Many major leaguers follow a twisting path to the major leagues, but none can say they traveled the same road as Mitch Harris. The right-handed pitcher’s major league debut was interrupted by graduation from the U.S. Naval Academy and five years of active duty. A 2008 graduate of the Naval Academy, Harris finally realized his dream of reaching the major leagues in 2015.
Mitchell Andrew Harris was born on November 7, 1985, in Ocala, Florida, to Cy and Cindy Harris. With two younger sisters, he was the oldest of three children. Cy Harris was a minister, and the family moved around while Mitchell was young, from Florida to South Carolina, to Atlanta, to Charlotte, North Carolina, before settling in Cleveland, Tennessee.
Harris attended South Point High School in Mount Holly, North Carolina, near Charlotte. He earned all-conference and all-state honors in the 2003 and 2004 seasons (his junior and senior years). He played for the North Carolina State Games team in 2003. Harris described himself as a “utility guy,”1 able to play different positions and pitch as well. Buddy Green, a US Navy Academy football coach and recruiter on a visit to South Point High School, strolled past the baseball field, saw Harris throwing a bullpen session and later connected him with Academy admissions officials. After a visit to Annapolis, Harris became part of the Brigade of Midshipmen.
There is a military gene running in the family. Harris’s two grandfathers served in World War II. Louin Harris, his paternal grandfather, was in the Navy and fought in the Battle of Midway. James Chamberlain, his maternal grandfather, was a soldier in the Battle of the Bulge. Once Harris decided to attend the Naval Academy, his grandfathers would tell him stories of their experiences in the military, and Harris recalled that his father and uncle said it was the first time they had heard those tales.
In his first season at Navy, 2005, Harris played in 40 games, 37 of them as the starting pitcher. He batted .283 and tied for the team lead with 12 multi-hit games. As a pitcher, he held Patriot League hitters to a .214 batting average against him. Despite these fancy figures, his pitching record was 0-and-3 with a 6.46 earned-run average and two saves.
As a sophomore at Annapolis, Harris set a Navy record with 113 strikeouts in 82⅔ innings. His 12.30 strikeouts per nine innings were still a Patriot League record as of 2016. He earned Patriot League Pitcher of the Year honors in 2006, posting a 10-3 record with a 1.74 ERA and claiming the league’s pitching Triple Crown.
The next year, 2007, Harris struck out 119 batters, as of 2016 still the record for Patriot League pitchers. In addition, he led the Patriot League with four triples and eight home runs. He was named a third-team All-American by Baseball America, and was drafted by the Atlanta Braves in the 24th round of the major-league amateur draft. He had to remain at the Naval Academy; sophomores are required to commit themselves to graduate and serve five years on active duty.2 One more honor was added when Harris received the Thompson Trophy Cup recipient, presented to a midshipman, male or female declared to have “done the most during the year for the promotion of athletics at the Naval Academy.” 3
By 2008, his senior year, 15 to 20 major-league scouts were attending Navy baseball games.4 The St. Louis Cardinals’ assistant general manager, John Abbamondi, a former Navy pilot who flew 40 combat missions over Iraq,5 was instrumental in drafting Harris with the Cardinals’ 13th-round pick in the 2008 free-agent draft. Abbamondi and GM John Mozeliak tried to get the Navy to waive Harris’s five-year service commitment. However, with the nation at war, all requests were denied. Harris never lost hope of pitching in the major leagues, and Mozeliak “wanted to make sure he had an opportunity.”6 So, after graduation from the Naval Academy, Ensign Harris began his service to the country. On March 2, 2009, Harris did sign an agreement with the Cardinals.
As a naval surface warfare officer, Harris traveled to the Middle East twice aboard the amphibious transport USS Ponce, which performed exercises with Marines. He then spent time aboard the frigate USS Carr, going to Russia for a diplomatic mission and then to South America on drug operations. But he never lost sight of his goal of pitching in the major leagues. “It would be a dream come true,” he said in 2014, while playing in the minor leagues.7 “Growing up, you have a dream of playing pro baseball. And when you get the opportunity to go to the Naval Academy, you can’t pass that up. Once I got there, I realized what it meant to have that brotherhood and to be able to serve your country. That moved to the forefront, but in the back of my mind, I still had the dream of playing pro ball.”
While Harris was aboard the Ponce, Victor Nunez, a cook on the ship who had played baseball, became his batterymate, catching him.8 “He was about the only person I trusted to throw with, because I was scared I’d hurt anybody else,” Harris said.9 He pitched to Nunez on the ship’s flight deck, with the Persian Gulf as his “ballpark.” He lost more than a few balls into the ocean, but his father kept him supplied with bags of balls.
After his naval service ended, the Cardinals honored their promise to give Harris a shot at making the major leagues. In 2013, at the age of 27, the right-hander made his pro-ball debut with the State College Spikes of the short-season New York-Penn League. His fastball had initially lost its zip, but he worked hard to regain his form. He finished the season with a minuscule 0.81 ERA and a 4-1 record. He struck out 29 batters in 33⅓ innings.
In 2014 Harris raced through three levels of the minor leagues. He pitched in eight games for the Palm Beach Cardinals in the Class-A Florida State League, 33 games for the Springfield Cardinals in the Double-A Texas League, and one game for the Memphis Cardinals in the Triple-A Pacific Coast League.
Harris’s work at Springfield impressed pitching coach Randy Niemann, who said, “There’s no doubt the younger guys look up to him. I made a point of making sure our younger players know where Mitch has been and what he’s done.”10 In 57 innings in the minors in 2014, used mostly as a late-inning relief pitcher, Harris posted an ERA of 3.95. He struck out 45 and walked 19. His WHIP (walks and hits per inning pitched) was 1.158. According to Niemann, “Not only was he hitting 94 mph almost every outing, but he perfected the cutter and I got him throwing a splitter as a third pitch. I don’t think age is a factor for Mitch.”11
Harris returned to Memphis at the beginning of the 2015 campaign. After earning two saves in the first two weeks of the season, he got the call of his life: “Report to Washington, DC. You’re joining the Cardinals. You made the big leagues.”12 On April 21 a roster opening developed when outfielder Peter Bourjos was given paternity leave. The Cardinals put Harris on their 40-man roster, making room for him by designating outfielder Gary Brown for assignment. His pitching coach in Memphis, Bryan Eversgerd, said, “Mitch dedicated his life to our country for five years. It’s nice to have this great game of baseball to give back to him a little bit.”13
Harris made his major-league debut on April 25 at Milwaukee, relieving Adam Wainwright to start the bottom of the fifth inning with the Cardinals leading, 2-0. His first pitch, to Brewers first baseman Adam Lind, was a 95-mph fastball for a called strike. Three pitches later, Lind struck out. Harris then gave up a walk and a hit, but retired two more Brewers to end the inning. He faced three batters in the sixth inning, giving up a walk and a hit before yielding to Matt Belisle. Harris had pitched 1⅓ innings and yielded no runs. The Cardinals went on to beat the Brewers, 5-3.
Harris notched his first major-league victory on May 5. Before 41,613 fans at Busch Stadium, he relieved Seth Maness in the top of the sixth inning against the Chicago Cubs with the score tied, 4-4. He faced four batters, allowing a two-out double to Addison Russell, and then got the third out. Harris was lifted for a pinch-hitter in the bottom of the inning as the Cardinals scored two runs and held on to defeat the Cubs, 7-4.
Over the rest of the season, Harris went back and forth between the Cardinals and Memphis. With the Redbirds he was 0-4 with a 3.38 ERA, striking out 20 in 26⅔ innings. With the Cardinals, Harris was 2-1. His earned-run average was 3.67 in 27 innings pitched (26 appearances).
Harris pitched in one spring training game in 2016. In March he underwent a nerve test to clarify a diagnosis of compression syndrome,14 and began the season on the disabled list. Unfortunately, Harris underwent Tommy John surgery in June and thus missed the remainder of the 2016 season.15
Harris started the 2017 season with the Memphis Redbirds, the Cardinals’ AAA-affiliate in the Pacific Coast League. He appeared in just two games, pitching a total of two innings. The Cardinals released him on May 9, 2017,16 putting an end to his professional baseball career. Harris announced the news on social media, saying, “Today marks the end to my time with the Cardinals but the beginning to another journey. I don’t know what God’s plan is but I know I’m excited for it. Thank you Cardinal Nation for your unending support!”17
Harris’s coach at Navy, Paul Kostacopoulos, said he knew exactly how hard the pitcher had to work. “He did the full five years of service and he truly is an officer and a baseball player. He’s fulfilled every promise he’s made. He promised his parents he’d graduate from the Naval Academy. He did that. He promised his country he would serve his time, and he did that. And he made a promise to himself that he was going to hang in there as long as he could to be a baseball player.”18
Harris became the second Naval Academy graduate to play in the major leagues. Nemo Gaines played four games in 1921 before heading back to the Navy. Gaines pitched 4⅔ innings in four games, with a 0.00 ERA, facing 19 batters and yielding five hits and two walks but no runs.
Harris said he appreciated the Cardinals’ organization for their support. He said, “The Cardinals said, ‘Hey look, we believe in you, we think this is going to happen and however much time it takes we’ll be here whenever you are ready.’ I can’t say enough about this organization.”19 For his part, Cardinals 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.”20
In 2015 Harris was voted the recipient of the 26th annual Tony Conigliaro Award. The honor is bestowed on a major leaguer who “has overcome adversity through the attributes of spirit, determination, and courage that were the trademarks of Tony C.”21 Members of the Conigliaro family presented the award to Harris at the Boston Baseball Writers’ dinner on January 21, 2016. The event was co-hosted by the BBWAA and the Sports Museum, based at the TD Garden in Boston.
As of 2016 Harris was still a lieutenant in the US Naval Reserve, assigned to the Navy Operational Support Center in Hialeah, Florida. He was fulfilling his military obligation during the offseason. He had spent four years, eight months, and eight days on active duty, and this required three years of reserve time to complete his obligation. As a serviceman, Harris stood at attention when the national anthem was played before games, and when “the color guard is still on the field, no one returns to the dugout until they get their cue from Harris.”22
Mitch and his wife, Mandi, were wed on November 21, 2015, in Athens, Georgia.
Harris said he was proud of his service to his country. “I want everyone who served to be recognized, too,” he said. “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 are doing.’”23 But he said believed he belonged in the major leagues, commenting, “I’m not here because I have a good story. I’m here because I’m a good pitcher.”24 In a 2015 interview with the Navy Times, Harris said, “The Naval Academy and the Navy made me who I am, developed me into the person and the leader that I hope I am, and I wouldn’t take that back for anything.”25
Last revised: March 14, 2022
1 Author interview with Harris, March 3, 2016.
2 Author interview with Harris, April 13, 2016. Midshipmen may leave the Naval Academy after their sophomore year, but they must reimburse the Navy for its costs in educating them.
4 Bob Nightengale, “After Naval Stint ‘Much Bigger Than Me,’ Mitch Harris Takes on Major Leagues,” usatoday.com/story/sports/mlb/2015/05/21/mitch-harris-st-louis-cardinals-naval-academy-graduate/27660855/, May 21, 2015. Accessed January 21, 2016.
7 Spencer Fordin, “Navy Grad Harris Finally Pursuing MLB Dream,” m.mlb.com/news/article/99298562/naval_academy-grad-mitch-harris-finally-pursuing-mlb-dream, October 23, 2014. Accessed January 21, 2016.
8 Author interview with Harris, March 3, 2016.
9 Tom Schad, “With Service Commitment Fulfilled, Navy Grad Realizes His Big League Dreams,” washingtontimes.com/news/2015/apr/22/mitch-harris-cardinals-pitcher-and-navy-grad-reali/?page=all. Accessed January 21, 2016.
10 Jeff Bradley, “After Five Years in the Navy, Mitch Harris Chases His Big League Dream, si.com/mlb/2014/10/28/mitch-harris-arizona-fall-league-st-louis-cardinals-navy-midshipmen, October 28, 2014. Accessed January 21, 2016.
13 Anna McDonald, “From the Navy to the Majors, Cardinals Pitcher Mitch Harris Carries on,” espn.go.com/blog/sweetspot/post/_/id/57570/mitch-harris-from-u-s-naval-academy-to-the major-leagues, November 11, 2015. Accessed January 21, 2016.
14 Jennifer Langosch, “Reliever Harris Likely to Begin Season on DL,” mlb.com/news/mitch-harris-expected-to-miss-start-of-season-c168693542, March 23, 2016. Accessed April 2016. The article says Harris had a stem test, but he told the author on April 13, 2016, that it was a nerve test.
15 Mark Bowman, “Cards reliever, Navy grad Harris invited to Fort Bragg,” mlb.com/news/cardinals-mitch-harris-invited-to-fort-bragg-c187787282, July 3, 2016. Accessed March 9, 2022.
16 Nathan Grime, “St. Louis Cardinals: Pitcher and Naval Academy Grad Mitch Harris Released,” redbirdrants.com/2017/05/09/st-louis-cardinals-mitch-harris-released/, 2017. Accessed March 9, 2022.
20 “Former Navy Lieutenant Mitch Harris Called Up by Cardinals,” espn.go.com/mlb/story/_/id/12734785/st-louis-cardinals-call-former-navy-lieutenant-mitch-harris, April 23, 2015. Accessed January 21, 2016.
21 “Cardinals Pitcher Mitch Harris Wins 2015 Tony Conigliaro Award,” foxsports.com/Midwest/story/st-louis-cardinals-pitcher-mitch-harris-wins-2015-tony-conigliaro-award-121515, December 15, 2015. Accessed January 21, 2016.
25 Meghann Myers, “Academy Grad Makes History in MLB Debut,” navytimes.com/story/sports/2015/05/02/navy-naval-academy-st-louis-cardinals-baseball-mitch-harris/26636619/. Accessed January 21, 2016.