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After five years in the Navy, Mitch Harris chases his big league dream

There were days Lieutenant Mitchell Andrew Harris would look at the men and women who served under him on the USS Ponce and the USS Carr and tell them it’s OK to dream.

Lieutenant Harris understood not everyone joined the Navy to make a career out of it. So while it was imperative that they give their all every minute of every day they were serving their country, Harris understood that for many, the Navy was not a final destination but a stepping stone to something else. Maybe a higher level of education. Maybe a career. He understood.

And when Harris returned to his quarters, he’d pull out his baseball glove and feel the seams of a baseball, just to remind himself it was also OK for him to dream. To believe his own words.

These days, Harris reflects on those days at sea from time to time, as he pitches -- just shy of his 29th birthday -- for the Peoria Javelinas in the Arizona Fall League. After a five-year hiatus from competitive baseball, Harris is now on the cusp of becoming the first graduate of the United States Naval Academy to pitch in the major leagues in nearly 100 years. He worked his way from Class A to Triple-A in 2014 and just might find himself in big league spring training in February.

"There were days I had the thought," Harris began, "sitting out there in the middle of nowhere, thinking, 'How in the world am I going to be able to continue to play the game I wanted to play so much?' I'd start thinking about how long I’d gone without throwing a ball. Thinking there’s no way I get back into it. Then I’d remember, just as I’d told so many people, not to give up."

In 2008, Harris graduated from the Naval Academy one of the most highly-rated pitchers in college baseball, a 6-foot-4 righthander who could hit 95 mph on the gun and break bats with a nasty little cutter. Like all graduates of the Academy, Harris knew he owed his country a minimum of five years of active service, but he held out hope that he could serve a little differently.

When the Cardinals drafted him in the 13th round of the ‘08 draft, Harris asked the Department of the Navy if perhaps, in the spirit of, say, David Robinson, he could do two years of active service and stay in the Reserves? Not during a time of war, Harris was told.

So, in case you were wondering why there hasn’t been a Navy Midshipman in a major league uniform in more than a century, or even why Nemo Gaines, a lefthander who threw 4 2/3 innings for the Washington Senators in 1921, is the only graduate of the Naval Academy to ever appear in a big league game, now you know exactly why. While five years may not be enough to ruin the career of a pro football player like Roger Staubach or Phil McConkey (in all, 26 Midshipmen have played in the NFL), the layoff has never worked for a baseball player.

Though Harris wasn’t thrilled with the Navy’s verdict, he did not put up a fight. He’d made a promise when he signed up on what’s known as "2 for 7" day in Annapolis. After two years at the Academy, a midshipman has the opportunity to walk out. But when he signs on for his junior year, he is committing to seven more years. Two more in Annapolis and five as an officer in the Navy. Harris had learned a lot as a midshipman, respect and honor being foremost, so he wasn’t going to disrespect those who marched alongside him. Baseball would have to wait.

Fast-forward through two deployments, one to the Persian Gulf on the Ponce, and one to Russia on the Carr, to spring training, in February of 2013. The Navy has decided to cut Harris’ service short by a few months, in part because the Cardinals still want to see him throw. He heads to minor league camp in Jupiter, Fla., a 27-year old rookie, and is a shell of his old self.

"While I was serving in the Navy, I’d stayed in the best shape I could," Harris said. "But I had not thrown a baseball in a long time. So when I got on the mound, I was not good, to say the least. I was very tight. I had to work to get my arm back in shape. It took a while."

Actually, it didn’t take very long at all.

"From where he was in 2013 to now is pretty remarkable," says former major league pitcher Randy Niemann, who served as Harris’ pitching coach this past season at Double-A Springfield. "When I first saw him, his velocity was way down and he was frustrated. When he joined us in late May in Springfield, I was really impressed with how far he had come. He was back to throwing 93-95 mph, and he had learned to throw a split. Not to mention, his character."

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Harris is the oldest player by three years in the Arizona Fall League, which is nothing new to him, having now done time in short-season A-Ball, Class A and Double-A, where he was sometimes six, seven, even eight years older than his teammates. At this point, leading comes naturally.

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"There’s no doubt the younger guys look up to him," says Niemann. "Look, I make a point of making sure our younger players know where Mitch has been and what he’s done."

Harris' first deployment was on the USS Ponce, a 577-foot long amphibious transport dock. He did two different missions to the Persian Gulf, performing exercises with the Marines.

"We were to be there in case something happened," Harris says. "My second deployment was on a frigate, the USS Carr. We started out up in Russia and then we went to South America do do drug operations. We took down a cargo ship that had over a million dollars worth of cocaine."

While it was never easy to throw a baseball, Harris said he did find a cook on the Ponce who’d grown up in the Dominican Republic who was capable of catching his fastball.

"We threw on the flight deck," Harris says, laughing. "And lost numerous baseballs overboard."

Harris says he knew he’d give pro baseball a shot when his active service was up but admits he had no idea how much rope the Cardinals would give a then 27-year old.

"The Cardinals were very upfront," Harris says. "And I can’t say enough about the organization for sticking with me the whole time I was serving. When I came back they said, 'We understand it’s going to take some time.' But there was also a time when they basically said we’re going to need to see some improvements. That was a little motivation. That got me going."

In 57 1/3 innings in 2014, pitching as a late-inning reliever, Harris struck out 45 and walked 19. His record was 2-2 and his ERA was 3.92. Niemann says the numbers don’t tell the story.

"He really refined his pitches during the course of the year," Niemann says. "Not only was he hitting 94 mph almost every outing, but he perfected the cutter and got him throwing a splitter as a third pitch. I am really excited about the progress he made in a very short period of time. Now that he’s made it to Double-A and Triple-A, I don’t think age is a factor for Mitch. Now it’s going to be all about production. Maybe the time he spent in the Navy will shorten his career. Who knows? But for me, he’s got the ability and stuff to pitch in the big leagues."

Were Harris to make it to The Show, rest assured, there will be a small celebration among those who played with him in Annapolis.

"It would be a testament to the kind of people who attend the Naval Academy," says former Navy teammate Bill Maugeri, an outfielder for the Midshipmen who’s now attending the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif. "The Academy is all about people who are driven to accomplish a goal. To have him represent us as a classmate, a teammate and friend would be awesome. We all knew he had the talent. But we also wondered if he’d ever get the chance."

Regardless of whether he makes it or not, Harris, who is a lieutenant in the Navy Reserves in Hialeah, Fla., says he has no regrets about the path he chose.

"You can look back and say what if in a lot of ways," Harris says. "What if I didn’t go to the Naval Academy? Or what if I would’ve gone to a regular school? But then I can also ask, what if I got injured? Maybe in another scenario, I wouldn’t have gotten the education I got at the Academy. Where would I be then? It’s not the same path most guys would’ve taken … but it’s my path."

Harris, who grew up in Mount Holly, N.C., but now lives in Florida, says he’ll finish up in the Arizona Fall League and wait on a call from the Cardinals. He hopes the call is for him to report to big league camp in the middle of February. If that happens, he’d then hope to get "The Call."

"It would mean the world to me to represent the Naval Academy," Harris says. "Going to Annapolis is an honor in and of itself. Everyone that goes to the Academy has the first priority to serve their country and give back the time that was given to you, and I’ve done that. But, like I said to those who served under me, everyone has goals and dreams. Go get them."