Doubts began to kick in. Teams were not giving him the chance to show his talent and play on an everyday basis. Thoughts of early retirement continued to go through his head. But Brendan Harris finally got his opportunity this year and had a breakout season in the Major Leagues with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays.
Harris, 27 and native of Queensbury, NY, an hour west of Castleton State College, earned his way into the starting lineup as the team’s everyday shortstop and is living every young boy’s dream of playing baseball at the professional level.
Harris is one of a select group of current Major Leaguers from the upstate New York- Vermont region. Pirates’ centerfielder Chris Duffy and Athletics’ designated hitter Daric Barton – both natives of Vermont – grew up in Brattleboro and Springfield, respectively.
“I never thought I’d make a career out of baseball,” Harris said. “It really just ended up that way. I always wanted to play in the Major Leagues.”
His journey began with a scholarship to play for William & Mary of Division I, where he set single-season offensive records and led the University to its first NCAA tournament bid since 1983.
“I decided to play at a great Division-I school to challenge myself,” he said. “I made sure I got a good degree first, then kept moving on and preparing myself for pro ball.”
The Cubs took notice of Harris’ talent, and drafted him with their fifth round selection in the 2001 amateur draft. He climbed his way up the Cubs’ farm system and made his Major League debut with the ball club in 2004.
Harris had a short stint with the Cubs before he was involved in the four-team, eight-player trade which brought him to the Expos/Nationals and sent Nomar Garciaparra from Boston to Chicago.
While playing sparingly for the Nationals in ’05 and for the Reds in ’06 as a utility infielder, he started to question if he would ever get that opportunity to become a full-time player.
“Everybody has their doubts when their playing time decreases or they’re being used as a bench player. Some guys have been all-stars and been around for six or seven years, and they still don’t have job security,” he said.
“I was just worried I would end up being nothing more than a bench player. I learned through my first few years and from talking to veterans that there’s more to it than your production on the field. When you have non-baseball people making baseball decisions despite never playing the game, nothing is a sure thing.”
Harris got the big break he had been waiting for in January 2007, when the Reds traded him to a young Devil Rays’ squad who had spent the past few years in the AL East cellar.
Spring training opened up and the D-Rays were without a shortstop after Julio Lugo went to the Red Sox. Harris would win the starting job from Ben Zobrist and got off to a hot start to the season, hitting for a .310 batting average at the All-Star break.
“I felt really good out there and played my heart out,” he said. “Just getting the opportunity to play everyday made me push myself harder, and I was seeing the ball much better because I was finally getting some experience under my wing.”
The second half of the season didn’t fare as well for Harris, but he still finished the regular season with a .286 average, 12 home runs and 59 RBI. His manager, Joe Maddon, consistently praised his play and determination.
“The most overwhelming good thing about him is who he is — his makeup, his character. This guy comes out and does extra running before everybody shows,” said Maddon in an article published by Bill Chastain of MLB.com. “He does weight work on the road, he does a lot of stuff nobody ever sees. This is the first opportunity he’s ever gotten and he’s making the most of it.”
Harris credits his drive to succeed to various coaches and veteran players he has come across in the majors, but gives most of the props to someone who has watched him grow as an individual.
“My dad has been such a role model for me and influenced me to keep going no matter what obstacles are ahead. I’m fortunate to have him as a huge part of my life.”
The future could be bright for the 27-year-old, but he likes to keep everything in perspective and give advice to prospective major leaguers on how to deal with the longest season in sports.
“Getting to the Majors is such a grind,” he said. “You have to keep working hard and playing hard. From experience, if you put the work in, it won’t go unnoticed and you’ll get your shot.