Meet the man trying to be 1st Navy grad to pitch in MLB in almost 100 years

MLB columnist
Yahoo Sports

JUPITER, Fla. – On the first day of his second career, Mitch Harris slipped on a St. Louis Cardinals uniform and looked every bit the part. The last 8 ½ years in the Navy turned him into a machine: 6-foot-4, 220 pounds, with 5 percent body fat. He stood atop the pitcher’s mound excited, finally here after the interminable wait. Then he let his first pitch rip.

Mitch Harris, 29, might have reached 80 mph in his first bullpen session with the Cardinals' organization. (AP)
Mitch Harris, 29, might have reached 80 mph in his first bullpen session with the Cardinals' organization. (AP)

“It was really bad,” Harris said. “You can’t put into words how bad it was. The first time I threw, guys were laughing but trying not to. They were asking, ‘Why is this guy here?’ And it was a serious question.”

The fastball might’ve hit 80 mph. “Maybe,” said Travis Tartamella, his catcher that day. The rest weren’t much better. Two years later, Harris cringes at the thought, though at the same time it edifies him, because here he is now in his first major league camp with St. Louis, his right arm back to where it belongs: fastball at 95 mph, cutter breaking bats, splitter filthier by the day, opportunity earned and palpable.

Sometime this year, Mitch Harris could become the first graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy to pitch in the major leagues in nearly 100 years. Harris, 29, isn’t some publicity stunt to generate goodwill with the military. He’s a testament to persistence, a model of patience, a worthy successor to Nemo Gaines, who logged 4 ⅔ innings for the Washington Senators in 1921 before returning to active duty.

“He’s got a very real chance of pitching in the big leagues,” Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak said. “When you think about his time away from the game, you can’t replicate baseball very easily. Especially on a ship. No matter how hard you train, no matter how hard you’re working out, it’s still not baseball. When he finally got his chance to be on the field, it was like atrophy had set in from a baseball standpoint. It took time. And as he started to gain that velocity back, confidence came with it.”

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Before any of this – the return to baseball, the tours around the world busting drug boats and manning the Persian Gulf, the standout career at the academy – Harris was just another kid in North Carolina, not even good enough to crack varsity as a sophomore. He happened to be throwing a bullpen session his senior year when the defensive coordinator for Navy’s football team walked by, there on a recruiting trip. He tipped the baseball coaches, Harris went to Annapolis, Md., two weeks later and a new sailor was born.

During his sophomore season, Harris blossomed into a prospect, striking out 113 in 82 2/3 innings. After that year, Harris faced a choice: commit to the Navy for seven more years – two at the academy, five as a commissioned officer – or leave and pursue baseball.

“That was a tough time,” Harris said. “I just realized I’m probably going to get drafted next year, but over these last two years I’ve really come to understand what it means to serve and really be part of something bigger than myself. From that stemmed the pride of knowing this is something I committed to and this is something that was much bigger than me. I had to stick to it. And everything else would just work itself out.”

Baseball lingered in Harris’ mind, the itch occasionally scratched with impromptu sessions of catch on his first vessel, the U.S.S. Ponce, or through a Navy team that barnstormed every so often. Harris was in charge of up to 40 men and women at a time, and he often would remind them that the Navy wasn’t just a lifetime career but a launching pad to prepare them for what’s next.

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As much as he enjoyed his time in Scotland, as fascinated as he was by Jordan and Bahrain and Dubai, Harris couldn’t forget baseball. Twice he pursued the possibility of spending the end of his commitment trying to play for the Cardinals, with then-Cardinals assistant GM John Abbamondi, a former Navy man, trying to help. Twice Harris was told no, frustrating not only because he was growing older in a young man’s game but because the Navy allowed Eric Kettani to leave his post and pursue a job in the NFL.

Harris pitches in the Arizona Fall League in October 2014. (Getty)
Harris pitches in the Arizona Fall League in October 2014. (Getty)

After four years, eight months and eight days serving, Lt. Mitchell Andrew Harris received the phone call he spent years awaiting. The Navy would allow him to join the reserves and head to spring training. Before he called his parents, Harris rang John Vuch, the Cardinals’ farm director. Forget waiting a month for spring training. “I want to be there now,” Harris said.

He needed work, even more than expected after the first bullpen session. Rebuilding arm strength and laxity was paramount. Harris improved incrementally, gaining a mile per hour or two on his fastball every month. After spending his first season at Low-A, Harris leapfrogged all the way to Triple-A by the end of last season and pitched in the prospect-heavy Arizona Fall League to prepare him for this year.

Harris looked good enough that Mozeliak feared another team might snatch him in December’s Rule 5 draft. No team wanted to guarantee a 40-man roster spot to a kid on the cusp of 30, which was just fine with Harris.

“It sounds absurd if you think of where I was three years ago,” he said. “I just wanted the chance because I knew I had the capabilities. I just needed to get it out. And once I felt like I could get it out, I could progress to get here.

“The goal is to be in the big leagues. So as much as it is a great feeling and a great time to be here, I want to get there and stay there.”

For now, the Cardinals’ bullpen is stocked. It may take only a tweaked hamstring or sore elbow for Harris’ arrival. And if it happens and anyone asks that question he heard his first day back – “Why is this guy here?” – the answer will be obvious.

He earned it.

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