Former Vol Ty'Relle Harris recently joined the Tennessee Smokies (Front page photo courtesy of Roger C. Hoover)
Aug. 23, 2010
By Brian Rice
Special to UTSports.com
KODAK, Tenn. - When Ty'Relle Harris entered the visitor's clubhouse at Smokies Park on Wednesday night, the former Vol was a Mississippi Brave who was excited for the opportunity for a homecoming of sorts, playing again in East Tennessee. Less than two hours later, Harris found out that, thanks to his parent club's need for a big bat in its lineup, the homecoming was going to be a little more permanent than the scheduled five-game series.
"I was real excited," Harris said of looking forward to the Braves' trip to Tennessee. "I had called a bunch of friends and left tickets for about 15 of them to come to the game. It was like a homecoming for me. I didn't sleep the entire bus ride up here. I was texting friends and running down a whole phone battery on one bus ride."
A Call Home
Harris worked out with his Braves teammates and did the prescribed running that is a part of the reliever's daily pre-game routine. His Braves jersey in hand, Harris received a phone call from one of those friends he had left tickets for. "A buddy of mine, Ryan, calls me up and said `Hey, man, you just got traded.' I thought he was playing a joke on me. I hung up the phone with him and went into the manager's office and he told me he had the Minor League Director on the phone for me. "
In Braves manager Philip Wellman's office, Harris discovered he was a part of the four-player deal that brought veteran first baseman Derrek Lee to Mississippi's parent Atlanta Braves and sent Harris and two other minor-league pitching prospects to the Chicago Cubs. But the trade wasn't the only news for Harris, he was being assigned to the Cubs' AA affiliate, the one whose clubhouse was less than 100 yards from where he was standing. Not only was he leaving the Braves, he was headed to play for the first-place team he had just moments before been preparing to face. An hour later, Harris emerged from the Tennessee Smokies dugout wearing a No. 33 jersey and, for the second time in his career, a "T" on his hat.
Harris would have to wait one day to face his former teammates, throwing a pair of perfect innings of relief in the Smokies' 5-4 (10 inn.) walk-off win over the Braves.
"I was pumped up," Harris said about facing his former teammates. "I think more than I've been pumped up in a long time. It was like pitching in my first SEC series. I just told myself not to do too much, stay down in the zone."
Harris pitched again two nights later and finished the weekend series with 2.2 shutout innings pitched, allowing just one hit. Overall on the 2010 season, Harris sports a 2.75 ERA with a 1-2 record and six saves over stints with Rome (Low-A), Myrtle Beach (High-A), Mississippi and, now, Tennessee.
Have Baseball, Will Travel
Now in his first full season as a pro, Harris has become familiar with the travels and issues a player trying to make his way up the ladder of an organization has to face. Last season, Harris spent just three games with the Braves' rookie-league team in Danville, Va., before being called up to Rome. With the Class-A Braves in 2009, Harris finished with a 2-0 record in nine appearances with a 0.77 ERA, allowing just one earned run and five hits in 11.2 innings pitched.
Harris started this season where he ended last, in Rome, but is now on his fourth team in three levels of baseball this season. And learning the names of new teammates is not the only difficulty that a player moving up in the minors has to face.
"I started the year off in Low-A and was called up to High-A while we were on the road, so it took me two weeks to get my stuff from Rome, Ga., up to Myrtle Beach. I've still got stuff in Rome, stuff in Myrtle Beach from when I was called up to Mississippi and now I've got stuff left down there. In the Minor League baseball life, you lose a few pairs of jeans and some shoes along the way, but you do it to make it to the big leagues so you can afford to buy all that stuff back."
Another pitfall of mid-season trades: Getting your girlfriend into the game. Harris didn't know if his pass list ticket requests for friends and family were traded along with him, so his girlfriend was the one who got to test out the Smokies' ticket office.
"She went to will call, and didn't know which pass list she was supposed to be on. Luckily they had both pass lists right there and knew what was going on."
A Familiar Place
The trade from the Braves farm system to the Cubs didn't just change the location for Harris, it also placed him on one of the best teams in all of Minor League Baseball. Following play Sunday, the Smokies are a staggering 31 games over .500. Only the Triple-A Durham Bulls have a better record in the minors this season. With a first-half division title already in hand and a second-half crown all but assured, Tennessee will be the favorite to win the Southern League title, something the team fell two wins shy of in last year's Southern League Championship Series.
Coming to a team with a shot at a championship from a team that had already been eliminated from the playoff chase was another bonus, but it wasn't without its downside.
"It was one of those really bittersweet things," Harris said. "I had some real close friends on the Braves, but I'm also really happy, not just to be back in Knoxville, but also to be a part of a great organization."
And it's an organization with one very familiar touch. Though there is no orange in the Smokies' color scheme, the last pregame tradition prior to first pitch at Smokies Park is the playing of "Rocky Top" over the public address system.
"It was good to hear." Harris said of the song he knew so well from his days in the Orange and White. "There are a lot of guys here from SEC schools, but when Rocky Top comes on, they're singing like they're Vols. It feels like I'm right back at home."