The bag of baseballs would arrive every now and then, as if delivered from the sky, a reminder to keep his dream alive. A helicopter would fly them to the ship, to whatever ocean Mitch Harris, a commissioned US Navy lieutenant, had been deployed.
“About a dozen balls per bag,’’ Harris recalled the other day, taking a brief respite from his workout at a suburban Atlanta high school, spring training 2016 fast approaching. “Mail call was huge. My dad would send me the balls, and whenever you got things from home, you know, it was a big deal.’’
The balls were the biggest thing in Harris’s life. Tangible. Real. Full of possibilities. They represented the career that could be out there, waiting for him.
A righthander with major league potential, he decided after two years of pitching for the US Naval Academy that he would stay the military course. It meant two more years of study at Annapolis, followed by five additional years of active duty.
All in all, seven more years. He would be in his late 20s if . . . if . . . he ever got the chance to make it to The Show. All the while with the minor leagues teeming with teens and younger 20-somethings free to make or break their careers.
“On one of my deployments, one of the ship’s cooks was a guy about my same age from the Dominican,’’ recalled Harris, a 6-foot-4-inch, 215-pound righthander. “So he knew the ins and outs of baseball, to say the least. We’d go out on the flightdeck, and he’d catch me. And the decks are hard . . . harder than asphalt even, so if a ball hits that, it’s done. He’d catch me, and that helped a lot. It wasn’t like playing in a game, obviously, but it kept my arm going.’’
Harris will be in town Thursday for the annual Boston Baseball Writers dinner at the Marriott Copley Place. He made his dream a reality. Discharged in January 2013, the final four months of his tour designated to reserve status, he grinded through two seasons in the minors and finally made his big league debut with the Cardinals last April. For all that perseverance, Boston’s baseball writers this year chose Harris as the Tony C. Award winner — given annually to the major league player who best overcomes adversity, in the spirit of late Red Sox outfielder Tony Conigliaro.
Roughly half of Harris’s Navy hitch was spent at sea, totaling some 18 months of deployment, including two tours in the Persian Gulf, and a third that took him from the near Baltic nations of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia, and later to South America.
“I’m sure that I fed the bottom of the seas with plenty of balls,’’ he said.
His father, then a music pastor for a protestant church in Maryland, kept sending them. He had faith in his son. It takes many baseballs to fill the oceans.
If the seas behaved and the ship was big enough, he pitched. He could tell his fastball was slowing, but he kept throwing. And he pondered. Long days at sea often allowed more time for the latter than the former.
“Oh, you can’t really put into words the . . . you could say the stress, the worry, the what-ifs . . . of all those thoughts,’’ recalled Harris, who finished his rookie year with the Cardinals with a 2-1 record and 3.67 ERA, making 26 relief appearances. “My first deployment, I was married. I went through an entire marriage and divorce on top of all that. And then having that dream, not knowing if I ever would get my chance . . . that definitely ate away at you.
“So you have plenty of time out there to sit and think and ponder about the what-ifs, and the possibilities of never fulfilling the chance. It was definitely difficult to process. But I think I told myself, from the time I [decided to stay in the Academy] I was going to be prepared. I was keeping myself ready, so when the time came I would give myself the opportunity to make the best of it.’’
The Baseball Writers dinner, a charitable affair administered these last five years by the Sports Museum, has chosen a Tony C. Award winner since 1990, soon after Conigliaro died at age 45. A 19-year-old sensation out of St. Mary’s High in Lynn when he made his debut with the Sox in 1964, he was beaned late in the Impossible Dream ’67 season, and fought back valiantly to return to the Sox lineup in 1969.
The Tony C. Award was a favorite of the late Dick Bresciani, onetime Red Sox PR man and later team historian. Its first recipient was Jim Eisenreich, the Royals outfielder who played while battling Tourette syndrome, the neurological disorder. It also has honored the likes of Bo Jackson and John Lackey.
“Man, has it been an honor to find what truly Tony C. — as I have read everyone called him — not only meant to the city, but everyone who played against him or knew of him,’’ said Harris, who remarried in November and now lives with his wife near Atlanta. “So it’s an honor to know I am going to get the award. It’s neat to learn about individuals, the tough times they had to go through, and what they did to make it back.
“As cool as I guess my story is, I don’t feel like it’s over. It’s just starting for me and I will see where it goes. It’s really an honor to receive an award named after such a determined individual.’’
Harris, a 2008 Naval Academy grad, is expected back on the mound for the Cardinals in April. He says his fastball, back regularly in the mid-90s, is his bread-and-butter pitch, and his cutter is improving. He’s 30 now, with shining seas behind him, enough baseballs to fill an ocean at his fingertips.
“Heck,’’ said the veteran with sturdy sea legs, “it’s nice to go out on the mound when your catcher isn’t rocking back and forth.’’Kevin Paul Dupont’s “On Second Thought” appears regularly in the Sunday Globe Sports section. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeKPD.