Nearly five years after he was drafted, Mitch Harris will be in the Cardinals' minor-league camp this spring. (Scott Rovak/USA Today Sports)

By Rob Rains

JUPITER, Fla. – The Cardinals will welcome 79 pitchers to their minor-league spring training camp on Monday, all bringing with them the hopes and dreams that one day they will pitch in the major leagues.

All have their own stories to tell of how they have reached this point in their careers, but for 78 of the 79, their story cannot compare to the journey that Mitch Harris has taken to finally get to his first spring training, nearly five years after he was drafted by the Cardinals.

“When you have a lifelong dream, you want to get there as quick as you can, but sometimes other things need to go on before you can get there,” Harris said. “You have to have patience and believe that God has put this plan in place for a purpose. Sometimes it takes a little longer than you anticipate and you just have to trust that it’s going to work out for the best.”

What went on in Harris’ life was his commitment to spend five years on active duty in the Navy after his 2008 graduation from the Naval Academy. A right-handed pitcher who stands 6-foot-4, the Cardinals made Harris their 13th round choice in the draft that year, knowing it likely would be a few years before Harris was able to change careers.

Neither Harris nor the Cardinals thought it would be five years. Twice Harris applied for early release from his active duty commitment, with the difference in service time added on to his reserves assignment, but both times his request was denied.

He never gave up hope and tried to stay as baseball-ready as possible, including playing catch on the deck of a ship during one of his three deployments at sea.

Now 27, Harris is grateful the Cardinals are giving him the opportunity to pursue his dream.

“We’re intrigued to see what we have,” said John Vuch, the Cardinals’ director of minor league operations. “He was a guy we liked a lot back when we drafted him. He’s certainly a quality individual, and is definitely impressive the way he carries himself. That’s one of the things we really like about him and we’re looking forward to seeing what he can do.”

Harris was drafted by the Braves after his junior year, but at that point decided to continue his Naval career. His fastball measured between 92 and 94 miles an hour and some draft experts estimated he would have likely been a second or third-round pick without the military commitment.

Harris finally got an early release from his Navy commitment in January, and moved to Florida so he could work out at the Roger Dean complex on a regular basis. He, like the Cardinals, is eager to see how he compares to the competition.

“I want to see how my body reacts and I know the competitiveness that I have will kick in and push it to the next level,” Harris said. “I don’t want to set any expectations. My goal is to come out and pitch the best I possibly can. Because of my age I would like to move up as quickly as I can, but I don’t think at this point there is anything I can’t do.”

Vuch said there are no age restrictions on where Harris can play when the regular season begins, and the organization likely will be a little more aggressive with him considering his age.

“We have to see where he is from a competitive standpoint and that will dictate where he goes more than his age,” Vuch said. “Once we see him face hitters we will get a feel for where he is. If we feel he is able to jump right in and face more advanced competition, that’s where he will go.”

The team does not matter to Harris. All he cares about is that all of his sacrifices and hard work the past five years will finally be coming true. He got to spend a few weeks in extended spring training last year while on leave from the Navy but that was different, because he knew he was not going to a team and would be going back to the Navy.

“You don’t even know how much I appreciate this,” Harris said. “I told the guys last year, ‘I will be a good teammate but I promise you if I hear you complaining or saying that you are taking something for granted, I will be the first one to jump all over you because you don’t understand how many guys would love to be in your shoes.’

“There are guys fighting every day for the freedoms we have here and I won’t ever complain while I am out here. I am going to enjoy it and have a blast.”

Harris also said he is playing not only for himself, but for all of his fellow servicemen who have stayed by his side during his Navy years, encouraging him not to give up on his dream.

“I think back a lot to the guys I served with and I keep in touch with them on social media,” Harris said. “I think it’s a big deal to know they have someone to look up to. If they have something they have their mind set for, they can always push for it. Don’t give up, set your mind to it and they can do it.

“I want the guys I served with to have somebody to follow and celebrate with me as we go through this together. It is one of those brotherhood kinds of things – if you’ve been there and done that, it’s something bigger than just a story. It’s a journey a lot of people have kind of gone through with me, and I want to keep it that way.”

It was through the help of those friends, and their encouragement, that Harris never lost hope that one day he would play baseball for the Cardinals. He knew when he made the decision to finish his commitment to the Naval Academy what was required, and he has no regrets about that decision – however his baseball career turns out.

“Growing up in a small town in North Carolina I had no idea what the Naval Academy was,” Harris said. “The only thing I knew about the Navy was that my grandpa was in it in World War Two. There wasn’t a whole lot of understanding what it was I was getting into my freshman year. Then they start teaching you the history and drilling into you the importance and respect of what the military is, and what it stands for, and what this country is founded on, and you can’t let that go.

“It was something that was real important to me and I knew the time I put into it, the time my family put into it, meant a lot. Both my grandpas are World War Two vets. It was something I really wanted to do, to fulfill my commitment.”

During his nearly five years of active duty, Harris went on three long deployments, traveled to more than 30 countries and was involved in numerous operations.

“You never really know if you are in danger,” he said. “There were some times that we had some guys close to the ship and had some ‘threats’ but never were we in any imminent danger like the guys are in Afghanistan and other places that go through attacks every day,” Harris said. “I never considered myself in harm’s way. I could never imagine what those guys on the ground go through. I have more respect than you can imagine for those guys.”

As he looks back at his military career, and begins his life in baseball, Harris realizes that he came away from the last five years with one life lesson he never wants to forget.

“Make the best out of the small things and really learn to enjoy the things that sometimes you take for granted,” Harris said.

Around the majors

Scott Boras may have found the opening he needs to get Kyle Lohse a contract for this season. The Texas Rangers lost pitcher Martin Perez for at least a month Sunday because of a broken arm suffered when he was hit by a line drive … Another new trend could be coming to teams throughout baseball – vision training. The Washington Nationals are doing it, and hope to have the program in place throughout their minor league system by next spring. “We think that it’s the next frontier of improvement,” said Nationals GM Mike Rizzo. “It’s part of our player development program, it’s part of our strength and conditioning. We condition the eye as a muscle and Keith (Smithson, the team’s eye doctor) does a lot of innovative and cutting-edge stuff.” … A change is coming to the seventh-inning stretch at Wrigley Field. The Cubs say they no longer will have national celebrities visiting Chicago sing Take Me Out to the Ballgame. The team wants to use more former Cubs players and local Chicago celebrities in that role … The Twins and Brewers have the most players of any organizations participating in the World Baseball Classic, 13 each.