- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 22, 2015

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.

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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 concludes 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 four-plus 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.

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