Mitch Harris will begin the season in Memphis, but likely will find himself in the Cardinals bullpen sometime this summer. (USA Today Sports)

Update on April 25, 2015

Mitch Harris struck out the first batter he faced in his major league debut against Milwaukee, when he came in in the fifth inning to pitch after starter Adam Wainwright got injured in an at bat.  He walked the second batter, the third got a hit and then he got out of the inning with two pop outs.  Harris came back out to pitch in the sixth inning, walking his first batter. The second batter hit into a fielders choice, then he gave up a single before coming out of the game. 

Update on April 20

Mitch Harris is being promoted by the Cardinals from Triple A Memphis and will join the team Tuesday in Washington, D.C. The Cardinals will place outfielder Peter Bourjos on paternity leave.

We have chronicled Harris' journey for the last several years. Here is our most recent story, from three weeks ago.

Previous Story

By Rob Rains

Until he arrived in Jupiter, Fla., for the start of spring training six weeks ago, the Mitch Harris story was always about the journey – the unusual path he traveled the last seven years, the long odds and obstacles he faced in pursuit of his dream of playing major-league baseball.

Something changed when Harris walked into the Cardinals clubhouse in February, however. That journey, which had literally taken Harris around the world, was no longer what was most important to him.

Some of the people in the room knew the story from having played with Harris at minor-league stops the last two years. Others that he was meeting for the first time didn’t know why the right-handed pitcher was unique among the non-roster players in the room, all of whom had their own story to tell.

“I think they have an idea,” Harris said of his teammates, “but I don’t know to what extent or where we started. To me, if they know, that’s cool; if they don’t, I don’t care.

“To me the first thing is I want to be a good teammate and a good player. After that, if they figure out the story, that’s cool. I don’t want that to be the center of attention or the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the name ‘Mitch Harris.’ I want people to think, ‘He’s a great teammate, and a guy we want to pitch in tough situations.’ After that, they can say, ‘Oh yeah, that’s a really cool story.’”

Where the story begins

Harris’ story, and his journey, really begins 11 years ago. When he was a senior at South Point High School in Belmont, N.C., he was weighing the decision about where to go to college. One scholarship offer he considered was from Lee University in Cleveland, Tenn., where his father was an alumnus, and was near his grandparents’ home with a history of having a quality baseball program.

Another school he was considering was the U.S. Naval Academy.

“We started talking about all of the different venues and I told him ‘that’s a decision for you and the Lord,’ said Cy Harris, Harris’ father. “You all make the decision and let me know. He came back and said, ‘I think I want to go to the Naval Academy.’”

While baseball was a factor, Harris also was thinking about the education he would receive at the Academy, where he wanted to major in engineering.

He also knew he was making a commitment to that future – once a cadet begins his junior year, he is obligated to serve five years of active duty in the Navy following graduation. At that time, having gone undrafted in baseball out of high school, Harris really did not know if he had a future in the game, but he knew he had one in the Navy.

It was when Harris was a junior at the Academy that the baseball world began to pay attention to the impressive numbers he was putting up in the Patriot League. Paul Kostacopoulos had already noticed Harris’ talent, immediately after he was hired as Navy’s coach when Harris was a sophomore.

“I didn’t know anyone’s name, and we had maybe 60 guys running around the field,” Kostacopoulos said. “Mitch started to throw, and after the third pitch I knew this kid was special. He had size and he had an electric arm. The first pitch was 89, then 91, then 92. I said, ‘OK, we got ourselves a guy.’”

Scouts who descended on the Academy in Annapolis, Md., could project Harris’ ability as a baseball prospect, but they were unfamiliar with the Navy’s rules. Some teams asked Harris if there was a way they could buy out his Navy commitment so he could begin a pro career immediately, as could juniors at almost any other college in the country.

“We couldn’t give them a straight answer because we didn’t have a straight answer,” Harris said. “The big Navy never gave us a true answer; ‘yes if get X amount of money you are able to go.’”

There was another issue as well.

“There is a clause in the contract that says if they (the Navy) believe you are trying to get out of a commitment they can make you serve enlisted and take your commission away,” Harris said. “I didn’t want to flirt with that.”

Harris discussed the situation with his father.

“I told him it was his choice, but that baseball was a business,” Cy Harris said. “If you hurt yourself they are going to throw you to the curb. You won’t have a degree and you won’t be able to play baseball because you’re hurt. If you stay and get your degree you can get a job anywhere.”

Harris told teams he was not going to sign until after graduation. The Braves drafted him in the 24th round anyway. Harris stayed. Most of the scouts left. One of the reasons they didn’t return the following year was Harris was unable to pitch for the first six weeks of his senior season. He had hit a home run on the final at-bat of fall ball, but tripped as he rounded third base while high-fiving a teammate, falling on his right shoulder.

“It went from a funny moment to being not funny a moment later,” Harris said.

The Cardinals were still intrigued, however, and decided to take a chance and picked Harris in the 13th round of the 2008 draft. They gave him a $10,000 signing bonus and wished him God speed during his Navy career. Maybe they would see him in five years, perhaps sooner, perhaps never.

The long wait begins

There were a couple of points during his Navy service that Harris thought he was close to being allowed an early exit from his active duty assignment, in exchange for more time in the Reserves. Each time his request ultimately was denied.

“He knew the deal,” Kostacopoulos said. “He was not surprised by that.  Mitch has this way about him, that I think came from his parents and family, that no matter what adversity comes his way, no matter what bend in the road or disappointment he has, he truly is able to handle it.

“He does something that I think a lot of young people can learn from – he takes his disappointments and turns it into determination. Rather than letting the disappointments define who he is, he spins that around. I think it fuels him to be determined to do what he wants to do. He’s always been like that.” 

It took almost the entire five years – four years and eight months to be exact – before Harris was allowed to leave. Unable to do anything other than play catch occasionally during his time away, much of which was spent deployed at sea, not even Harris knew what to expect.

“My body was going to tell me. I said I was going to give myself a couple of years to get back into form and get back in the swing of things,” Harris said. “If it wasn’t progressing I would move on. Obviously things progressed probably a little quicker than anyone imagined.”

When he first put on a Cardinal uniform two years ago, Harris was not able to throw his fastball much more than 80 miles per hour. His command, naturally, was another issue, and he needed work on his secondary pitches as well.

“I think they got a 27-year-old boy two years ago with a 22-year-old arm,” Cy Harris said. “It had been dormant, but it also had little to none wear and tear.”

Because of the long layoff, the Cardinals did not expect immediate results. They were willing to be patient with Harris, as long as they saw progress, but because of his age – playing in a short-season rookie league in State College, Pa. -- Harris knew time was not on his side.

He achieved a lot of notoriety, however, because of the almost unprecedented nature of what he was trying to do.

As proud as he was of serving his country, Harris confessed to his father that he was tired of all the attention given to his background.

“He told me, ‘I’m sick of this being the story,’” Cy Harris said. “I said, ‘Let your arm be the story.’ When he was little one time we were going somewhere to play and a guy was throwing pretty hard and he said, ‘Dad, I can hit that guy.’ I said, ‘Tell me with your stick.’ It’s the same thing with his arm.

“That other stuff will fade. I told him that other stuff will always be there because that’s your history. But your arm should do the talking.”

 A special spring

Two years after manager Mike Matheny put Harris into a spring training game against the Mets – as a way to honor him, not knowing the future – Harris was back on the mound at Roger Dean Stadium this spring. After giving up two homers and retiring only one hitter in that game in 2013, Harris is now throwing fastballs at close to 95 miles per hour, breaking off cutters and showing a quality split-finger pitch.

Adam Wainwright was in the dugout 24 months ago when Harris took the mound. He has watched this spring too.

“His fastball just wasn’t there,” Wainwright said. “His command wasn’t there. I was thinking ‘What in the world is this guy doing in big league camp?’ They said ‘He’s been in the Navy, fighting overseas,’ and I went ‘Never mind.’”

 True to his goal, Harris has shown Wainwright this spring that he belongs. He is no longer called on to pitch as a ceremonial gesture but to find out if he is ready to be a major-leaguer.

“He’s worked hard and I just respect so much what he did for us (the country),” Wainwright said. “When I saw him pitch this spring, I said, ‘This guy’s got a chance.’ Before it was a good story about how he came back to play baseball. It was heartwarming. Now it’s like, ‘OK, I can see this.’ This guy has got a big-league arm.”

That’s all Harris wants to hear.

A proud father

Sitting in a seat just to the right of home plate, Cy Harris admits to a little bit of anxiety as his son comes in to pitch against the Marlins. He has experienced the feeling before.

Harris, who spent 28 years as a minister of music and is now the pastor of pastoral care and facilities at North Cleveland Church of God in Cleveland, Tenn., was in the stands when Harris made the opening day start for the Bourne Braves in the prestigious Cape Cod League in the summer of 2007 after his junior year at Navy.

“He was like a little fish in a big pond,” Cy Harris said. “They announced the players for the other team. I don’t remember who they were, but they were All-America guys. One guy was a batting champion. Another guy walked to the plate and had tree trunks for legs.”

Harris allowed just three hits and one run in six innings en route to the victory that day.

“I’ve always tried to be unbiased,” Harris said. “After that game I said, ‘What do you know?’ I knew then there was a good chance.”

Watching his son take on major-league hitters, even in spring training, is a new experience for Harris. He watches as his son allows a single and walk, but gets a double-play grounder to end the inning. Harris follows with a 1-2-3 inning after returning to the mound.

His dad, who pulled out a video camera for the first two batters so he could send the tape back home to his wife, who could not take off work to accompany him to Florida, is able to exhale as his son’s work day is over.

“We have always talked about when something’s not right, take your time and get your composure,” Cy Harris said. “He walked around the mound and did that. It’s like when we play golf and he’s hooking the ball. Why? It’s about adapting and making adjustments. It was exciting that he got out of it. ”

During his short visit to Jupiter, Cy Harris also watched as his son signed countless autographs and heard stadium workers offer unsolicited praise about his son’s makeup and character.

“This was his lifelong dream,” Harris said. “A lot of sweat and tears and heartache have gone into this. I’m proud for him; he set the goal and accomplished it. He’s my son. I stood up there and watched little kids come up and he probably signed as many or more autographs than anybody. That used to be him. I know what it meant to him when he was a kid. It’s the small little things that make a difference. He sees that too. I told him, ‘Don’t lose that.’”

Kostacopoulos, for one, does not see that happening.

“What he is doing is a great story but honestly it’s more about who we graduate here than Mitch being a professional athlete,” Kostacopoulos said. “It puts a spotlight on the fact we have special young men and women here who have amazing talents, all kinds of different talents. Ultimately they’ve chosen to serve our country.

“Mitch understands that our military makes unbelievable sacrifices so we can do what we do. He gets that. We have professional baseball; we have a free country. That’s engrained in him.”

That, too, is part of Harris’ story.

“We overuse words and hyperbole in our society now, but this is an amazing story of many, many triumphs, probably many disappointments, just the whole human element,” Kostacopoulos said.

Harris is attempting to become only the second graduate of the Naval Academy to play in the major leagues. The first, Nemo Gaines, pitched in four games for the Washington Senators in 1921, 94 years ago.

There are two other Navy products currently in the minors, but their situation differs greatly from Harris. Pitchers Oliver Drake, with Baltimore, and Preston Gainey, with Milwaukee, both left the Academy as draft-eligible sophomores, before their five-year military obligation kicked in. 

“The baseball guy in me of 30 years says it’s almost impossible to sit out for five years and do this,” Kostacopoulos said. “But the personal side of me says this kid has amazing talent and if there is going to be a guy, it might be this guy.”

Heading to Memphis – for now

As the final days of spring training come off the calendar, Harris, wearing uniform number 73, is still in the Cardinals’ big-league camp.

“I feel like I’ve pitched well,” Harris said. “I have no idea what the velocity is, but the ball feels great coming out of my hand and that’s all I care about. I know it’s back to where it was in college, and there’s probably going to be a little more when the season begins and I throw a little more and my mechanics get a little better.”

Harris pitched in his eighth game on Tuesday, working a 1-2-3 eighth against the Marlins. He has pitched 9 2/3 innings this spring with a 1.86 ERA, giving up only three hits, two of which have been home runs. Opponents have produced only a .103 average against him.

“I like how he comes at guys,” Matheny said. “He has a pretty good idea of what he’s trying to do. The split has been a really good pitch for him. It’s a nice out pitch. He’s not afraid to challenge guys when he has to. He has a lot of the right things going.”

Harris knows he will begin the season at Triple A Memphis next week. He is OK with that, knowing he has shown the Cardinals and the rest of baseball that a day will come in the not too distant future when he will be pitching in the major leagues.

At every step along his journey, Harris has talked about not only his goal of making it there, but being successful and staying there. He knows a countless number of people are rooting for him, those he went to school with, those he served with, all of those under his command who he encouraged during tough times to not give up on their own dreams.

Harris’ story is their story.  He hears from a lot of them on Facebook, wishing him well. He knows they are watching from places near and far.

When he and pitcher Marco Gonzales were both at Double A Springfield last summer, they shared adjacent lockers. They shared bus rides and long conversations.

Gonzales made it to the major leagues shortly thereafter, barely a year after he was in college. Even though he knows Harris well, he doesn’t know, nor can he imagine, everything he has gone through the last 11 years.

“He’s a natural born leader,” Gonzales said. “We believe in a lot of the same things. It’s awesome what he is doing.”

And what Harris is doing now is trying to write the perfect ending to his story.

“My only thoughts are to do my job, which is to come in and throw strikes and get guys out,” Harris said. “If I can do that - that will get me to the big leagues. The guys who need to make that decision will make that decision.

“I had a really smart coach, Oliver Marmol (at State College) tell me one time that if you have a plan B your plan A is probably not going to be too good. I loved that, and I’ve stuck with that. Right now my plan A is to make it to the big leagues and I don’t have a plan B.”

Cy Harris, thinking about what is to come for his son, can’t help but think back to what he already has accomplished.

“Some of these guys haven’t seen an eighth of what he’s seen,” Harris said. “They haven’t been pushed to the brink. When he was first at the Academy they tried their best to get in his face. They had to push him to see what was in there. I told him, ‘If they push you over there’s no reaching back.’ It was a mind game.”

Harris has transferred much of what he learned at the Academy, and in his years of active duty, to his baseball life. Wearing a different uniform now, those memories will be with him forever.

Before every game at Roger Dean Stadium, before the National Anthem, the public address announcer asks for all active or retired military personnel to stand so they can be recognized.

“Every game, when they say that, he stands there and salutes and claps for everyone,” Wainwright said. “The rest of us turn toward him and say, ‘Thanks dude.’”

Follow Rob Rains on Twitter @RobRains