“OK, let’s go outside,” his father would say.
The work, which has since paid off, started there. Years passed.
On a day this May, the young Harris walked into Truist Park for the first time, marveling at all he saw as his dreams came true. Months later, the story has become even more heartwarming for the Stockbridge High graduate.
Harris, an Atlanta-area native and lifelong Braves fan, won National League Rookie of the Year for his outstanding 2022 season for his hometown team. The center fielder finished ahead of teammate Spencer Strider (second place) and St. Louis’ Brendan Donovan (third) in voting conducted by members of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America at the end of the regular season.
David Justice, the 1990 NL Rookie of the Year for the Braves, announced the winner on live television.
“It was kind of crazy,” Harris said of finding out on TV (like the rest of us) that he won the award. “I was just waiting for them to say a name. I was kind of expecting Spencer. … It was kind of surprising just to hear my name after coming up in the middle of the season and just trying to do what I could to help the team win. I didn’t really expect this at the beginning of the year. When I came up, I just tried to come up and do my job, and to end the season and get this award, it means a lot.”
Harris received 134 total voting points, and Strider earned 103. Harris received 22 of 30 first-place votes. This marks the fourth time teammates finished Nos. 1 and 2 in voting for this award, and the first time since 2011, when Craig Kimbrel (first place) and Freddie Freeman (second) did it.
Harris is the ninth Brave to earn this honor, which has been awarded annually since 1947, and the first since Ronald Acuña in 2018.
“I was on pins and needles,” Harris’ mother, LaTaucha, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution over the phone Monday night. “I couldn’t watch. I just was waiting to hear the reaction around me.”
“Relief,” Mike Sr. said. “I’ve been just so nervous. I’ve been pacing back and forth, back and forth. That was a very heated race. It could have went either way, and I’d have been happy either way. But I’m glad my son got his dream. He got what he’s been fighting for. He played his heart out.”
As a kid, the younger Harris watched the Braves religiously and hoped to one day don their uniform and cap. He’s one of the most passionate Atlanta sports fans around – he just so happens to be the star center fielder for one of baseball’s most popular teams. Harris might wear a Hawks jersey one day, a Falcons jersey another. He lives and breathes Atlanta.
Now he is one of the city’s sports icons – and he’s the first player to win Rookie of the Year for a team in his birth state since 2004, and the first NL player to do it since 1982. Harris’ star should only continue to rise from here.
And what if someone told Harris – when he was in Double-A – that he would become the Rookie of the Year?
“I would tell them to be for real because I definitely wouldn’t believe it,” he said. “I thought I at least had another year down in the minors, at least get to Triple-A to see if I could handle that first and then get the opportunity. I definitely wouldn’t believe (it), but I always told myself whenever I got the opportunity to get my name called, I would do anything to be ready to make the right adjustments to stay.”
Harris hit .297 with an .853 OPS during his wonderful season. He blasted 19 home runs and drove in 64 runs. He stole 20 bases. He also played elite defense in center field, making one jaw-dropping play after another. Harris tallied 4.8 Wins Above Replacement, per FanGraphs, which is the second-best mark by a rookie in franchise history (Rico Carty had 4.9 fWAR in 1964).
Among NL rookies with enough at-bats to qualify, Harris ranked first in batting average, OPS, doubles, home runs and RBIs. He finished second in stolen bases. Harris displayed all five tools daily, which could have pushed him ahead of Strider – who could only pitch every fifth day once he entered the starting rotation – in voters’ eyes.
Harris ended the season as a fan favorite. He grew up idolizing other Atlanta athletes. He’s now the role model.
“I feel like that’s one of my main jobs I have to do now,” Harris said. “I mean, just building the game in a community that I came from that kind of declined. I mean, just being able to be that person that kids can look up to and want to model themselves after, and be able to talk to if needed and give advice.”
Before and after games, Harris signs autographs for kids. During the second half of the season, he donated money to help those affected by the Jackson Water Crisis in Mississippi. The community loves him back: On Halloween, LaTaucha felt proud when she saw a parent post a picture to Twitter of their kid dressed up as her son, complete with the headband and sunglasses he wears.
“Always give back,” LaTaucha tells her son.
Added Mike Sr.: “It’s just a blessing to see our son live his dream and then be a role model. There’s no words to explain it. We never saw this coming. We never saw this coming.”
Everything Harris brought to the Braves – the tools and the intangibles – is perhaps best summarized by this: The Braves, as talented as they were, would not have had the season they did, in which they won a fifth consecutive NL East division title, without Harris.
Over the first month and a half of the season, Atlanta struggled to gain momentum. The Braves treaded water as they tried to play to their potential.
The spark arrived May 28, when president of baseball operations Alex Anthopoulos called up Harris – not from Triple-A, but from Double-A. Harris had only 174 at-bats in Double-A at that point, but Anthopoulos believed he could make an impact.
No one expected this. The Braves knew Harris was talented – so much so that they told him in spring training that they would not trade him – but how do you foresee a 21-year-old going up to the majors and putting together one of the best seasons of anyone on a team full of studs?
On a team with players including Acuña, Dansby Swanson, Matt Olson, Austin Riley and Max Fried, Harris inserted himself as part of the core. In August, Harris signed an eight-year, $72 million contract extension with the team he’s loved since he was a boy. You’ll see many Michael Harris No. 23 jerseys around Atlanta for years to come.
Harris, the only player named on every ballot this year, is the ninth NL center fielder to win the award and the first since Bryce Harper in 2012 (Harper played the majority of his games in center field that year).
At a news conference about that extension, Harris talked about his surreal year and how life had moved so fast. On Monday, he accomplished something else on a journey that will only go up from here.
This ride has meant everything to the Harris family.
“We’re still up in the clouds,” Mike Sr. said. “We don’t ever want to come down.”
“And I thought when the season ended, we could kind of come back down to earth, but here we go again,” LaTaucha said. “Not complaining – I love it. If I had one wish, it would be for me to see my children fulfilling their dreams. And this is it. I mean, this is all you could ask for.”