Former Navy Lt. Mitch Harris is one of 18 non-roster players invited to the Cardinals' spring training camp. (Mark Harrell/Springfield Cardinals) 

By Rob Rains

There were times, when he was on a Naval ship somewhere on the other side of the world, that Lt. Mitch Harris wondered if his dream to play major-league baseball would ever become more than that or would remain only a dream.

He knew the odds were against him. Having to complete a five-year active duty requirement following his graduation from the U.S. Naval Academy meant that he could not begin a professional career until 2013, when he was 27 years old, an age when many baseball careers are ending, not just getting started.

Harris, however, fought through those temporary moments of doubt. He would find a buddy and go out on the ship’s flight deck for a game of catch, doing whatever he could to try to keep his right arm in shape.

“I wouldn’t be where I am without all of the people who supported me and pulled for me,” Harris said by telephone Thursday from his off-season home in Georgia. “In my lowest and roughest times they told me, ‘You can do this.’ That’s the biggest part for me.”

That’s one of the reasons Harris will be thinking about those people next week when he moves one step closer to making his dream a reality. He will walk into the St. Louis Cardinals’ major-league spring training camp in Jupiter, Fla., where a locker and jersey with his name on the back, number 73, will be waiting for him.

Harris is one of 18 non-roster players invited to the Cardinals’ major-league camp, but none of the other 17 has a story comparable to what Harris has accomplished.

“It’s a heck of a story,” said Mike Shildt, who was Harris’ manager last season at Double A Springfield, Mo. “Now effectively it has gone past the point where it is more of a novelty. He’s carved out an opportunity for himself and I couldn’t be more excited for him.

“Perseverance, vision, patience, self-believe. It speaks volumes about that young man. He deserves all of the credit for doing the work but I do appreciate and respect very much the manner in which the organization has stuck by him.”

Harris, a 13th-round pick of the Cardinals in the 2008 draft, put himself in this position with two years of hard work. He pitched at a rookie level club, the State College Spikes, in 2013, and then rose from Class A Palm Beach through Double A Springfield before finishing last season at Triple A Memphis. He capped off the year with an assignment in the Arizona Fall League.

Combined through the three levels, Harris was 2-2 with a 3.92 ERA in 42 games, all in relief. He struck out 45 hitters, walked 19 and limited opponents to a .221 batting average. He was 0-2 with a 4.26 ERA in 11 games in Arizona.

“In the back of my mind, if you are going to do this, you have to have the attitude you can do it,” Harris said. “You can’t come out there and wonder if you’ve got it. You’ve got to tell yourself you have it and prove it to yourself. I think that’s what last year was, not only proving to myself what I thought all along, but to everyone else. When I was drafted in 2008 I told them if they would give me a shot hopefully I would make it worthwhile. I felt I owed it to the club. My goal is to make that a worthwhile pick.

“I knew last year was going to have to be a big year for me and I was fortunate enough to pitch well and put myself in a situation where I was able to move up. That totally needed to happen going into this year. Now I feel like I’m in a situation, as long as I pitch the way I know I am capable of and continue to progress and get stronger, that if there is a spot open I can work hard enough to put myself in that spot.”

Even though he is now 29 years old, Harris’ age, and relative lack of experience – 73 career games counting his time in the Fall League – is basically irrelevant. Now that he is on the cusp of competing for a spot in the Cardinals’ bullpen, all that matters is can he retire major-league hitters.

“I think last year, talking to several of the coaches and guys in the organization, they helped me to really throw that (his age) out the window and get past that,” Harris said. “They helped me realize as long as I take care of what I can take care of, on and off the field, I can put myself in a situation where the front office has to make a decision: Is this guy ready? Can we put him in the big leagues? Can he help our club? Hopefully that is the direction I am heading.”

Harris, who has about a year remaining on his Reserves duty requirement, has been able to restore the velocity he had on his fastball in college, sitting in the low 90s, to go along with a cutter and improved slider. He also began developing a splitter in the second half of last season.

“He did a a great job for us,” Shildt said. “I saw him continue to improve. Double A is a corrective league usually and he was able to make adjustments and move forward and fine tune his game. He got more consistent as the season progressed.”

Harris believes the experience he has gained has allowed him to take this next step on his journey, but he is not celebrating. He is saving that for the day he realizes his ultimate goal of making his big-league dream come true.

“What I told myself this off-season was to go into spring training thinking you have a shot at the big league club,” Harris said. “I want to put myself in a situation when that time comes. I’ve got to be ready. That’s something I’ve learned through the organization.

“You literally are an injury away. Anything can happen.”

If Harris does make it to the major leagues, he would be only the second pitcher ever to play in the major leagues who graduated from the Naval Academy. The other was Nemo Gaines, who pitched in four games for the Washington Senators over a three-week span in 1921, 94 years ago.

“That’s a stat I’m still researching,” Harris said. “I looked him up not too long ago. I don’t know the full history.”

Many players have gone from the Naval Academy to the NFL, and David Robinson had an outstanding career in the NBA after his graduation.

“I think baseball is tougher,” Harris said. “In my mind with the other sports you can always work on things wherever you are. But pitching is finely tuned. It’s not a sport where you can just go off by yourself and work on things. You have to be able to work with someone else. That’s kind of hard to do when you are on a ship.”

That is one of the reasons why making it to the major leagues is so important for Harris, both for himself and for all of those friends who have accompanied him along the way.

“I’ve said all along my time of reflection will be once I make it to big leagues,” he said. “My goal isn’t a step at a time. My goal is to make it to the big leagues, whatever it takes. If I was to slip up and relax and take time to reflect and look back, it gives me an opportunity to not work as hard as maybe I should be working.

“I don’t want to relax until I’ve reached that ultimate goal, which is to make it to the big leagues and be successful in the big leagues. Once I do that I will give myself some time of reflection … I will be super excited when that day comes, and even more excited to see everybody else who has been involved in this journey being able to be excited and live that experience with me.”

Shildt will be one of those people.

“It’s a special story,” he said. “The final chapters are yet to be written. You have to pull for this guy.

“When I was in the lower levels, with guys who had just signed, I told them, ‘Whatever you do, run the race. Take advantage of the opportunity you have, whether you are good enough or not good enough, run the race. Be all in.’

“Mitch has been all in, and he’s starting to reap the benefits of his labor and his faith.”

Follow Rob Rains on Twitter @RobRains