Mitch Harris had two dreams in life: serving his country and playing professional baseball. He just didn't realize that one might keep him from doing the other.
Harris was a legitimate prospect coming out of the Naval Academy after posting a 2.51 ERA with 291 strikeouts in 222 13 innings during his four-year career. And the Cardinals took a chance, drafting him in the 13th round of the 2008 draft.
The hard-throwing right-hander signed with St. Louis in 2009, but knew he had to fulfill his five-year commitment to the U.S. Navy first. Written in his contract with the club was a provision that would allow him to join the Cardinals once he had completed his required service time with the Navy.
Harris, now a Lieutenant Junior Grade, has completed four of the five years. And a recent break in his deployment schedule allowed him to begin realizing his dream. He joined the Cardinals' minor league camp in March and recently began pitching in extended spring training games.
"It's something that's hard to even describe," Harris said. "Anyone that's strived to reach a goal and had a dream their entire life, it was a very awesome experience to walk in and realize this jersey was mine and I finally earned it.
"And then when you put it on and walk out to the field and get on the mound and throw, it's amazing. I was smiling from ear to ear. It was great just to talk to some of the guys out there and just to remember not to take any day for granted because a lot of people would love to be in my shoes."
But his dream will soon be put back on hold. Harris found out April 25 that his appeal to serve extra time in the Reserves in exchange for letting him bypass his final year of deployment to continue his baseball career had been denied.
Just as his arm and body are beginning to get back into baseball shape, Harris will be forced to leave the Cardinals in late May and return to Dam Neck, Va., for his next assignment.
And the decision doesn't make sense to some. On the same day the Navy informed Harris that his appeal had been denied, they announced that Lt. j.g. Eric Kettani had been granted his early release to pursue an NFL career with the New England Patriots.
Kettani graduated from the Academy a year after Harris and has a year less of service time.
"I met everything on the criteria just as Kettani did," Harris said. "We have the exact same situation. And not to take anything from him at all, but neither one of us are higher ranked or anything, so how does one get approved and one doesn't?
"It's not fair. I met everything on the policy. I don't know how to describe it. I feel jipped. I've done everything I was supposed to do. I met all the criteria in this policy. I'm just trying to figure out why I wasn't approved."
When informed on the phone by a representative from the Secretary of the Navy that his appeal for early release had been denied, a disappointed Harris was not given a reason why.
"There wasn't an explanation given," Harris said. "I was definitely hoping for one. I've asked as many people as I can trying to figure out what the reasoning was because Kettani got approved and I didn't. I'm definitely wanting a reason."
FOXSportsMidwest.com obtained a copy of the policy from the Department of Defense for Academy and ROTC graduates who wish to participate in professional sports before the completion of their active duty service obligations.
The policy states that, "Exceptional personnel with unique talents and abilities may be released from active duty when there is a strong expectation they will provide the Department with significant favorable media exposure likely to enhance national recruiting or public affairs efforts. Personnel will be expected to use their talents in a manner that generates interest for service in the United States Armed Forces."
Included are six requirements and a statement that says, "Applicants for early release must at a minimum meet the following conditions, in addition to any further requirements as determined appropriate by the Secretary of the Military Department concerned."
Harris appears to have met all six requirements, which include No. 3: "Have secured an actual contract or binding commitment with a professional sports team or organization guaranteeing the opportunity to pursue an activity with potential recruiting benefits as described."
Said Harris, "You put out this policy and you say if you have a professional contract, you are eligible for this thing, and maybe that's the thing? Maybe they don't understand that in professional baseball, nobody goes straight to the Major League teams, where as football and basketball, you sign and you're on the team. It's really an unfair policy unless they make it specific to certain sports."
Multiple attempts by FOXSportsMidwest.com to reach the Navy for comment were unsuccessful.
With no choice but to return for his final year of active duty in late May, Harris at least gets to serve "shore duty", which means he will be stationed at a land base and not at sea. And since he'll be on land, he'll be able to train and play catch and keep his arm in shape for his eventual return to the Cardinals organization.
But that's a large contrast to his first two deployments, which were both two-year stints at sea. That's when his love for baseball and his second dream were really put to the test.
Harris was assigned to the USS Ponce, an amphibious warfare ship, for his first tour of active duty right out of college. He used the large flight deck to his advantage, throwing long toss and doing flat ground work whenever possible.
But with the winds blowing and his catch partners not used to catching 90 MPH fastballs, Harris lost his fair share of baseballs.
"Several," Harris joked. "I had to have my Dad send me a big bag of balls. It got by a few guys sometimes but it was all part of the atmosphere and always made for fun times with the guys out there."
The next ship assigned to Harris was the USS Carr, which had a flight deck too small for him to throw on. It made things more difficult, forcing him to instead focus on arm strengthening exercises and workouts that would have him as ready as possible whenever he would get his chance to get back on the mound.
That chance came this spring when Harris was allowed to spend his leave at the Cardinals Spring Training complex in Jupiter while awaiting the results of his appeal.
He arrived in late March, tweeting a picture of his No. 37 jersey hanging in his locker and saying, "Today a life long dream begins! Excited to finally be a part of the St. Louis Cardinals."
Harris threw his first bullpen session in nearly four years on March 23rd. And it came with mixed results. His fastball was just above 80 MPH, well below the 91-94 MPH heater he possessed while at the Naval Academy.
But four years away from the game will do that to you. And the right-hander has continued to make rapid improvement, hitting 89 MPH during his first appearance in an extended spring game.
Harris experienced some minor stiffness during his second outing and was removed from the game after just six pitches. The right-hander was not discouraged, saying it's just part of the process of getting his arm and body back in baseball shape after not enduring it the past four years.
The stiffness was considered minor and he expects to appear in game action again before he leaves either May 29 or 30. Despite the minor setback, all parties have been pleased with what they've seen from him this spring.
"From where he was when he arrived in spring training to where he is now, he's made a lot of progress," said Cardinals farm director John Vuch. "He would be a guy that when he's free and clear, we would certainly have a role for him.
"Once he's here he would be based on his performance just like any other player, but based on what he's done in spring training, whenever he is available to pitch for us, we look forward to having him back."
But time is against him. While most prospects in camp are anywhere from 18-22 years old, Harris is nearly the elder statesman at age 26.
He's contemplating a third appeal for early release, which would come in late August or early September. His hope would be to win the appeal and pitch in Winter Ball before joining the Cardinals in spring training next March.
If he loses the appeal or decides against it, he wouldn't be able to join the Cardinals until next summer, when he'd be 27 years old.
"That's something that's in the back of my mind," Harris said. "I think that's part of the motivation, to make sure I am working out and throwing and doing the things I need to do to be ahead of guys who are 21, 22 years old. The motivation for me is to understand that I'm 26 years old and the guys my age are pushing Double-A and Triple-A and it's tough to see that, but I realize that I can get there.
"It's just a matter of getting my arm back in shape and that my stuff will come around and just keep working hard when I'm out there and listen to everyone. It's a process but I know that once my arm is in good enough shape to push it, we will do that. We're getting there."
A dream that began more than a decade ago, Harris hopes to finish his required service time and return to the baseball field as soon as possible. The Cardinals continue to honor their end of the deal and Harris wants to live up to his end as well.
"I can't say enough about this organization and how much they've supported me," Harris said. "They've tried to help me in any way possible and have been very loyal to me. I understand. It's been four years since I was drafted me and they haven't gotten anything out of it yet, so I think it's frustrating on both sides.
"We're doing the best we can and nothing is falling. Nothing is working out the way we wanted it to work out.
Harris will soon begin the normal paperwork process to submit his resignation as an officer with the U.S. Navy. While some remain on active duty or a member of the Reserves after their five-year obligation, Harris plans to end his time with the Navy so he can turn his attention towards baseball.
"It stinks, but that's how it's going to be," Harris said. "Once I get back for the summer, I'll work my butt off as much as I can and get my arm strength back up so when winter comes around, hopefully I can play winter ball somewhere and be back here for Spring Training and be ready to go.
"Before, it felt like it was just so far away. Now, I'm here. I'm part of it. I'm part of the team."
His dream of someday playing in the big leagues is not done yet. Even if means waiting a little bit longer.