We’re straying a little outside of the family with this week’s tale. Mitch Harris pitches for the St. Louis Cardinals. But he was in Boston last week to receive the Tony Conigliaro award, given by the Red Sox at the Boston baseball writers dinner to someone who exemplified the determination, grace and will with which Tony C. dealt with adversity in his all-too-short life. We think after you hear about Mitch Harris, you’ll be glad we shared his story, and you’ll perhaps understand why Richie Conigliaro, Tony’s brother, was in tears when he presented Harris with his award, and a banquet hall full of people were moved to rise to their feet.
Unlike most recipients of the Tony C. award, Harris did not face a physical challenge he had to overcome. His test was of another sort, one that he elected to take on voluntarily, despite an awareness of the near-impossible odds he was facing. Mitch Harris burned with the desire to play big-league baseball, and had the talent to do so. But as a member of the Naval Academy, he had embraced another calling, one he renewed after his sophomore year. Midshipman Harris had the option after two years at the Academy to walk away. Instead, he signed a 2-7 commitment: two more years in the academy, five years of service as an office in the Navy.
“When you get to the academy, you start to understand what the importance is of being there, what it really means to serve,’’ he said. “Once you’re instilled with that, you realize that this is about more than yourself.
“I made a commitment to serve my country. But I also had a dream of mine I wanted to fulfill, a dream of playing baseball. I decided to pursue both. It was just having to figure out how to do it, because no one had done it.’’
Only one Naval Academy graduate had ever played major league baseball. That was Nemo Gaines, a left-hander who pitched 4 2/3 innings for the Washington Senators in 1921. And the Academy gave Gaines a break that Harris did not receive after the Cardinals drafted him on the 13th round in 2008. Gaines was allowed to play the summer after he graduated, then began his tour of duty. Unlike the NBA’s David Robinson, whom the Navy gave permission to leave two years into his service commitment, the Navy had a different message for Harris: The country was at war. There would be no shortcuts, and no baseball, until after he fulfilled his commitment.
Harris did two deployments in the Persian Gulf on the multi-mission USS Ponce. Harris would occasionally throw on board to Victor Nunez, a cook who grew up playing baseball in the Dominican Republic. Harris’ father, Cy, a minister in the Church of God, used to send him bags of baseballs.
“We would throw on the flight deck when we had time off,’’ Harris said, “and only when the ship wasn’t rocking. We went through numerous balls. Drop it on the flight deck, it’s 10 times rougher than if you’re standing on concrete. The ball hits it, it’s done.’’
His third deployment took him to the Baltic, off the Russian coast, and then to South America, where they assisted in intercepting drug-smuggling operations off the coast of Colombia. The USS Carr was a smaller ship than the Ponce, and Nunez was no longer with him, so the chances to throw grew even smaller.
It wasn’t until 2012, four years after he’d been drafted, that Harris went to spring training for the first time. “I’d saved up my leave—30 days,’’ he said, “and went to spring training.
“It was awful. My body was in great shape, but I was tight as could be. I couldn’t throw. My velo was 82, 84. It was just embarrassing. Here I was 6-4, 225, 230, and I had nothing on it.’’
Discouraged? Of course. The frustration became even greater the following spring, when he’d finally gotten released from active duty and transitioning to reserve duty. All the power Harris had displayed in his right arm while pitching for the Academy still did not surface. Barry Weinberg, the Cardinals’ senior medical advisor, could sense something was not right.
“Barry worked on me, stretched me out, did everything he could think of, on his own time,days off, after hours,’’ Harris said. “He did a lot of stuff for me mentally, too. ‘It’s going to be fine, it’s going to come, stick with it.’
“That meant a lot. Let’s be honest: A lot of people didn’t think this would be a possibility.’’
Harris reported to short-season A-ball. At 26, he was not only five or six years older than his teammates, he also was older than his manager. But while others may have had their doubts, Harris insists he was undeterred.
“Quite the opposite,’’ he said. “If I allowed myself to have doubts, then I was doing it for the wrong reasons. I told myself it was going to happen. It was a matter of opportunity and making the best of it.’’
The breakthrough came the following season, in Double A. Harris threw a bullpen, and could feel the surge of power in his fastball. He turned to look at his pitching coach, Randy Niemann, the former big-leaguer, who had a big smile on his face. “Things just kind of clicked,’’ Harris said.
On April 25, 2015, in Milwaukee, Mitch Harris was summoned from the Cardinals bullpen in the fifth inning to make his major league debut at age 29. He struck out the first batter he faced, Adam Lind, on four pitches. He appeared in 26 games for the Cardinals, all in relief, compiling a 2-1 record with a 3.67 ERA. In 27.0 innings, the 6-4, 240-pound right-hander struck out 15 batters and walked 13.
And last week in Boston, he stood on a podium, watching Richie Conigliaro fight back tears while struggling to keep his own composure.
“Twenty-six years I’ve done this,’’ Richie Conigliaro said. “We’ve had some great recipients–Bo Jackson, Jim Abbott. But I’ve never really felt like I feel tonight. I’ve never seen anyone so deserving. For Mitch, man, it’s amazing. I’m so proud for you to receive this.’’
Mitch Harris thanked his mother, Cindy, and father, Cy. A newlywed, he thanked his wife, Mandi, and Barry Weinberg, who had come to share the moment. He saluted the cook who caught him, Victor Nunez, and the men and women with whom he’d served. And he paid homage to Tony C.
“Reading up on Tony Conigliaro. I learned so much about what he accomplished, but more of who he was,’’ Harris said. “He was a man of spirit, determination and courage. He could have given up on the sport he loved, but he didn’t.
“I want to say, ‘Thank you, Tony Conigliaro, not only showing us how to play, but how to live.’’
And so, too, has Mitch Harris. An officer. A gentleman. A big-league pitcher.