July 11, 2013
ANNAPOLIS, Md. -
Former Midshipman Mitch Harris has briefly traded his Naval officers cover for a baseball hat before. Whether playing with various military teams or joining the St. Louis Cardinals organization for a few weeks during spring training, Harris has had opportunities to return to the diamond while serving his country. However, since obtaining a release from his active-duty commitment in January after nearly five years in the Navy, Harris put on a baseball hat for what he hopes will be a good part of the foreseeable future.
After going through complete and extended spring training with the St. Louis Cardinals, who selected him in the 13th round of the 2008 draft, Harris was called up by the State College Spikes in June. The Spikes are the New York-Penn League Class A affiliate of the Cardinals.
"Obviously with a couple years off, it was a challenge to make sure I kept my body in the best shape possible," said Harris. "I had to make sure that when I started throwing again that I didn't have any relapses of any old injuries. When I got to spring training this year, I really pushed myself to get in the best shape I could."
Harris had nearly a full month before the official start of spring training to work out and begin the task of returning his arm to form.
"The velocity wasn't there when I first started in the spring, but it has started to come back pretty good here in the last few weeks," said Harris. "It's coming back and I'm excited about it, but the biggest thing is still working to get back to where I was. Because of not having the higher velocity that I had in college, I've had to really learn more to pitch with what I have. That way when my velocity gets back up, I'll have that much more capability of getting guys out."
While serving in the Navy over the last five years, Harris kept in close contact with the Cardinals organization. In 2012, he was able to take leave in February and March to participate in spring training with the Cardinals. But prior to his spring stint in 2012, Harris had the opportunity to play baseball in some unique settings.
"I was able to play with some armed forces teams while serving," said Harris. "That allowed me to go out and play a little bit, even though it was just for a couple of months at a time."
Harris' first opportunity was with a team representing the U.S. Southern Command that played games all across Latin America over a 25-day span. The squad participated in exhibition games with military and civilian teams and also visited schools, orphanages, hospitals and little leagues as part of a goodwill tour.
"It was a really cool experience and I was fortunate to have the opportunity," said Harris.
Following his stint with the Southern Command team, he went on to play with the US9 Armed Forces Baseball team. The US9 team included active duty, reserve and National Guard personnel.
"Both instances were a lot of fun, but also allowed me to play ball and stay in the game," said Harris.
The spring training and various other baseball stints also helped Harris become more determined to return to the game. Those experiences have now made the game that much more enjoyable.
"Every day when I come to the field now I don't have in the back of my mind the thought of `When do I have to leave'," said Harris. "It's a really good feeling to know that each day I can come to work and focus on what I have to get done and not have to worry about anything else.
"I feel like I don't have to rush anything or push myself too much and risk injury. I can really take my time and work on what I need to, knowing that I'll be here for the entire year."
Since arriving in State College, Pa., in mid June, Harris has made seven appearances - all out of the bullpen. Through July 10, he is 1-0 and has yet to allow an earned run. Not bad for someone who has never before pitched out of the bullpen.
"It has been adjustment for sure," said Harris about pitching in relief. "But I like it; it's fun, you go in for an inning or two and give it all you've got and don't have to think about having to pitch three or four more innings. It's enjoyable and it's certainly a change of pace that I am getting used to."
Adapting to a new role is nothing new for Harris. In fact, the transition to pitching in relief might seem pretty easy compared to what he has faced and conquered in the past. Now 27, Harris' Naval experience has provided unique perspective beyond that of the typical minor leaguer.
"I think the biggest thing I can take away from not only my time at the academy, but also from my time in the Navy, was facing adversity," said Harris. "At the end of the day, baseball is a game. Sometimes when you have a guy in scoring position and need to get a strikeout or a groundball, you have to put things in perspective and relax yourself and realize that it isn't really adversity. It's a game and I can enjoy it and that allows me to play better when I'm more relaxed and comfortable."
With the invaluable lessons he learned during his years at the Naval Academy and then as an officer, Harris hopes to continue his new tour in the game of baseball for as long as he can.