WASHINGTON (AP) — During his stint in the Persian Gulf on a Navy carrier, Mitch Harris kept his pitching arm — and his hopes of eventually making it to the majors — in shape by tossing a baseball on the flight deck.
“We actually had a cook … who grew up playing baseball his whole life,” Harris recalled. “He was about the only person I truly trusted to throw with, because I was scared I’d hurt anybody else.”
Harris, a 2008 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, told this story Tuesday during a news conference at Nationals Park, where the 29-year-old relief pitcher joined the St. Louis Cardinals after being called up from the minors.
The Hall of Fame said it believes the only Naval Academy graduate to appear in a major league game was pitcher Nemo Gaines, who made four relief appearances in 1921 with the Washington Senators. Counting the minor leagues, just nine Annapolis graduates have played professional baseball, the Hall said.
“It’s nice to finally say that the dream has begun to come true,” Harris said. “Obviously just making it is part of it, but staying is the better half.”
Harris, who is from Ocala, Florida, had the rank of second lieutenant and still is a member of the reserves. He said he was stationed in Norfolk, Virginia, for five years and went on three deployments, including time in the Persian Gulf, Russia and on drug operations in South America.
“It’s a great story for our country and for our soldiers,” St. Louis manager Mike Matheny said. “For a guy who’s made that kind of sacrifice, and then (to) be able to make that kind of jump into our world, it’s just so rare.”
The right-hander was selected by the Cardinals in the 13th round of the 2008 amateur draft and started his professional baseball career in 2013. He had a 1.86 ERA in eight spring training appearances for the Cardinals this year, then had two saves and a 2.45 ERA for Memphis.
“He made a commitment to his country and he honored that. From a baseball development standpoint it was not ideal,” Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak said. “In a lot of ways, he dealt with baseball atrophy.”
Through all the time away from the game, Harris never lost sight of his goal.
“If you tell yourself you’re not going to be able to do it, you’re setting yourself up for failure. So I told myself the whole time that there was going to be a time where I was going to get a chance to do this,” Harris said. “And that was the best way to go about it. I’m human. There’s definitely days where I thought there’s no shot, no chance I was going to do this. But here we are.”
He said he thought about 20 relatives and friends planned to be in the nation’s capital for Tuesday’s game against Washington, a cheering section that included his parents and the commanding officer on his first Navy ship.
“It’s a fantastic story. Service to his country, first and foremost, and worked hard to get to where he wants to be professionally, too,” Nationals manager Matt Williams said. “We approach it like we would any other guy — we hit to our strengths. But I think it’s a fantastic story. And his first game being here is really interesting, as well.”
Williams then added with a smile: “We want to beat him. We really do. But it’s a great story.”
Notes: St. Louis placed OF Peter Bourjos on the paternity leave list Tuesday and selected the contract of Harris from Triple-A Memphis. St. Louis designated OF Gary Brown for assignment to open a spot on the 40-man roster for Harris.
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