As a pitcher, Mitch Harris made Baseball America’s Third-Team All-American in 2007, won the Roger Clemens Award Watch List in 2006 and 2007. His fastball ranged from 92-94 mph, and he mixed in a cutter, slider and splitter. He set a school record with 113 strikeouts in 82 2/3 innings in his sophomore year at the United States Naval Academy.
Harris was first scouted by the New York Yankees in 2007, then the Baltimore Orioles, and by the end of the season the young flamethrower had 15 to 20 scouts at his games. However the St. Louis Cardinals had an edge because John Abbamondi, their assistant general manager, was also in the Navy. Abbamondi served nine years as a Navy flight officer, with 40 combat missions in Iraq.
The assistant GM wanted Harris so badly that he was even willing to write letters on Harris’ behalf for an early release. Abbamondi believed Harris could do more for the Navy if he was playing Major League Baseball, and providing free publicity to the armed forces. However the nation was at war so those notions were quickly dismissed.
“He respected that, and never once complained,” said Abbamondi. “He never had any thoughts about not serving his country or doing what was required.” Despite the risks of deployment, Harris was drafted by the Cardinals in 13th round in 2008. The Cardinals told Harris they would be patient and hold a spot for him after he served his time.
Despite having the talents to be in the MLB, Harris honored his commitment and spent the next five years serving his country. “This was something I committed to and it something that was much bigger than me,” said Harris.
He was stationed in Norfolk, Va., and baseball took a backseat to his naval career. Mitch’s dad, Tennessee pastor Cy Harris, understood his son’s passion and would send him baseballs even though his son was on a ship.
Harris would throw to one of the cooks, the only one on the ship that he thought could catch him without getting hurt. There was a need for more baseballs because they would sometimes sail into the ocean.
Harris served two tours as a weapons officer in the Persian Gulf aboard the USS Ponce, and another on the USS Carr that once halted a cocaine-smuggling operation off the coast of Colombia.
From USA Today:
Harris got out of the Navy in January 2013 after four years and eight months, with the Navy granting him permission to serve the final four months in the reserves. He immediately called the Cardinals.
“I told them I’m available,” Harris said, “and I still want to do this. If there’s a spot, I would be very happy if I could come and play.”
The Cardinals honored their vow and assigned Harris to their short-season Class A team in State College Pennsylvania. However the years of not playing hurt Harris dearly, his once scorching 94 mph fastball was only 82 mph.
Thankfully Harris regained his arm strength and his fastball. Last year, the once promising pitcher regained his shine, and rampaged through three minor league levels. Then he was invited to the Cardinals spring training camp. He started the season at Class AAA Memphis as a reliever, recording two saves and a 2.45 ERA.
Two weeks later, Mitch Harris had fulfilled his dream, he was called up to the big leagues.
The Cards were playing in Washington D.C. against the Nationals. Mitch’s family, officers and friends from the Navy, Tim Crone, his commanding officer from the U.S.S. Ponce, and even Abbamondi were at the game to cheer him on.
“I always had a dream of being a professional athlete, and obviously there were days you were discouraged,” Harris told USA Today. “When you’re out to sea, you get all of the time in the world to just sit and think. There were days you tell yourself it may not happen. Those are the tough days.”
At 29-years-old and out of the game completely for five years, Mitch Harris did the unimaginable, he pitched in a MLB game. He is the first Naval Academy graduate to play in the MLB since Nemo Gaines did so in 1921. He struck out the first batter he face on just four pitches.
“I’m proud of what I’ve done, but I want everyone who served to be recognized, too. When I see those guys, whether in an airport or somewhere else, I’ll go out of my way to say hello, just to say, ‘Hey, I’ve been there with you. Thank you for what you’re doing.'”
“They should never be taken for granted.”