It’s the Chicago White Sox and Florida Marlins one day, the Cleveland Indians and Philadelphia Phillies the next. Big league clubs have called Mitch Harris lately and often, and they all want to know the same things:
Could he play? If so, for how long? Starting when?
“A lot of questions followed by a lot of questions,” Harris said.
And far fewer answers.
Harris just graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy, earning a degree in engineering, so make that Ensign Harris. He also is one of the best pitchers in college baseball, a 6-feet-4, 220-pound right-hander with a 94 mph fastball.
Under normal circumstances, Harris would be a high pick in next week’s major league draft. But these are not normal circumstances. He is scheduled to report to his ship, the USS Ponce, in Norfolk on June 16, and begin active duty.
“He is no longer a civilian in the academy,” Navy athletic director Chet Gladchuk said. “He is owned by the fleet. … His ambitions to play major league baseball now becomes the business of the fleet.”
The Ponce is an amphibious transport ship, its crew known as the “Proud Lions.” Will Harris be a Lion? Or a Phillie or a Marlin?
“He’s in the Navy,” Gladchuk said.
Said Harris: “I’d love to continue my career in baseball. I’m not trying to get out of my commitment. I’m trying to find an option so I can do both. I know it’ll be different. I don’t know if anyone is willing to stick their neck out. But it could be great. Good for the teams, good for the academy.”
And, to be sure, good for himself.
“How can we make this work?,” he wonders.
Despite the uncertainty, Harris is pressing on. He will attend a predraft workout today at Yankee Stadium, followed by trips to Philadelphia and Baltimore. Last week’s itinerary included St. Louis, New York (Shea Stadium) and Cincinnati. The conversation, he said, was the same: “You look good. Now what’s the situation?”
Some teams are more interested than others. Tampa Bay, for one, is looking elsewhere. Rays scouting director R.J. Harrison, who saw Harris pitch last summer in the Cape Cod League, called Harris’ tenuous situation a “deterrent.”
“Unless someone’s so good, how much time are you gonna spend finding a loophole?” Harrison said. “And he’s a right-handed pitcher. When we set up our draft board, there are a lot of right-handed pitchers up there.”
The standard military commitment for service academy graduates is five years. After two years, top athletes can apply for early release from active duty, replacing the next three years with six years in the reserves. But the Army went further. The Alternative Service Option allows athletes from West Point like Detroit Lions draftee Caleb Campbell to play professionally while starting their obligation. Neither the Air Force nor the Navy has such an option.
“If this guy’s rules were like the Army’s, I guarantee you he’d have been more heavily scouted,” Harrison said.
Moreover, because the “nation is at war,” Navy secretary Donald Winter in November suspended early release from active duty and made five years of full-time service mandatory. Harris isn’t the only one displeased with that. By promising athletes the chance to play immediately in the pros, the differing policy gives West Point a marked recruiting edge over Annapolis.
Gladchuk has gone to the very top to try to get the Navy to change and said Winter seems willing to reconsider the issue.
“There is a chain of command, and I think I have addressed every link in this chain,” Gladchuk said. “Everyone is aware of our concerns that the playing field is not level and will eventually affect our competitive stature.”
Frustrated by a lack of answers less than a week before the draft, Harris said he plans to speak to his commanding officer on the Ponce to see if something, anything, can be worked out. He said he envisions a scenario in which he “can still serve on a ship, and go play, and do different types of duties.”
Scant precedent exists. Football player Napoleon McCallum (four years) and former NBA MVP David Robinson (two years) served full time without playing. Pitcher Matt Foster, drafted in the 13th round by Toronto in 2003, played briefly in the minors before serving two full years in the Navy without playing and is now out of baseball.
Catcher Jonathan Johnston was drafted in 2007 in the 42nd round by Oakland - a year after he graduated - and is now playing in the minors. But Johnston previously served 18 months aboard a ship. That helped. He also had an understanding commanding officer who assigned him to the U.S. Military All-Star team, which has allowed him to play professionally.
Johnston believes he and Harris can serve the Navy best by playing and recruiting.
“We want to do both,” he said. “Because we can. We want to bring attention to the Navy. I’d rather be a recruiter and pay the Navy back that way.”
New England Patriots running back Kyle Eckel paid the Navy back another way. Eckel, who had legal problems at the academy and graduated last in his class, was eventually kicked out of the Navy and forced to reimburse nearly $100,000 of his education expenses.
In theory, Harris could terminate his service after two years and pay a hefty sum, as Eckel did. As a pro athlete, he could probably afford it. But while not entirely out of the question, such a notion is abhorrent to Harris. It’s the last resort, “the bottom of the barrel, a nowhere-else-to-go type thing,” he said.
Harris worries people are misreading his motives. After two years at the Academy, he signed on for seven more years. He had just come off an outstanding sophomore year on the mound when he signed to stay.
“Word was spreading that I’d get drafted,” he said. “It was a difficult decision, but I definitely feel I made the right one because that’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to stay and fulfill my commitment. Now it’s kind of hurt me. It’s always been my dream to play baseball.
“Coming out of a small town and having the Naval Academy approach me, it’s pretty hard to say no to that,” he said. “I had no idea what the Academy was about. I really got an appreciation and a respect for it. It was something I didn’t want to let go of. I was hoping and praying that something would work out and I’d be able to do both. As it looks now, it hasn’t worked out that way.”
His parents, Cy and Cindy Harris, moved to Odenton, Md., from North Carolina. Like his son, Cy Harris, a minister, just wants people to understand.
“We’re pro-Navy,” he said. “My father was in the Navy. We want to do anything to help them recruit. We don’t want to tarnish the Navy. And we don’t want to tarnish Mitch’s name. It’s just a matter of leniency. Yeah, I’m being biased. We didn’t expect this four years ago. But let the major leaguers say, ‘No, you don’t have the goods.’ Let’s just see if he can do it.
Harris grew up in Mount Holly, N.C., a better hitter than pitcher, and was barely recruited. But a Navy football coach checking out a player noticed Harris on the field and alerted the baseball coaches, who liked what they saw. Harris pitched just 15 innings as a freshman. But then Paul Kostacopoulos took over as coach and, among numerous changes, made Harris a starter. He flourished, going 10-3 with a 1.74 ERA.
Although Harris said he wouldn’t sign, the Atlanta Braves drafted him in the 24th round after his junior season. A preseason shoulder injury set him back this year, but “he has big league ability,” Kostacopoulos said. “He’s a long stretch from that, but he has great size, great arm strength. When he learns to command the ball better, he’ll be real tough.”
And, because he became a pitcher later in life, “he has a really fresh arm,” he said. “He’s got a much younger arm than 22.”
The big question is when he’ll be able to use it.