Adelanto, California —— I’ve been thinking quite a bit about formative experiences lately, perhaps because I just chronicled the one Texas Rangers pitching prospect Collin Wiles had the moment he walked into his first professional baseball clubhouse as an 18-year-old kid in 2012. The thing about formative experiences, of course, is that they bring about rapid change, often of the sink-or-swim variety. And even though you probably don’t know you’ve had the formative experience until long after it’s over, you still (ought to) realize in the moment that something significant just happened.
It’s this general angle that made me think today’s feature, on Oakland Athletics outfielder James Harris, would make for a good follow-up to yesterday’s work on Wiles. Harris’ career, you see, has the broadest similarities to Wiles: both were high-round draft picks out of high school (Harris went 60th overall to the Tampa Bay Rays in 2011 out of Oakland Tech High School, which has also produced Rickey Henderson). And both had huge, ugly adjustments to pro ball, and then an existential reckoning about each man’s career after several early seasons of failure.
There’s a difference here, though. Wiles’ reckoning came in time for him to get it right with his original club, and now his future is as bright as it’s ever been for the Texas Rangers.
For Harris, the formative experience came out of his unconditional release from the Rays—almost exactly two years ago to this day—and a new, decidedly less lucrative restart from the bottom rung of affiliated baseball thanks to one final chance with the Oakland native’s hometown team.
I didn’t know James Harris as a first round pick in the Rays’ organization, but I had a fascinating conversation with him when he was just another outfielder—a lowly minor league free agent, no less—for the Stockton Ports last summer in the California League. To it, he brought the perspective of a veteran and the calm urgency of a man who knows he’s only going to get this one more chance.
“I think expectations were the biggest thing with Tampa, and I think that’s where the [lack of] maturity came into play,” Harris told me as we stood on the concrete concourse in High Desert, a few hours before his Ports played the host Mavericks. “Being drafted high like that, I came in expecting to do certain things, but I was still just 17 years old trying to figure everything out. I went through some successful patches with them, but when baseball was good there, I still felt like I had to do more. I felt like what I was doing wasn’t enough. And then whenever I tried to do more, I ended up doing less. That really hurt me.”
A fresh start with the Oakland Athletics saw Harris enjoy a decent 2015 before things really took off this past summer. Predominantly with High-A Stockton (Harris got an 11-game cameo in at Double-A Midland by the end of the year), the outfielder slashed .297/.370/.410/.780 with 31 doubles, seven home runs, and 23 stolen bases over 130 games as an everyday outfielder. All that earned him a spot on the Cal League’s mid-season and postseason All-Star teams, as well as a nomination to MiLB.com’s Oakland organizational All-Star squad.
Not a bad redemption story in just two years’ time—and for his hometown team, no less.
“Coming to Oakland, it’s like, yeah, I was a first round pick, but I wasn’t their first round pick,” Harris reasoned about the differences between the Oakland Athletics and Tampa Bay Rays. “And now I’m starting all over from the bottom and I’m not guaranteed anything. I can only be focused on what I have to do on the field, and go out every day and really key in on that.”
That must be something of a relief, I wonder—the ability to fly under the radar this time around and play baseball without having a reputation precede him.
“After all that, now it’s sort of like, finally,” he said. “Finally things are starting. Now let’s continue it. I have higher expectations on myself than anyone else can have, and I’m harder on myself than anyone can be, so I have to find that balance where I can just go out there and have fun and let my ability take over. When I start thinking, that’s when I take my head out of it. But I can finally just go out and play. I’m in an organization where I’m a little looser, and they allow us to make our mistakes and grow from them.”
James Harris is an interesting man; he’s calm, quiet, and soft-spoken with a measured tone that gives everything he says a certain gravity. He speaks often of maturity, no doubt the product of being forced to grow up after things didn’t go his way in Tampa Bay as a teenager.
There’s your formative experience.
In the middle of our interview, we got off onto a tangent about African-American baseball players. The outfielder opened up about his childhood loving baseball in Oakland’s inner city, why he chose the sport over basketball and football, and how he sees his responsibility to pass the game on to the next generation of African-American kids in his hometown of Oakland. (That part of the conversation was so fascinating it inspired me to have the same discussion with a half-dozen other African-American minor leaguers through the rest of the summer, the result of which will be published in the forthcoming book We Is Blaze.)
To that end, this opportunity with the Oakland Athletics isn’t about him reclaiming some pride in affiliated ball (although he’s doing that), or is it about taking a shot at the big leagues (though he may soon get one).
No, Harris is doing this for his family, and for Oakland—for his Oakland.
“It’s really special for me to be able to play for my favorite team growing up,” Harris said. “For me to be able to put on those colors one day, if I get that opportunity, that would mean more than anything to my family to come out to the Coliseum and watch me play. That’d mean a lot for my city, and hopefully it would inspire a lot more kids in my city to want to play, coming from the city and making it to the highest level and getting the chance to play.”
That’s a burden in and of itself, carrying the real or perceived weight of a city’s baseball hopes on his back—albeit a very different one from going across country as a teenage first-round pick. But something tells me the formative experiences he had with the Rays leave James Harris uniquely prepared to handle this new spotlight as he ascends the Oakland Athletics’ minor league system.
In other words, it’s almost better that you don’t know who he is now. The anonymity is finally letting James Harris tell his own story free from the reputation that comes from his former draft slot.
“Growing up, starting in Little League and going into travel ball, I was always the underdog,” Harris said. “Every league I played in growing up, nobody knew who I was, and so I’ve always had the underdog mentality. Now getting this second opportunity, I wasn’t drafted, they didn’t give me any money, and there are no guarantees. It’s like I’m back when I was a kid. It lets me keep my focus on my goal.”
Harris paused, measuring the words of his concluding thought.
“Being released was a very humbling experience, and coming here really brought me back to the reality of the way things go sometimes in life,” he said quietly as music started to play on the Mavs’ concourse signaling one hour before game time.
“It brought me back to the kind of person and the kind of athlete I need to be.”
The can’t-miss first round draft pick of the Tampa Bay Rays is gone, but the flashes of talent remain. It’s all bottled up in an anonymous minor league outfielder now, a local kid.
His name is James Harris.
You don’t know him yet, but the way he’s playing, you will soon.
James Harris will be featured in Bobby DeMuro’s forthcoming book We Is Blaze, set for release in digital and print formats on Amazon on April 10, 2017. We Is Blaze details the 2016 seasons of the Bakersfield Blaze and the High Desert Mavericks as each club played out their final summers as dead men walking, days from their joint contraction out of the California League forever. Follow We Is Blaze on Twitter, Facebook, its official website, and its page on this website for information on the book, and links to buy when it’s available.