ST. LOUIS -- Having already been honored at the St. Louis Baseball Writers' Dinner earlier this week for realizing his Major League dream after five years of service in the United States Navy, Mitch Harris has traveled to Boston to be honored by that city's chapter of baseball writers at their Thursday night event.
Harris was named the recipient of the Tony Conigliaro Award, which has been presented at the Boston Baseball Writers' Dinner annually since 1990. It goes to a Major League player who has overcome adversity through the attributes of spirit, determination and courage. Conigliaro, who debuted with the Red Sox in 1964, had his promising career interrupted when he was struck in the face by a pitch. He continued playing through 1975 and later died of a heart attack at the age of 45.
"It's a huge honor," Harris said of receiving this award, as well as the St. Louis chapter's J. Roy Stockton/Bob Broeg Award last Sunday for Outstanding Achievement in Baseball. "It's a testament to the hard work I put in, and the struggle. I wondered if this day would ever come. To get those awards, it's a huge honor to me."
Harris, 30, made his Major League debut last April 25, just a little more than two years after the Navy released the lieutenant from active duty. By that point, Harris had been away nearly five years, putting his baseball-playing dreams on hold throughout it all to meet the Navy's service obligation. During that time, he served on diplomatic assignment in Russia, conducted drug stings in South America and sailed aboard aircraft carriers in the Persian Gulf.
The Cardinals, who selected Harris in the 13th round of the 2008 First-Year Player Draft, unsuccessfully petitioned for Harris' early release several times and later agreed to allow him back into the organization despite Harris' limited throwing opportunities while he was away.
Harris started out as a Class A Short-Season pitcher in 2013 before climbing as high as Triple-A one year later. He then made his Major League debut just weeks into the 2015 season. Harris went on to make 26 appearances for the Cardinals and posted a 3.67 ERA. He was just the second graduate of the Naval Academy to throw a Major League pitch.
"My goal last year was, 'Let's start in Triple-A and just see what happens,'" Harris said. "And I think going into this year after last year, it's, 'Let's take what happened last year and build off that.' If that starts with the big league club, that's what I want, obviously, and we will push from there. I just want to help this ballclub out any way I can."
Harris will be back in Major League spring camp for a second straight year and this time competing for a chance to make a big league Opening Day roster for the first time. The challenge will be steep, as the Cardinals have added to their relief corps this offseason.
Harris said he hopes to stretch himself out this spring so that he can be used in multiple-inning stints, if necessary. That would only make him more attractive to the Cardinals, who prioritize bullpen flexibility.
And though Harris is being celebrated for making it this far, he believes that continued work can further make up for lost time.
"This is still really only Year 3," Harris said. "Every time I work out, every time I throw, I'm still gaining a lot of stuff back. It didn't come back overnight. I think there is still some more stuff that can come out. So I'm excited to continue to work on the things I know I need to work on and refine some of the smaller things. I'm excited for this year."