Naval pitcher denied chance at professional baseball

NORFOLK, Va. -- A Naval Academy graduate drafted last week by the St. Louis Cardinals was denied a bid to play ball Thursday and ordered to report for duty.

Mitch Harris, a newly commissioned ensign and Naval Academy graduate, must serve a five-year active duty commitment, Navy Secretary Donald C. Winter ruled.

"He will report to his ship as ordered," Cmdr. Jeff Davis, a Navy spokesman, told The Associated Press.

Harris, a native of Ocala, Fla., who played high school ball in North Carolina, was selected in the 13th round with the 395th pick overall. The 22-year-old right-hander went 20-13 with a 2.51 ERA in four years at Navy, averaging 11.78 strikeouts per nine innings. He was the second-highest pick in program history.

Harris is scheduled to report Monday to the amphibious transport ship Ponce, which is homeported in Norfolk. He told The Gaston Gazette in Gastonia, N.C., on Thursday night that he hadn't heard from Navy officials but was not surprised by the outcome.

"Of course we're at war, no one can argue we're not," Harris said. "But what I've said from the beginning is that I'm not trying to get out of anything.

"If I don't get that chance [to play baseball] right now, I'll never get it again. And to fulfill a goal of getting to the pros, it's sad that they would take it away from me."

Before Thursday's decision, Harris told The Virginian-Pilot, which first reported the Navy's ruling, that he thought there are "different ways" to juggle military service and a professional sports career.

"Bottom line is, we're a nation at war and as a nation at war we believe it is inappropriate for Navy and Marine Corps personnel to be released from service obligation to play sports at a time other sailors and Marines are carrying out their service obligations," Davis said.

Winter suspended all early releases from active duty for professional sports in January 2007. Previously, officers could serve 24 months and then apply for an early release to pursue "an activity with potential recruiting or public affairs benefit to the Navy and Marine Corps."

That policy allowed former NBA star David Robinson to serve two years before joining the San Antonio Spurs.

"If Mitch is able to work something out with the Navy we would love to have him in our organization," Cardinals assistant general manager John Abbamondi said Thursday through a team official. "We understand and respect the commitment he has made to the military and we will wait to see how the process unfolds."

Caleb Campbell was drafted by the Detroit Lions this year, becoming the first Army football player to benefit from a new policy allowing athletes with a chance to play professionally to complete their service by serving as recruiters and in the reserves.