A CALL TO ARMS Naval Academy grad­u­ate re­al­izes his big league dreams

The Washington Times Weekly - - Culture, Etc. - BY TOM SCHAD

If the seas were calm and his sched­ule agree­able, Mitch Har­ris would grab a base­ball and head out into the open air. In th­ese rare mo­ments, the flight deck of the USS Ponce was his play­ing field, the Persian Gulf his sta­dium, a Do­mini­can cook his throw­ing part­ner.

“He was about the only per­son I truly trusted to throw with,” Har­ris said, “be­cause I was scared I’d hurt any­body else.”

Over four years and eight months in the U.S. Navy, this is how Har­ris kept his pro­fes­sional base­ball dreams alive. Af­ter grad­u­at­ing from the Naval Academy in 2008, his du­ties as a sur­face war­fare of­fi­cer pre­vented him from pur­su­ing a ca­reer in Ma­jor League Base­ball. Three de­ploy­ments on two ships to Rus­sia, South Amer­ica and the Mid­dle East made it dif­fi­cult to keep his arm in shape. Mak­ing it to the big leagues was more a dream than a le­git­i­mate goal.

But seven years later, with his full-time ser­vice com­mit­ment ful­filled, Har­ris stood on the third-base line at Na­tion­als Park on Tues­day night, hold­ing a St. Louis Car­di­nals hat over his heart. As the Na­tional An­them rang through­out the sta­dium, the mo­ment be­gan to sink in: Har­ris had made it to the big leagues. And if or when he ap­pears in a game, he will be­come the first Navy grad­u­ate to do so since Nemo Gaines in 1921.

The right-handed re­lief pitcher from Mount Holly, North Carolina had long dreamed about this op­por­tu­nity. But did he ever truly be­lieve it would hap­pen?

“Yes,” Har­ris said Tues­day af­ter­noon. “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. … There’s def­i­nitely days where I thought there’s no shot, no chance I was go­ing to do this. But here we are.”

The Car­di­nals re­called Har­ris, 29, from Triple-A Mem­phis on the eve of their three-game se­ries with the Wash­ing­ton Na­tion­als, which con­cluded Thurs­day. It’s un­clear how long he will re­main with the team, or how many innings he will be asked to pitch, but his call-up alone has left an im­pact. For Har­ris, it’s a per­sonal dream come true. For the rest of us, it’s an op­por­tu­nity to ac­knowl­edge and ap­plaud those who bal­ance their mil­i­tary com­mit­ment with pro­fes­sional achieve­ment.

“This isn’t our mission at the Naval Academy, to cul­ti­vate pro­fes­sional ath­letes, or even to make that a pri­or­ity. Your pri­or­ity is to be com­mis­sioned as an of­fi­cer,” Navy ath­letic direc­tor Chet Glad­chuk said. “But when it does hap­pen, on oc­ca­sion, it’s won­der­ful to know that there’s an ac­com­mo­da­tion that the Navy will make for guys like Mitch Har­ris, who’s ful­filled his obli­ga­tion and is now a great role model and won­der­fully rep­re­sent­ing the Navy and the Marines. That’s to all of our benefits.”

Har­ris’ road to the big leagues was wrought with improbability even be­fore he ar­rived in An­napo­lis. He was re­cruited by Navy only af­ter the school’s de­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor, Buddy Green, coin­ci­den­tally saw him pitch while re­cruit­ing foot­ball play­ers in the area. Har­ris then spent his fresh­man sea­son pri­mar­ily as a util­ity in­fielder, shift­ing his fo­cus to the mound as a sopho­more at the re­quest of new base­ball coach Paul Kosta­copou­los.

Af­ter ac­cept­ing the job, Kosta­copou­los held an open work­out in the fall of 2005 to gauge the pro­gram’s tal­ent level. He no­ticed Har­ris’ hulk­ing 6-foot-4 frame and asked him to throw a few pitches. The radar gun read 89 mph, 91 mph and 92 mph, three strikes in suc­ces­sion.

“I think I knew Mitch’s fast­ball be­fore I knew his name,” Kosta­copou­los said with a laugh. “Just com­ing in, you could see that this kid’s got some­thing.”

Stu­dents at the Naval Academy have the op­tion to leave with­out penalty at any point dur­ing their first two years, but Har­ris was determined to stay. He was se­lected in the 24th round of the 2007 MLB draft by the At­lanta Braves, then the 13th round of the 2008 draft by the Car­di­nals, on the off chance the Navy would grant him an early re­lease from his com­mit­ment.

In­stead, Har­ris spent the next four­plus years based in Nor­folk, Vir­ginia. He was de­ployed three times, twice sail­ing to the Persian Gulf on the USS Ponce. He also was aboard the USS Carr for a diplo­matic de­ploy­ment to Rus­sia and a drug op­er­a­tions mission in South Amer­ica. When Har­ris’ full-time com­mit­ment ex­pired, he re­joined the Car­di­nals as a 27-year-old rookie with a fast­ball that topped out at 80 mph.

Two years later, that rookie was walk­ing out to the vis­it­ing bullpen at Na­tion­als Park, send­ing rip­ples across the Naval Academy and inspiring those who hope to fol­low his path.

“It’s great to see some­one from Navy ba­si­cally reach the high­est level of their sport,” said pitcher Oliver Drake, a for­mer team­mate of Har­ris’ at Navy who is now a prospect in the Bal­ti­more Ori­oles or­ga­ni­za­tion. “There’s a lot of ath­letes that go there who are re­ally tal­ented at their sport but they end up pass­ing on ath­letic pos­si­bil­i­ties to serve their coun­try and ful­fill their du­ties.”

Har­ris es­ti­mated he had a crowd of more than 20 fam­ily mem­bers and friends at Tues­day’s game. The group in­cluded his first com­mand­ing of­fi­cer, who is now sta­tioned at the Pen­tagon, his par­ents, Cy and Cindy, and Kosta­copou­los, who rushed from An­napo­lis to Wash­ing­ton af­ter Navy’s loss to UMBC. “I know it’s a cliche,” the coach said, “but I wouldn’t miss this for the world.”

Har­ris re­mains a mem­ber of the Navy re­serves, at­tached to the U.S. South­ern Com­mand in Do­ral, Florida. As part of a flex drill unit, he is able to clump his regular train­ing re­quire­ments into one four-to-six-week pe­riod in the win­ter, when the base­ball sea­son has died down. He still has one year left on his cur­rent set of or­ders, but may choose to re­main in the Navy be­yond that. For now, he’ll be in the Car­di­nals bullpen, wait­ing for his next op­por­tu­nity, al­ways at the ready.

“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. … There’s def­i­nitely days where I thought there’s no shot, no chance I was go­ing to do this. But here we are.”

Mitch Har­ris, Car­di­nals re­lief pitcher

NAVY ATH­LET­ICS

Af­ter be­ing called up by the St. Louis Car­di­nals to join their bullpen for last week’s se­ries at Na­tion­als Park, pitcher Mitch Har­ris is try­ing to be­come the first Naval Academy grad­u­ate to pitch in the Ma­jor Leagues since 1921.

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