UNIVERSITY PARK — In 2010, Ensign Mitchell Harris stood on the deck of the USS Ponce in the middle of the Persian Gulf, firing a baseball as his sneakers slowly disintegrated, buckling from the intensity of the Middle Eastern sun.
The humidity stifled and the salty sea air licked at his skin as the ship rose and fell with the shifting waves.
The flight deck — able to absorb intense heat generated by Osprey helicopters — ate at the soles of his shoes, gradually grinding them into nothing, something that was similarly happening slowly to his career in baseball.
Now, sitting on the concourse of Medlar Field at Lubrano Park, Harris gazed at a much different landscape. With Mount Nittany standing tall behind centerfield, Harris searched for the right words to put his journey into perspective.
“Not completion,” Harris said. “Because it’s not where I want to be, but in the same sense the journey of getting to ball has started.”
As the State College Spikes prepare for opening day in the New York-Penn League on Monday, Harris continues working toward a career he’s been waiting to fulfill for years.
The 27-year-old pitcher played college baseball at the U.S. Naval Academy, which requires a five-year, active-duty commitment upon graduation. He was drafted in the 13th round by the St. Louis Cardinals in 2008. Per military regulations, those with professional sports contracts could petition for early release after two years of active service with the remaining time added to the reserves.
After having two petitions denied, Harris felt his window of time slipping away.
Frustration set in, especially when he saw his friend and fellow Midshipman, Eric Kettani earn an early release to pursue a career in the NFL.
However, as an officer, Harris couldn’t let that disappointment show.
“It was tough because in the back of my mind I knew I hadn’t given up on ball and I knew the Cardinals were going to let me come back and play, but at the same time as an officer I have upwards of 20-30 guys under me.”
“So if I’m not doing what I’m supposed to be doing, not only does it reflect badly on me, but it doesn’t get the job done because the guys see that my mind’s not right and they’re not going to do what’s supposed to be done. “
On a ship, in sometimes-hostile waters, getting the job done is imperative. Harris said his ship never had to fire at an enemy, but there were some “hairy situations.”
There was the time they were crossing through the Straight of Hormuz, a narrow passage between the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman.
Other ships had been attacked there before, but Harris said they had made the journey more than 15 times without incident.
This time however, several small boats approached from the rear and eventually pulled alongside the Ponce. Smaller, faster vessels are dangerous, said Harris, because they are hard to shoot and can ram the boat with explosives on board.
As a weapons officer at the time, Harris was in charge of all the weapons and the training that goes with them, which meant he was on alert because “anytime we go through the Straight of Hormuz, we have to be armed up.”
He could hear on the radio that potential hostiles were close.
“So close that when I came out there … I could see the faces of the guys and I could here them yelling and I could see their weapons onboard,” Harris said. “It didn’t escalate much more than that … but knowing that the threat was there got the blood pumping a little bit.”
The juxtaposition with life in a Class-A baseball short-season affiliate is sharp, but there are some useful parallels.
A 27, the 6-foot-4, 230-pound right-hander, is by far the oldest player on the team, even older than the team’s 26-year-old manager Oliver Marmol.
“When we talked about having (Mitch) be part of this team I was pretty excited because he adds a lot of character to that clubhouse,” Marmol said. “You have some young kids in here.
“With our organization, there is a calling to excellence. Everything they do you’re expected to do it really well and everyday, and that’s the same mindset he has and brings to the clubhouse. There’s this level of and demand for excellence, because of his background, and the guys that are around him step up to that.”
That background is something that Harris cherishes, but his inability to secure an early release — and begin a career in baseball — frustrated him.
Harris said each “package” of appeal took about a year to put together, which made the denials more trying.
Then when Kettani was granted an early release in 2009 after signing with the New England Patriots, Harris was happy for his friend but frustrated and confused by the denials.
The two forged a bond in college when Kettani starred as a running back and Harris as a pitcher. After each graduated, they stayed in touch and communicated by phone or email while on separate deployments, trying to figure out ways to pursue professional sports.
“That was hard for me at first,” Harris said. “That’s when they came back and basically said that (Eric) has a professional contract, yours is a minor league contract … That’s when it struck me that they didn’t even understand how it works. You don’t just get a major league contract.”
“So that was really frustrating, but because he’s a good friend of mine I wanted him to take full advantage, so I was happy for him. And as soon as all that happened (for him) he was saying, ‘Hey, try this and try that.’ He wanted me to keep my head up still try to pursue it.”
Kettani, who was recently promoted to lieutenant, is currently going through OTAs with the Washington Redskins and couldn’t be happier that his friend is getting a chance to pursue his dream.
“I’m happy for him,” Kettani said. “He’s a great guy and a great friend and I hope the world that he does the best with St. Louis and goes big time.”
For now, Harris is still working back into pitching shape. His last petition for early release was finally granted and took effect in January after serving four years and eight months of a five-year commitment. He is now a lieutenant and will fulfill three years in the reserves.
The arm that once yielded 113 strikeouts and a 1.74 ERA in college has been largely dormant for almost five years. Back then, he once hit 94 on the radar gun, but now he’s in the mid to upper 80s.
In January, he went to spring training in the Gulf Coast League and in February he got the chance to pitch in a Grapefruit League game for the Cardinals.
“Unbelievable,” Harris said of the opportunity. “The results were not unbelievable,” he said with laugh.”
“But the feeling of big leagues is ridiculous…”
Harris gave up a pair of two-run home runs against the New York Mets and only retired one batter.
He enjoyed and appreciated the experience but knew he wasn’t ready after little more than a month back in baseball.
“Now, it’s like ‘let me get in there now,’” Harris said. “’Let me get in there now when I have more confidence, when I feel better.’ But that’s kind of the challenge for me. If I ever get an opportunity like that again I’m going to be ready.”
Although he’s a pitcher and that’s what he wants to be, he’ll take another shot at the bigs anyway he can get it. He was also a quality-hitting first baseman in college. He left Navy with a .303 career average.
“The goal was to get to the big leagues,” Harris said with a smile. “It wasn’t to get to the big leagues as a pitcher, though that’s what I would like to be. At this point it’s ‘you tell me what you need me to do and what the team needs and I’ll do it.’”
“I’ve never caught before, but if you guys need a catcher, I’ll sit back there and wear a few.”
That attitude seems born partly from a desire to realize a childhood dream and out of loyalty for a franchise that took a chance when drafting him.
“I want to prove to them that they didn’t make a bad decision,” Harris said. “That loyalty goes both ways. If you guys had faith enough and belief in me … to know that I wasn’t going to play for at least two years, you deserve my best effort to get back to that or better because you deserve the guy that you picked.”