It got the biggest “ooooh” of the day.
During Wednesday’s Dayton Dragons’ preseason luncheon – an annual affair where the new team and the local media meet for the first time – the players were each taking turns, standing up beside their table to tell their name, hometown and where they went to school.
That’s when infielder Dylan Harris stood and said he had gotten his undergrad degree at Saint Leo University in Florida and was finishing his masters at Nova Southeastern University.
That created a buzz in a room where several players sign right out of high school and some even before that.
No one on the team had spent that much time in college, nor would they have those kinds of sheepskins in their foreseeable future.
Later in the afternoon – as Harris sat in the Dragons dugout at Fifth Third Field and began to talk about his baseball career – he was thrown off guard with a question:
“So those degrees, does that make you The Smartest Dragon?”
“Oooh no,” he said shaking his head, then, regardless of the lightheartedness of the query, answering with earnestness.
“I wouldn’t consider myself the smartest by any means. I just try to get my work done when I have the chance.
“And when I had a chance to play another season of (college) baseball, I realized I had another year to continue my education. And now I’m finishing up. I take classes in the offseason and I’ve just three left.”
While his dad – a former college baseball star who played minor league ball in the California Angels organization and with an independent team in Sioux City, Iowa – was the one who passed on the baseball genes, Harris said it was his mom who stressed education.
She’s a high school guidance counselor back in Florida.
“She always said they can never take your education away from you,” he said. “But your baseball isn’t always promised.”
He knows that first hand.
While no one tried to take it away from him, he’s had plenty of times when no one offered him a chance in baseball.
Harris was a standout player at Land O’ Lakes High just north of Tampa, but no Division I colleges made a scholarship offer and only Florida Atlantic University said it would take him on its team as a walk-on.
Instead he went to nearby Saint Leo University, an NCAA Division II school which had shown interest in him throughout his prep career.
His first season there he was the Sunshine State Conference Freshman of the Year, had a .366 batting average and led the league in hits.
As a sophomore he got all-conference honors again and led his team with a .403 average. Some people thought he might even get drafted, but his name was never called.
He missed the following season with an injury to his non-throwing shoulder that required surgery. Following a medical redshirt year, he came back stronger than ever, hit .448 and again led the league in hits.
This time even he thought he might get drafted, but once again nothing.
“I was left kind of in awe,” he said. “I was like ‘Wow, what else do I have to do?’ I did everything I could.”
By then he had graduated from Saint Leo, and with one year of eligibility left, he went as a grad transfer to conference rival Nova Southeastern outside of Fort Lauderdale. Each year the Sharks would have several players drafted so he figured it would be a good showcase for hm.
He hit .403 and became the Sunshine State Conference’s all-time hits king with 354 career hits.
After the season over 1,300 players were drafted and once more he was bypassed.
A high school coach called, wondering if he wanted to try to play for some independent league, but he decided to finish his masters classes.
And then two weeks after the draft a Reds scout called and said Cincinnati would sign him as an undrafted free agent.
There would be no signing bonus – he’d be at the complete opposite end of the spectrum from pitcher Hunter Greene who had a $7.23 million signing bonus from the Reds the year prior — and, in fact, there would be little more than a plane ticket and an opportunity.
And that was fine with Harris.
“I think it has to do with the way I was brought up,” he said. “You can’t look at what other people have. Just appreciate what you got.
“I wasn’t going to worry about what kind of money other guys got. What round they were signed none of that. None of that matters when you step on the field each night. You just go out and play the game you’ve been playing your whole life.”
And he had examples he could draw from.
Although his dad had set game and single-season strikeout records pitching at Florida Southern in Lakeland, Florida, he had not been drafted either. “He ended up playing indie ball until he finally signed with the Angels,” Harris said.
He said his dad was good and still is.
“He can throw from behind the L screen (a protective screen for pitchers) and still get me out,” he laughed. “He’s got some nasty stuff. He and Oil Can Boyd are good friends and Oil Can is calling my dad every month or so and asking him to pitch in a 50 and older tournament.”
In the Reds organization there’s been catcher Ryan Hanigan, who was undrafted, signed as a free agent, played with the Dragons and then went on to a 11-year career in the Major Leagues.
Soon after he signed last year, Harris found himself on a flight to the Reds rookie league team in Billings, Montana.
“I got off the plane about 6 and we had a game that night at 7,” he said. “I got in as a pinch hitter that night and my first at bat I had butterflies.
“I ended up flying out to right, but I also realized, ‘Hey, it’s normal pitching. These are regular human beings. They are the same guys I faced in college.’
“The next day I got the start, got a few hits and I’ve just built on that since.”
He hit .314 for Billings last season and Thursday night he makes his debut with the Dragons in their season opener against Bowling Green at Fifth Third Field.
Harris said he knows a couple of things about Dayton:
“I’ve heard nothing but great things about this place. I’ve heard the atmosphere is awesome that it’s the closest thing you’re gonna find to a Major League environment.”
He thought a second:
“Well, I heard it gets a little cold here sometimes.”
He laughed at the thought.
He’s felt the chill of baseball before and this was nothing.
He scooted off the wooden bench and into the afternoon sun that bathed the dugout, on his way toward the tunnel that led to the Dragons clubhouse and another season as a pro.
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