Great Falls, MT-It's been almost 11 years since Willie Harris scored the winning run in a World Series clinching game for the Chicago White Sox. The series win gave the franchise its first championship in 88 years. It's the kind of memory that's forever etched in stone for a former player who now has his sights set on cementing his status as a baseball lifer.
Following a 12-year big league playing career, Harris is more than ready to begin his first season as the new hitting coach of the Great Falls Voyagers. He suited up for the White Sox from 2002 to 2005. His career also included stops in Atlanta, Baltimore, Boston, Cincinnati, New York (Mets), and Washington. Harris says he's eager to start his coaching career with a familiar organization. "It feels great to be back with such a great organization, from top to bottom. Especially after being a part of something so special like that 2005 championship season."
After winning the World Series, Harris says it really didn't catch up to him emotionally until the parade rolled through downtown Chicago. "It wasn't until we made the turn on LaSalle Street. That's when I knew it was the real deal. The fans were everywhere. Tears of joy ran down my face. Tears for the organization, for the city of Chicago, and for my own contribution."
The 37-year-old Cairo, Georgia native retired from Major League Baseball in 2012. Harris always thought he would jump back into baseball in some form or fashion. "I had the desire to get back in the game because I have a ton of energy and I went through a lot as a player being sent up and down from the minors to the majors. I'd love to help the young guys that will go through that."
The former Florida State football recruit was originally drafted by the Orioles in the 24th round out of Kennesaw State in 1999. Harris made his MLB debut at the age of 23 in 2001. He posted arguably his best individual season as a player in 2008 with the Nationals. He appeared in 140 games that season and hit .251 with 13 HRs and 43 RBIs. Harris racked up a career high in hits with 107 while playing for Chicago in 2004.
The Jacksonville, Florida resident has spent some of his retirement days coaching travel ball for teenagers who likely harbor some of the same dreams he once did. Harris feels the heights he reached as a player will help him relate to the minor leaguers he's coaching. "By far my biggest asset as a coach is providing my guys with determination, confidence, and swagger. That's half the battle. Helping them understand that in this game you will have ups and downs, but it's all about how you respond when things aren't going as well as you'd like."
Harris says the most important part of being a coach at the professional level is building relationships. "I want the guys in Great Falls to learn what they're capable of doing on the field. I want them to learn how to be responsible for their jobs and not take it for granted. I want them to stay aggressive as hitters and most of all, HAVE FUN."
Once he sets foot in the Treasure State, Harris will be walking in unfamiliar territory. "I've never been to Montana, but I hear wonderful things about the scenery. Can't be more excited to get there. My college roommate lives six miles from Centene Stadium. I know Great Falls supports its baseball, and that's all I need to know."
Like most players who reach the pinnacle of baseball, Harris has vast experiences to draw from as he embarks on a new career in the game he loves. It's a career that, one day, may rival and possibly surpass any achievements he had as a player.
Great Falls opens the 2016 Pioneer League season on the road Friday, June 17th at Helena. The Voyagers home opener, also against Helena, is scheduled for Thursday, June 23rd. For the entire schedule, ticket information, or news on other Voyagers related events, visit www.gfvoyagers.com or call 406-452-5311.
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.