Former Navy officer Mitch Harris has made the big jump to the Double A Springfield Cardinals, closer to realizing his major-league dream. (Mark Harrell/Springfield Cardinals)
By Rob Rains
SPRINGFIELD, Mo. – Mitch Harris knows how important this season will be toward fulfilling his dream of one day pitching in the major leagues.
A graduate of the Naval Academy who had to put that dream on hold for five years while completing his active duty service commitment, Harris is trying to make up for the lost time, and so far, seems to be doing just that.
He was promoted to the Double A Springfield Cardinals three weeks ago and has appeared in four games in his role as a right-handed reliever, working 7 1/3 innings, and has allowed just one run and three hits.
What some considered a longshot at best when he pitched in short season State College last year at the age of 27, Harris is trying to prove his critics and doubters made a mistake by not believing in him, and at the same time, is trying to pay tribute to all of the men and women he served with – and led – during his years as a Naval officer.
“Sometimes you have plenty of time to think in the bullpen,” Harris said. “I think back, and I look around and see where I am, with 6,000 people in the stands, and think that three years ago I was in an office or on a ship. It’s kind of a reality check to make sure I am doing what I need to do to make sure I am moving forward. I think about it a lot.”
When Harris was in the Navy, he talked often about the dreams of his fellow servicemen. He knew that for many, service in any branch of the military is a steppingstone to something in the future.
“A lot of times they have a bigger goal,” Harris said. “We always told our guys that there is only a small percentage of people who go to the military intending to stay there for their whole career. We always told our guys, ‘if you have something in mind, something you dream of doing, by all means do what you’ve got to do to get to that.’
“Once I got here, on tough days when you feel like ‘I don’t know if I can do this,’ I’m sorry, it’s not about me anymore. I went all of those years telling guys ‘here’s what you have to do to get to your dreams.’ Who am I to turn around now when that’s what we taught them all of those years. It helps definitely on tougher days. Those guys are working hard, fighting to get to their dreams, and all I can do is be a role model for them and continue doing that myself.”
Harris knew coming into this season that for his dreams to remain alive, he had to get to Double A and continue to pitch successfully. Even though he has less than a year of professional experience, he can’t hide the fact he is now 28 years old.
“There’s more than a few reasons this is a huge year for me,” Harris said. “I’ve got to put up a solid year. I have always told myself and close friends that I want to put myself in a situation where the Cardinals are in a situation where they feel like they have to keep pushing me where I can keep going forward. I don’t want them to not be sure what to do with me, because that’s never a good predicament.
“My goal this year is to do well here and see what happens. I want to make strides to keep getting better.”
His manager, Mike Shildt, believes that is exactly what Harris is doing.
“He needed to get here and find out for his benefit and for our benefit what he could do,” Shildt said. “He’s gotten into some games and he’s been effective. We’ll see; that’s why we’re here.
“We’re encouraged. He attacks hitters, he works in the bottom of the zone. He’s working on a split and he’s starting to hold his velocity a little more, which stands to reason. I’m optimistic and really thrilled for him.”
As encouraged as he is as well, Harris knows he still has to get much better before his ultimate dream can come true. He got a reminder of how close he is now, however, when he and teammates
Nick Martini, Corey Baker and Marco Gonzales (shown in the picture, left) drove from Springfield to St. Louis Monday to attend the Cardinals’ game against the Royals. It was Harris’ first time ever at Busch Stadium.
His summer pitching in rookie ball, where he was 4-1 with a 0.81 ERA in 20 games, just 12 months ago seemed a lot farther away.
“There was no way I could have just jumped into a higher level and been successful,” Harris said of his transition back to baseball. “I had to get last year under my belt, have some success, regain some confidence and work out some kinks.
“The improvement is day to day. It’s kind of what we say in the military, attention to detail. If I am working on a pitch, if take off a day and don’t throw it, the next day it might not be as sharp and it may take another day or two to get back where it was. Every day you have to work on something. If you don’t have a plan to work on something every day you are not getting better. That’s the biggest thing I have learned.
“I’ve had several people tell me once I got here that this is really when your pro career begins, at Double A. As long as I can keep in the back of my mind that I am not there yet, but I’m not that far away, it helps every day to keep you working.”
Shildt believes in one sense, what Harris already has done as professional has validated his dreams. There is still an ending that Harris wants to achieve, however, and that is to be on the mound at Busch Stadium, not watching the game from the stands.
“It would mean a lot not only to my family who supported me, but to all the guys that I served with, that I went to school with, and all of the guys who said it will never happen, all of the people who said we did it the wrong way,” Harris said. “They thought we were trying to get out of the commitment. When I get there, I will be able to turn around and say, ‘look, this is how we did it, and you can’t point out a way that we did it incorrectly and we still got it done.’ It says a lot for the Navy and the Cardinals. I will be excited when that day happens. It will be a big day for everybody.
“I just tell myself to go out there day in and day out and pitch like I know I can pitch, and continue to do what I have to do to get guys out. When I have a day when it’s not great, I don’t get down on myself. I have to turn around and come back the next day and have a good outing. A bad day here is much better than a bad day deployed.
“I appreciate what I am doing here. It gives me more respect for what I’ve done, and for the guys and girls who are still doing it. It’s special to me.”
Follow Rob Rains on Twitter @RobRains
Mitch Harris Pitching, Mark Harrell
Mitch Harris and Springfield teammates, St. Louis Cardinals