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Wednesday, May 21, 2008

By Jeff Bradley

With the sun reflecting off the Severn River and the Midshipmen trying to prep for a game amid final exams, senior righthander Mitch Harris sits in the third base dugout of Navy's Max Bishop Stadium, on the first muggy afternoon of May, and recalls the day he chose country over baseball. It wasn't during his senior year at South Point High School in Belmont, N.C., when he proudly received his appointment and made the decision to attend the Naval Academy, the only D1 program that even gave him a look. No, it was two years later, when Harris—previously a relief pitcher and first baseman best known for his bat—morphed into Navy's ace, going 10–3 with a 1.74 ERA and 12-plus K's per nine innings as a sophomore. He had grown to 6'4" and 215 pounds, and after his freshman year, new coach Paul Kostacopoulos wiped the slate clean for the program, putting Harris in the starting rotation. Suddenly, for the first time in his baseball life, people were telling Harris he was a serious big league prospect. Despite all that, he still chose to sign his military service commitment, which bound him to five years of active duty after graduation. "If all I wanted was to play ball, that was my chance to get out." Harris says. "But after two years here, it meant too much to me to just get up and leave. I had to finish what I'd started." Question is, by signing his service commitment, did he finish what he's started in baseball, too? "When I first got here, I threw in the mid-80s," says Harris, who now reaches the low-90s and can hit 94. "I've gotten bigger and stronger, more confident all around." He has also refined a cut fastball, a slider and an off-speed breaking ball, all of which he "throws downhill," says an East Coast scout, meaning that, on the mound, Harris looks taller than he is. He followed up his sophomore season with similar numbers as a junior (8–5, 2.14, 119 K's in 88e innings) and has pitched well this year after missing time with a separated shoulder he suffered in a fall. "He's 22 years old," says Coach Kostacopoulos, "but his arm is a lot younger than that."

A year ago, fully aware of Harris' military commitment, Atlanta drafted him in the 24th round. "We saw a kid with a lot of ability and makeup that's off the charts," says scouting director Roy Clark. The Braves knew that if they struck a deal, Harris would have been a part-time pitcher while he finished school and began to serve his active duty. The postdraft conversations stalled, and under baseball's rules Harris went back into the draft pool. This year, even with Baseball America ranking him the No. 2 prospect among all college seniors, his draft outlook seems highly uncertain. Midshipmen with "extraordinary talent" in sports or other fields can appeal to shorten their commitment from five to two years, as hoops star David Robinson did after graduating in 1987, if they agree to serve additional time in the reserves. But because of the war in Iraq, those requests have been put on hold, and five years seems likely for Harris. "I know what commitments I've made," he says. "The honor of being at the Naval Academy means a lot to me. When they play the national anthem before our games, it's not just a song to me and my classmates. We are here to serve our country."

Yet he can't deny his baseball dream. "I would love to find a way to serve, to help the Navy, and play," he says. "With me being 22, it would be difficult to put things off for any length of time. Guys are getting released, not getting started, when they're 24 and 25. I'm not trying to get out of anything I signed up for. But I'd love for them to work with me on a compromise." The Army has accommodated West Point football stars, such as defensive back Caleb Campbell, who was a seventh-round pick of the Lions in April. If he makes the team, Campbell will be allowed to work part-time as an Army recruiter to fulfill his commitment. But the Navy doesn't think recruiting while playing sports meets the duty requirement. The club that drafts Harris is, in all likelihood, selecting a part-time baseball player for the foreseeable future. Still, as Kostacopoulous says, "Arms like Mitch's aren't easy to find. Teams will take much bigger risks in the draft than they'd be taking if they took Mitch." Even if they have to wait for him to finish what he's started.

WATCH LIST — Keith Law of Scouts Inc. highlights four prospects with deep backgrounds
Lonnie Chisenhall 3B, Pitt CC (N.C.) He was thrown out of the U. of South Carolina last spring after being charged with stealing household electronics. He got six months' probation and has reemerged as a prospect thanks to his advanced bat.
Kyle Long LHP, St. Anne's-Belfield School (Charlottesville, VA.) Howie Long's son was an offensive-line prospect, but unlike Dad and big bro Chris, Kyle chose baseball. At 6'7", 280 pounds, he could be a power lefty.
Jemile Weeks 2B, Miami Unlike U. of Texas OF Jordan Danks (draft-eligible brother of Chisox LHP John Danks), Jemile plays the same position as his big league sib. At 5'9", 180, Jemile lacks Rickie's power, but makes up for it with his glove, speed and ability to hit for average.
Danny Espinosa SS, Long Beach State If Penn State is Linebacker U, then Long Beach is Shortstop U. Espinosa doesn't have the impact bat of ex-Dirtbag shortstops Bobby Crosby, Evan Longoria and Troy Tulowitzki, but not surprisingly, he's an excellent defender.