By Alison Ryan
Most dreams take a little luck, and a whole lot of hard work to achieve. When their dream is faced with a challenge, a person has a few options: they can give up, or they can keep pushing forward.
As Ernest Hemmingway famously said, “Courage is grace under pressure.” When one US Naval Officer learned that his dream would be put on hold, rather than give up, he chose to face the challenge with both courage and hope.
For the last seven years, 29-year-old Lieutenant Mitch Harris has been no stranger to working under pressure. He was already under contract to serve in the US Navy when he was drafted by the St. Louis Cardinals in 2008, and the clock began ticking on his dream of pitching in major league baseball, a sport where the average age of a pitcher is only 26 to 29.
In spite of his hope for an early release into reserve duty after two years (an exception which had been allowed for some previous military members entering professional sports careers), Harris was told that as a weapons officer during a time of war, he could not be spared.
While his obligation to serve in the Navy kept him on a ship and away from the pitcher’s mound for nearly five years, instead of begrudging his commitment, Harris rose to the occasion. He was well respected on his ships and served honorably thoughout his many deployments. He never gave up on his dream and tried to encourage others not to give up on theirs either.
Harris understood that despite the challenges he faced, he had been given a special opportunity. He explained that while most teams passed on him because of the “tougher situation,” the Cardinals organization understood his passion for baseball. They took a chance and drafted the 6’4” right hander, knowing that it could be a five-year wait until he was able to play — a fact which Harris acknowledged with humility and gratitude.
“The Cardinals took me, and that was a huge honor and I really appreciated it,” Harris said. “I feel like I owe them the hard work to make sure it was worthwhile to them.”
Big League Dreams
Harris said his love of baseball began one day when he came home wearing a baseball uniform. At about 5 years old, he had become part of a “no-rules” t-ball league. He laughed as he fondly recalled the organized chaos of such small children taking turns trying to hit a ball.
Growing up outside of Atlanta, Sunday afternoons were spent watching the Braves on the couch with his dad. Harris said he grew up playing baseball and naturally, he idolized the professional players. The game was a part of his life, and even as a young kid, he had big league dreams.
A self described, “late bloomer,” it wasn’t until his sophomore year of college at the U.S. Naval Academy when Harris first realized he had the talent to make his dream a possibility. When his coach at Annapolis saw his potential as a pitcher, they made the decision push forward and find the “right way” to make a pro career happen for him.
In 2008, Harris was graduating from the Naval Academy, and for a second year, he was one of the highest ranked pitchers in the Patriot League. A pre-draft scouting report in Baseball America noted Harris’ athleticism, consistent pitches in the low 90’s, and command of the fastball, slider, and changeup.
In an otherwise glowing review, it also noted that his potential five year service commitment made him a, “question mark” for draft day.
In spite of the question mark, the St. Louis Cardinals drafted Harris in the 13th round that same year. Shortly after signing with the Cardinals, he was off on deployment for the Navy. Having been given a shot at playing professionally, he felt it was especially important to keep in shape, and he said he did as much as he could to get his arm moving.
His dad was a consistent supporter from home, and Harris regularly received care packages from him which were always filled with baseballs. He said the flight deck of his first ship, the Ponce, gave him about 150ft by 80ft to borrow for pitching practice, but often times, baseballs would go overboard and were lost at sea.
“You could get some good longer throws in, but obviously you weren’t standing out on the edge by any means,” Harris recalled.
For the five years he sailed around the world as a weapons officer for the Navy, Harris tried to keep sight of his professional baseball career.
Unfortunately, serving as an active duty officer on a naval ship did not provide much room or time for pitching practice.
Back on Land
After years of anticipation, in 2013 Harris was released from active duty and joined the pros in the New York-Penn League.
While he was sorely out of shape, Harris dedicated himself and worked hard to make up for lost time. He pitched at the Double-A level in Springfield and worked his way up to Triple-A to play most recently in the Arizona Fall League, which Harris called, “a blast.” He said the level of competition helped him better himself and focus on areas needing improvement.
This February, he will be entering spring training and hopes to, “Open some eyes” in the big leagues so he can take a spot with the Cardinals if one opens up. Experience, he said, is his biggest challenge getting ready for the big leagues.
“The more I learn and the more experienced hitters I get to face, the better it’s going to be for me to better my game and pitches,” Harris said. “I think going to big league camp will be eye opening for me. It’ll shine a light on things I need to work on and improve on. I’m looking forward to seeing what it is exactly that I need to focus on to get ready for the big leagues.”
Eye on the Prize
Harris’ voice lit up as he talked about how much he has enjoyed playing baseball on his way to the Major Leagues. Even the challenges in the journey ahead of him seem to be a source of excitement, and he tries to remind his teammates not to take any of it for granted.
“You have to understand, this isn’t something that’s given to you. You have to earn it,” Harris said.
After five years, he is close to seeing his dream come true. Even so close to his own dream, he reiterated the importance of encouraging other people.
“You might feel like you’re in a situation where it doesn’t seem like it’s possible to reach your goals or dreams, but if you have a little perseverance, and you work at it, and work hard; you can always get to where you want to be” Harris said.
So how would it feel for Harris to finally get his shot with the St. Louis Cardinals in the Major Leagues?
“Just to know where I was, five or six years ago when I was on deployment and not sure if I was going to be able to play the game that I love so much,” Harris said. “Seeing all the hard work, and the time paying off… All the people who supported me through the years and helped me get to where I am… This isn’t only for me. It’s for them too. A lot of people have helped me get to where I am, taught me the things that I know, and gave me the help I needed when it wasn’t so easy. This is for them too. We made it.”
In addition to his skills as a pitcher, Harris also delivers on leadership, inspiration and character. His story is one you can’t help but root for, and as the dedicated man behind that story, Lieutenant Mitch Harris is well deserving of all the admiration he inspires.
To keep up with Mitch Harris, you can follow him on Twitter @Mitch_Harris2.