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Naval Academy grad set to begin season for Cardinals' Double-A squad

May. 27, 2014 - 10:08AM   |  
Mitch Harris is a reliever for the Springfield Cardinals.
Mitch Harris is a reliever for the Springfield Cardinals. (Kary Booher/News-Leader)
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This journey already has been something else. At one point, he emerged as a surprise star at the Naval Academy. Later, he led a crew of 200 sailors, guns drawn, through the Strait of Hormuz en route toward Iraq.

So, why stop now? Perhaps one day he'll take the mound at Busch Stadium to fire-hose another threat and, if so, maybe just maybe Hollywood comes calling.

They do that, you know? Forty-something Texas high school coach Jim Morris gave his cranky shoulder a test-run one day back in the late 1990s and, next thing you know, the man who once gave up baseball was suddenly in the big leagues and then the subject of a movie. Maybe you saw it. It was "The Rookie."

Now here's Mitch Harris on the front porch of the Ozarks, pitching in the bullpen for the Springfield Cardinals and check this out on loan as a U.S. Navy officer.

Just two years ago, Harris would take his glove to his bunk below the USS Carr and dream of living the dream. It was all he could do, really. After all, there was no flight deck, meaning he couldn't even play catch.

It was also the frigate that backed up Marines on drug ops in South America and, at another point, steered to the Red Sea near Saudi Arabia, only to encounter a potentially hostile situation. "It definitely got the hair on the back of your neck standing up when you can see them holding weapons," Harris said. "But nothing escalated."

And so here he is, in Double-A baseball, having quietly slipped into town a couple of weekends ago. In fact, this week will mark only his second appearance at Hammons Field, as the Cardinals open a six-game home stand tonight at Hammons Field.

What a long journey it's been. Fortunately, it hasn't made him long in the face, even though he's two years from his 30th birthday and his career is burning daylight.

"There are a lot of similarities," a grinning Harris said of pro baseball and the Navy. "You travel a lot, so the stresses of being able to live out of a bag, I've got that handled."

Same goes for the natural antics of younger teammates. Those don't bother him at all. Been there, done that.

"In certain situations where they'd say, 'You've never seen this before or heard this before,'" Harris said, referring to his time last summer in the short-season New York-Penn League, "I was like, 'Hey, look, on my first ship, I was in charge of 20-some guys ranging from 18 to 30, and the stories you get out of a range like that are endless."

Harris may at first seem like a novelty act. But he's not. To understand why, just look beyond the resume, beyond the fact he missed four years of baseball he made his debut only last year, on June 18 after selection as a 13th-round draft choice in 2008.

Understand, Harris' fastball topped out at 94 mph back then, and trade publication Baseball America at the time noted, if not for a pending military commitment, Harris would have projected as a fifth-round draft pick pretty remarkable in a 50-round draft.

His appealing quality was a hoss-like frame 6-foot-5, 215 pounds and a heavy fastball. More remarkable, it wasn't until the fall of his sophomore year when pitching became the prime focus, after Navy's new coach put him on the mound.

"We just had everybody pitch," Navy coach Paul Kostacopoulos said in a recent phone interview. "I watched him, and he threw five or six pitches in the bullpen and he lighted up the radar gun. I said, 'You're a pitcher now.'"

However, a roadblock to the minor leagues sat just on the other side.

One year before Harris' graduation, the Secretary of the Navy suspended what's called the alternative services option. Created in 2005, it allowed cadet-athletes to swap the final 24 months of active duty for a pro sports career. In turn, the armed forces figured to receive positive media coverage.

However, the Secretary of the Navy put it on hold, citing a time of war. The decision also appeared driven by criticism from athletes of other military academies who weren't afforded a similar option.

At that point, Harris was faced with a humbling reality that awaited post-graduation: he would be required to serve five full years.

"He kind of knew he had to go. He accepted it and always wanted to," his baseball coach said.

That was the thing with Harris. He initially pursued the academy out of high school for all the right reasons for the discipline and for the chance to earn an education at a top university, then to serve the country in a leadership role.

He just never expected that his pitching talent would become talented enough to pique the interest of baseball scouts. When that became clear, the alternative services option became all the more appealing, until it was suspended.

That's why Harris is just now arriving to Double-A.

He did submit three requests for an early entry to the Navy Reserve, and received backing from superiors. But the Navy held firm, until 2012.

Late that year, the Pentagon took another look at the alternative services option. Harris did get the OK to attend Cardinals spring training in 2013 between deployments and was cleared to play full-time a year ago.

"The biggest thing for me that has helped me is when there are days you think, 'There's no shot I'm going to make it,' or 'How can I be as good as the guys in the big leagues?" Harris said, adding that he remembers all his encouraging words to other sailors pursuing their dreams.

"That's been the motivating factor for me and challenge for me. That's what I taught my guys," Harris added. "So the days where I'm like, 'This isn't going to work,' I think back to I'm not necessarily doing this for me. There are a lot of guys out there rooting for me and wanting this to happen. So I'm representing those guys on the tougher days.

"Now, I'm not going to get to the big leagues in a week. It's not always going to be easy."

Then again, it never was. As Tom Hanks' character as manager Jimmy Dugan in the film "A League Of Their Own" said, the hard is what makes it great.

So maybe there's another baseball movie to come. Maybe.

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