Imagine for a moment that you have just completed two deployments for the Navy of the United States. Imagine giving up your baseball dream to serve your country. Imagine being deployed on the high seas, and playing catch on the flight deck of your ship just to try to recapture that feeling of being a ballplayer. This was the life of Lieutenant Mitch Harris.
Drafted in the thirteenth round of the 2008 draft by the St. Louis Cardinals, Harris was a 6-foot-4 right-hander who could hit 95 on the gun and mow down batters with a nasty cutter. Upon being drafted, Harris asked the Navy if he could serve two active years and serve the rest of his time in the Reserves. He was told not during times of war.
Although sorely disappointed, Harris accepted the Navy’s verdict, as he had made a promise to serve a “2 for 7.” What does this mean? When a midshipman serves two years at the naval academy, he or she can walk away if they so choose. However, signing on for a junior year includes a commitment for seven more years. Two more in Annapolis, plus another five. Thus, Harris’ baseball dream would be put on hold, a dream only accessible through games of catch on the flight deck. We fast forward through Lieutenant Harris’ two deployments, one to the Persian Gulf on the Ponce, and one to Russia on the Carr, to Spring Training 2013. The Navy decides to cut Lieutenant Harris’ service short a few months. The Cardinals still want to see him throw, six years later. So he heads to Jupiter, Florida, as a 27-year-old rookie, not nearly the same pitcher he was in 2008.
“While I was serving in the Navy, I’d stayed in the best shape I could,” Harris said. “But I had not thrown a baseball in a long time. So when I got on the mound, I was not good, to say the least. I was very tight. I had to work to get my arm back in shape. It took a while.”
Not so, says former major league pitcher Randy Niemann, who served as Harris’ pitching coach in the 2013 season at Double-A Springfield. “From where he was in 2013 to now is pretty remarkable, when I first saw him, his velocity was way down and he was frustrated. When he joined us in late May in Springfield, I was really impressed with how far he had come. He was back to throwing 93-95 mph, and he had learned to throw a split. Not to mention, his character.”
Harris was the oldest player by three years in the Fall League, but he was used to being looked at as a leader. “My second deployment was on a frigate, the USS Carr,” says Harris. “We started out up in Russia and then we went to South America do do drug operations. We took down a cargo ship that had over a million dollars worth of cocaine.”
This was where Harris found his flight deck catch partner: a Dominican-born cook on the Carr. Harris had someone who could catch a fastball, which was all he needed to keep his arm in shape.
To pitch for the Cardinals though, Harris would need more. “The Cardinals were very upfront,” Harris says. “And I can’t say enough about the organization for sticking with me the whole time I was serving. When I came back they said, ‘We understand it’s going to take some time.’ But there was also a time when they basically said we’re going to need to see some improvements. That was a little motivation. That got me going.”
In 2014, Harris pitched 57 1/3 innings as a late-relief man. He was 2-2 with a 3.92 ERA, 45 strikeouts and 19 walks. Niemann doesn’t think the numbers tell the whole story however. “He really refined his pitches during the course of the year,” Niemann says. “Not only was he hitting 94 mph almost every outing, but he perfected the cutter and got him throwing a splitter as a third pitch. I am really excited about the progress he made in a very short period of time. Now that he’s made it to Double-A and Triple-A, I don’t think age is a factor for Mitch. Now it’s going to be all about production. He’s got the stuff to pitch in the big leagues.”
Now 29, Harris has no regrets about the path he took. “You can look back and say what if in a lot of ways,” Harris says. “What if I didn’t go to the Naval Academy? Or what if I would’ve gone to a regular school? But then I can also ask, what if I got injured? Maybe in another scenario, I wouldn’t have gotten the education I got at the Academy. Where would I be then? It’s not the same path most guys would’ve taken … but it’s my path.”
His patience has finally been rewarded. After accumulating two saves in two chances to go with a 2.45 ERA over 3 2/3 innings in 2015, Harris has been called up to the Cardinals active roster, and he will join the team on Tuesday in the nation’s capital for the series against the Nationals.
Here’s to you Lieutenant Harris, and good luck.