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Cards' Harris swaps ships for sinkers

Naval Academy graduate makes professional baseball debut
June 19, 2013

There are so many things to say about Cardinals pitching prospect Mitch Harris, it's almost impossible to know where to begin.

You might mention that that he's pitched on the deck of a naval ship at sea, that he was drafted more than six years before he played his first professional game or that he has a degree in engineering. You could say he's the only pitcher on his team born in the '80s, that he's older than his manager or that he's only thrown a baseball a handful of times over the past five years.

For Harris, all that really matters is that he's living out his boyhood dream.

On Wednesday, the 6-foot-4 right-hander fulfilled a lifelong ambition to call himself a baseball player when he made his professional debut for the Class A Short-Season State College Spikes in their 8-3 win over the Williamsport Crosscutters.

Why is a 27-year-old debuting in the teen-laden New York-Penn League? For the past five years, Harris has served in the U.S. Navy.

"I don't think it could have gone any better," Harris said of the 1 2/3 hitless innings of relief he provided the Spikes in his debut. "I'm satisfied with how it went, facing five guys and getting five outs.

"It has been a long time coming, but I made sure I didn't give up on my dream. Some people told me this day might never come, but when I look back, I know I did it the right way and still preserved the dream I has as a kid."

Harris entered Wednesday's game with runners on first and second base and one out in the top of the sixth inning.

He uncorked a wild pitch that advanced both runners, but he struck out Gabriel Lino and induced an inning-ending fly ball off the bat of Justin Parr. In the seventh, Harris set down the side in order.

Harris' journey to this point is unlike any other.

He grew up playing baseball at a small high school outside Charlotte, N.C., where the head baseball coach, Mickey Lineberger, was also the assistant football coach. One day, Navy's defensive coordinator Buddy Greene came by the school to speak with the coach when he saw Harris throwing a bullpen session.

"It was pretty hard to turn down an offer to the Naval Academy," Harris recalled.

Between 2008 and 2010, Harris served on the USS Ponce, an amphibious marine transport ship based out of Norfolk, Va., where he was a weapons officer. Between 2010 to 2012, Harris worked as a training officer on the USS Carr, and most recently he was at the Navy's shore-based command center in Dam Neck.

During those five years, Harris went on three different deployments, including two assignments with the Marines in the Persian Gulf, a four-month diplomatic trip in the Baltic and a three-month drug operation in South America.

Did he have down time -- let alone facilities -- to play baseball?

"Not a whole lot," said Harris, who earned an engineering degree in the academy. "There was a travel team that I was able to be a part of, but that was only three times over a couple months. My first ship was big enough that I could throw a ball on the flight deck. It was a good-size deck, big enough to land four helicopters, but not huge by any means.

"The second ship wasn't that big. When we pulled into port, I would throw a football or a baseball or whatever we had."

Harris was selected by the Braves in the 24th round of the 2007 Draft and again by the Cardinals in the 13th round the following year. But Harris had already committed to a five-year commitment to the Naval Academy, something he did not want to turn his back on.

This January, the academy agreed to let him postpone the final few months of his service when the Cardinals offered him another professional contract on condition that he remains in the Naval reserves for three years. That means he will be responsible for attending the Navy's Southern Command Unit in Miami for drills a set number of times through 2016, likely in the baseball offseason, in lieu of the four months he did not complete.

"Four years, eight months and eight days," Harris said of his service time. "I grew up outside Atlanta as a kid, and any kid that played baseball had the dream of playing professional baseball. I remember playing in the yard, playing as the entire Braves lineup.

"Sometimes things don't work out the way you want the to, but if you keep your passion, your day will come."

Ashley Marshall is a contributor to Follow him on Twitter @AshMarshallMLB.