teams from the Dominican Republic to Syracuse, N.Y. He is at a game each night, sitting in the stands taking notes and chatting with players. In five months, he put 20,000 miles on his truck. He believes in attention to detail, direct communication and deep relationships with players.
“We’re committed to seeing the person through, not just as a player but as a man,” he said. “That road is winding. It really is. I’m fascinated by it. A lot of my dialogue with players is getting to know them and what drives them because that’s important as we evaluate the whole.”
Souza was Harris’s biggest challenge. With a suspension for taking a banned stimulant already on his record, Souza was benched for violating team rules before a Class A Potomac game in 2011, and he quit the organization. Harris advised him to drive home to Washington state and clear his mind. Souza came back, apologized, matured and blossomed. He developed into a top prospect and reached the majors in 2014.
“He takes the time to get to know players on a personal level,” Souza said. “At that same time, he doesn’t let that personal relationship affect the business side of baseball. That is extremely rare. You can get caught up on both sides. But to care for the organization and the players at the same time, that’s a knockout combo.”
Moore called to thank Harris after his breakout 2010 season in Potomac, when he hit .199 for the first three months. He flourished into the league’s player of the year and reached the majors two years later. Moore believes Harris’s encouragement, wisdom and faith helped him.
“It’s rare to have somebody that cares so much,” Moore said. “That’s what’s special. The guy cares about the players. It’s his whole life outside his family. It’s cool to see.”
Harris also thinks outside the baseball box. He spearheaded the push to hire former major league pitcher and outfielder Rick Ankiel as life-skills coordinator, a progressive idea geared toward helping minor leaguers with the mental aspect of baseball. During spring training, Harris borrowed caps and gowns from nearby Viera High to host an informal graduation ceremony in the clubhouse for Latin American players and coaches who had completed English language courses.
But it’s his attitude that’s most notable. When Class AA Harrisburg hitting coach Mark Harris’s wife died last year, Doug Harris called two or three times a day.
“Even during the offseason, he’d call me to check on me and see how it was going,” said Mark Harris, who is not related to Doug. “It goes a lot deeper than him just being my boss.”