During his five years with the U.S. Navy, no matter what difficulties Lt. Mitch Harris faced at sea, he never surrendered his dream of pitching in the major leagues. The right-hander had been selected by the St. Louis Cardinals in the 13th round of the June 2008 amateur draft out of the United States Naval Academy but had to forgo baseball to serve his military commitment. Through three deployments, including two tours of the Persian Gulf, a diplomatic mission to Russia and a drug operation in South America, Harris kept throwing -- and hoping.
Some days at sea, especially when he hadn’t talked to family or friends back home in the U.S. in weeks, his big-league dreams seemed like a mirage. "On days like that, you just sit around with a lot of time to think," said Harris, 29. "You just wonder: Is this ever going to get better?"
Harris, who had fallen in love with baseball as soon as he started playing the sport when he was 4, was lightly recruited in high school. But a chance meeting with a U.S. Naval Academy coach visiting South Point High in Belmont, North Carolina, ultimately led Harris to the military academy in Annapolis, Maryland.
He played four years of baseball for the Navy Midshipmen, going 10–3 with a 1.74 ERA and 12-plus strikeouts per nine innings as a sophomore, and was named third-team All-American by Baseball America in 2007. He was selected in the 24th round of the 2007 MLB draft by the Atlanta Braves, who hoped Harris could be a part-time pitcher while he finished school and began to serve his active duty. But the post-draft conversations stalled, and under baseball's rules Harris went back into the draft pool and the Cardinals took him in the 13th round of the 2008 draft.
After graduating from the academy, Harris was required to fulfill his five-year commitment to the Navy. "Numerous teams, even in 2008 for the draft, just said: 'Hey, there are just too many what-if's. We don’t know what’s going to happen. We just can’t do it,'" Harris said.
The Cardinals, however, were willing to take a chance on the 6-foot-4, 215-pounder, even if the Navy didn't grant him an early release from his commitment. Once a cadet begins his junior year, he is obligated to serve five years of active duty in the Navy following graduation. "The Cardinals said, 'Hey look, we believe in you, we think this is going to happen and however much time it takes we’ll be here whenever you are ready,'" said Harris. "I can't say enough about this organization."
As the Cardinals waited for him to fulfill his military service, Harris, who was based in Norfolk, Virginia, was deployed all over the world. He served as a weapons officer, a combat information officer and a training officer, sailing to the Middle East, Russia and the Baltics. "I took my glove with me wherever I went, and my dad sent me a bag of balls to throw on the ship," said Harris, whose throwing partner was a cook from the Dominican Republic. "On the first ship, we’d throw on the flight deck as often as we could, depending on how the seas were. On the second ship, the flight deck wasn’t big enough."
Some days, the only thing being tossed was the ship itself. Once, off the coast of India, Harris and his fellow crew members sailed through 15-foot waves. "That was terrible," he said. "The only thing you could do those days was lay down." When his service time was complete, Harris said he had no second thoughts about leaving to pick up where he’d left off and pursue a baseball career. As a training officer, part of his job had been teaching other military members to keep their dreams alive. "You are either in the military for your career, or you are there to get a higher education or you are there to get a better job," Harris said. "But whatever the reason you are there, shoot for that. It would be almost hypocritical if I didn’t push myself to get to where I wanted to go because that’s what we told our guys to do."
When he returned, Harris’ fastball had dipped to the mid-80s. He started in the low minors, playing in a short-season rookie league in State College, Pennsylvania, where he posted a 0.81 ERA. He then moved rapidly through the Cardinals’ farm system, climbing three levels in 2014, and was a non-roster invitee to the big-league spring training camp this year. "Here’s a guy who, much like all of our servicemen and women in military, when given a challenge, accepts it head-on and rises to the occasion," said Bryan Eversgerd, Harris' pitching coach at Triple-A Memphis. "This is exactly what Mitch did. Because of his service, he was basically five years behind in his development in the minor leagues, and so he’s an older guy. He had to get moving."
This spring, the Cardinals helped Harris develop a two-seam fastball, a cutter, a slider and a splitter that he throws occasionally. He had already re-acquired the arm strength he’d lost during his years away from the game; all he had left to do at that point was execute pitches. "Fortunately, when we send [players] up for the first time, especially pitchers, I get to be in the room when they are told," Eversgerd said. "Some guys, it tugs at your heart a little more than others. [Harris] is definitely one of those guys, because of what he has been through and the sacrifices he has made. It’s a great feeling to be able to tell him his dream is coming true."
Harris had pitched only 3 2/3 innings at Memphis this season when a roster spot opened up at the big-league club. Cardinals outfielder Peter Bourjos was placed on three-day paternity leave, and on April 21, Harris was called up to the majors, becoming the first U.S. Naval Academy graduate to appear in the majors since midshipman Nemo Gaines, who threw 4 2/3 innings for the Washington Senators in 1921 before retiring from baseball and returning to active duty.
"Mitch dedicated his life to our country for five years," said Eversgerd. "It’s nice to have this great game of baseball to give back to him a little bit."
On the day he was called up, Harris took a moment to reflect about his place in history and on the sacrifices he’d made to get there -- and the message he hopes it will send to others with similar dreams. "No matter where you are from, no matter who you are, what you’ve been through ..." Harris said. "No matter what people say you can or can’t do, or if they say it’s a long shot, or because you are from here, or because you are this race or that race, because you are a guy or a girl, it doesn’t matter. You can do whatever it is you want to do."
Harris made his major league debut on April 25 against the Milwaukee Brewers. Facing Milwaukee first baseman Adam Lind, Harris threw his first pitch -- a 95-mph fastball -- for a called strike. He went on to strike out Lind on four pitches before holding Milwaukee scoreless for 1 1⁄3 innings, and preserving St. Louis’ 5-3 win.
Harris is still in the Naval reserves, part of the U.S. Southern Command, in a program that allows him to fulfill his obligations in four- to six-week periods during the offseason. He’s happy with how his story has played out, but now Harris has a new goal.
"I’m very proud to represent the Naval Academy and the Navy. I hope I can always bring a positive light to them," Harris said. But simply making the majors isn’t the end of his journey.
"When it’s all said and done, I want to be known as a good pitcher, a good ballplayer and a good teammate," he said. "That’s what I’m trying to prove now, that I do belong here. I’m not here because I have a good story, I’m here because I’m a good pitcher."