The three dates that led to the Braves drafting top prospect Michael Harris

On a Saturday in May, Chris Lionetti, a Blue Jays scout, went to Truist Park for the Braves’ game against the Marlins. He sat with the family of a young top prospect making his debut. This was a special day for Lionetti.

“I got to try to get Harris to sign a jersey for me,” Lionetti said recently, “and that’ll get framed here soon.”

Lionetti, formerly the Braves’ scouting coordinator, is the scout credited with discovering and helping sign Michael Harris, a Stockbridge High alum who became the organization’s top prospect and eventually made his debut less than three years after the club drafted him.

There are so many unseen moments that go into scouting, drafting and signing any player – especially one such as Harris, who never jumped out as one of the country’s top high school draft prospects. Drafting and signing a player like Harris requires a combination of hard work and aligning stars.

Of the many critical moments in the journey that led the Braves to drafting Harris, three stand out. This is a story about those three crucial days.

The Prospect World Series, September 2018

Mr. Lionetti, I know you think I’m a pitcher. I believe in myself. I believe I’m a hitter.

This is what a 17-year-old Harris told Lionetti in the fall of 2018, when Lionetti invited him to an event at the ballpark now named Truist Park. The industry viewed Harris as a pitcher, and Lionetti plugged him in to pitch during the game.

That was not going to work.

“Well, I’m not coming unless I get at-bats,” Harris told Lionetti.

The event was the Prospect World Series, which pitted the Yankees versus the Braves. The Yankees would bring high schoolers from the Northeast, and the Braves would use high schoolers from the Southeast. The two organizations used it as a way to become more familiar with players, even if they opened the event to the entire industry.

Unlike some others on the field at the showcase, Harris was not a top high school prospect. He was a relative unknown, someone who didn’t yet have a scholarship offer to play at a big school.

This event allowed the Braves to spend three days with Harris and gain a feel for him and his makeup (the baseball term for character). Those in the scouting world have a saying: These players are trying to tell us who they are. It’s whether or not we want to listen.

Harris, the Braves found, simply wanted to play.

“Some of these kids were wanting to bail out of the event because it was on homecoming weekend,” Lionetti said. “(They would say), ‘Hey, can we play the first game and not the second game? My girlfriend will be pissed if I can’t make it to homecoming. Meanwhile, Harris is fighting us for more playing time.”

Reed Dunn is a cross-checker for the Braves. Among the duties of a cross-checker is working a region and providing second opinions on players the area scouts already have seen.

Dunn remembers Harris pitching two innings in the Prospect World Series. For the first, Dunn and a few other Braves scouts were behind the plate for Harris, who threw the ball 93 mph. “Second inning, it was like ants on a dropped piece of candy,” Dunn said. “Scouts just swarmed back behind home plate to see this kid that nobody knew who he was.”

Lionetti described Harris as someone who did a lot of things well over the three-day period – not just one. The Prospect World Series put Harris, then a senior, on the map. He later committed to Texas Tech.

Here’s something else that stuck with Lionetti: Harris was a quiet kid. He hardly spoke.

Thus, it meant something to Lionetti that Harris fought to be viewed as a hitter.

“He believed in himself, he knew what he could do,” Lionetti said. “And I feel like it’s an innate human trait, right? When you’re with somebody and you can tell they mean it, it resonates with you.”

Recently, Harris reflected on the Prospect World Series – and other aspects of his journey – in a big-league clubhouse, as an outfielder for his hometown team.

“It’s really just believing in myself and knowing there’s somebody out there that believes in me the same way I believe in myself,” Harris said. “Really just going out there and doing what I can do, and hoping somebody else sees the same future I see for myself.”

Dana Brown’s birthday, Feb. 19, 2019

To this day, Lionetti jokes that he gave Dana Brown, the Braves’ vice president of scouting, his best birthday gift ever.

On Feb. 19, 2019 – Brown’s birthday – he saw Harris play in person for the first and only time before the Braves drafted the high schooler months later.

“I’ve got a guy that I really like,” Lionetti had told Brown. “One of my gut-feel guys. I want you to come watch him.”

Brown will never forget the day. He didn’t have to go to any games, which is uncommon in his role. So he went to watch Harris with Lionetti. Harris, still viewed as a pitcher, was scheduled to pitch a few innings, which meant Brown would also get to see him play in the field.

In front of Brown, Harris, whose pitches sat at 84-87 mph on the mound, got hit around a bit. He was removed from the game. At that moment, Lionetti thought this was his lowest moment as a scout.

“Man, Dana’s going to kill me for taking him to go see this guy on his birthday,” Lionetti thought.

And then?

“Well, Harris gallops – literally gallops – out to center field after being taken out of the game,” Lionetti said.

“And his whole demeanor just sort of changed,” Brown said. “When he was on the mound, he was competing. But when he got the outfield, it was like he had much more pop, much more life and excitement to playing. So you could tell he enjoyed the outfield more than pitching.”

Lionetti and Brown looked at one another. They both saw how Harris displayed a much different energy as an outfielder. Then he stung a double to the gap in his first at-bat.

At one point, Harris slid into third base so hard that it pushed back the third baseman. Brown looked at Lionetti and said, “Oh God, this guy is an aggressive player.” The two had seen enough.

Brown eventually wrote up Harris both ways – as a pitcher and as a hitter – but he became a believer in Harris’ ability to be a position player.

“He just saw a different energy in me, different love,” Harris said. “I definitely loved pitching, but being out in the outfield and trying to patrol the outfield and get outs is definitely a better feeling for me, honestly.”

A few months later, the Braves brought Harris to their ballpark for a workout.

The Workout, May 2019

As Harris hit baseball after baseball to the Chop House beyond the right-field seats during batting practice, everyone watched in amazement.

“This is my 16th year in baseball,” Dunn, the cross-checker, said recently. “The only time I’ve ever seen a 17-year-old perform in a major-league stadium like that was when I was with the Nationals and we worked Bryce Harper out right before we signed him. It was that level. I think he hit like 15 to 20 balls out, and he wasn’t hitting wall-scrapers. He was hitting them where Freddie Freeman hit the ball.”

“I can remember specifically comparing his BP session and the way he impacted the ball with (Jason) Heyward, (Jay) Bruce, (Mike) Moustakas,” said Brown, who had watched all three of those lefties take batting practice as high schoolers.

“He made (the ballpark) look tiny,” said Greg Walker, a minor-league roving hitting instructor for the Braves who was cross-checking hitters at that time.

“I mean, it was jaw-dropping how good it was,” Lionetti said.

At one point during that workout, Walker went and told Brown he hadn’t seen a batting practice display like that out of a high school senior in quite some time. Everyone shared that opinion.

Those who witnessed the workout – which also included other baseball activities – met in a room once it ended. “We were grown men who were like kids on Christmas,” Dunn said. “We couldn’t wait to talk about Michael.”

Then they put together all the pieces. His makeup. His work ethic. His personality. This is all important when scouting a player.

But they had just seen a high schooler pulverize baseballs at a big-league ballpark.

They knew what they had.

“I just really trusted in myself and did what I could do,” Harris said. “I didn’t try to do too much, didn’t try to over-impress. I just went out there and showed the talent I had. That day goes down in history.”

When the Braves dug into Harris’ background, they discovered a special person. His father works for the post office and his mother is in education. They raised a hardworking son, one who simply goes about his business without much flash – until, of course, he cranks another home run or makes another incredible defensive play in center field.

You will hear many words and stories about Harris and his amazing athletic ability, but none will come from him. He doesn’t say much. He values humility.

“I’ve always been like that,” Harris said. “I’ve never been one to brag on myself or like to talk about myself. I’ve just always been like that, and I feel like it’s something everybody should try to do because if you don’t humble yourself, this game will humble you fast, in a hurry. It’s just something I try to keep doing and I’ll do it for the rest of my career.”

Harris’ story is one about a high schooler who came out of nowhere, someone who believed himself and proved most of the industry wrong about him. Through hard work and dedication, he has lived out a dream.

“It’s so rare in today’s game that a guy of his talent level kind of pops up,” Dunn said. “It’s a true testament to the kid. Every time he had an opportunity, he didn’t just open the door – he kicked the damn thing open.”

In a matter of months, Harris went from someone perhaps destined for college baseball to a third-round draft pick. To be clear: The Braves went against popular opinion in selecting Harris that high. “Any time you go against the grain in the industry, it’s scary because, in our job, the Michael Harrises of the world are so unique,” Dunn said.

And those Michael Harrises often don’t validate your decision to draft them by making it to the majors in less than three years.

Braves general manager Alex Anthopoulos didn’t have as much history with Harris because the high schooler didn’t compete in the biggest showcases. Brown remembers Anthopoulos being a bit concerned about that. But Anthopoulos is seen as collaborative, someone willing to take ideas from anywhere and trust those he works with in the front office.

Eventually, Brown remembers Anthopoulos saying something like: “Hey man, if you guys really feel this strongly about him, you know what, I support you.”

And the Braves drafted Harris. The rest, as they say, is history.

“Everybody knew we wanted him,” said Walker, the roving hitting instructor. “It’s just a little scary that we almost did miss him.”

Harris belongs in the majors but, at 21 years old, he’s still pinching himself. He grew up a Braves fan, and watched players like Heyward and Chipper Jones.

Now, all eyes are on him.

“I think I told myself the other day I felt like I was a fan playing on the team,” Harris said. “You really can’t make this up, honestly. You can dream it, but nothing really compares to it, just being out there on the field, having that Braves jersey on with your name on it. And just having people behind you cheering for you, just wanting the best for you.”