Naval Academy Grad Finally Makes It To The Big Show After His Se - SWX Right Now-Sports for Spokane, CdA, Tri-Cities, WA

Naval Academy Grad Finally Makes It To The Big Show After His Service

After graduating from the US Naval Academy and serving five years Mitch Harris is finally achieving his dreams. (Photo: STLSports) After graduating from the US Naval Academy and serving five years Mitch Harris is finally achieving his dreams. (Photo: STLSports) -- Sometimes things aren't as they seem. Exactly the case for St. Louis Cardinals reliever Mitch Harris, who just happens to also be a United States Navy Veteran who finally is getting his big league shot after serving his country for five years.

Harris is a graduate of the United States Naval Academy, the first to play in the MLB since Nemo Gaines in 1921, who brought scouts by the dozens to watch him pitch for Navy. Named a Baseball America Third Team All-American, Harris set a school record when he struck out 113 batters in 82 1/3 innings during his sophomore season.

But there was one team with a special Navy connection that had the leg up in attaining Harris' services, the Cardinals. St. Louis assistant general manager John Abbamondi was also in the Navy with over 40 combat missions in Iraq during his nine-year service. Abbamondi liked Harris so much he wrote the Navy to ask for his early release so he could get him on the field as soon as possible.

Then Harris was presented with a choice, leave his commitment early or serve seven more years (graduation from the Academy and his required five years). 

"This was something I committed to,'' Harris said to USA Today Sports, "and it something that was much bigger than me.''

Harris stayed and pitched into his senior season, and the pro scouts kept coming. They were impressed with his 92-94 MPH fastball and three breaking pitches. Despite the knowledge that it would be five more years before he could even start pitching in their organization, the Cardinals selected Harris in the 13th round of the 2008 MLB Draft. 

Abbamondi had a feeling he could be something special.

"That was one of the reasons we took him,'' Cardinals GM John Mozeliak said, "because we thought we had one of the inside tracks to help. He was a big advocate of trying to get him to play baseball, but still understand he has to serve.''

Harris served four years and eight months, serving two tours, one aboard the USS Ponce and the other on the USS Carr as a weapons officer. The Navy let him serve his final four months in the reserves. So when he was out in January of 2013 he called St. Louis. He was ready to pitch.

"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 draft pick and placed him on their short-season single A team, the State College Spikes of the New York-Penn League. The same level the Spokane Indians are in the Northwest League.

But the 94 mph fastball had turned into an 82 mph pitch, the layoff had hurt Harris' arm strength badly. But St. Louis remained patient. Slowly Harris arm strength came back and during the 2014 season he sky-rocketed through all three minor league levels and set himself up to have a shot at the bigs with an invite to Spring Training. After starting the season in Triple-A, Harris got the phone call he could've only dreamed of while serving on the USS Carr in the cocaine corridor.

Watch Harris throw his first MLB pitch in the video above.

Harris' story is a special one, and one that hopefully ends after a long and successful MLB career, but he wouldn't change the path he took for anything.

"What I went through, going to the Academy and the Navy,'' Harris said, "it kind of imprinted who I am. I loved where I've been, the things I've done, and wouldn't have it any other way.

"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.''

For more on Harris' unique trip to the big leagues read Bob Nightengale's article for USA Today Sports here

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