* Jalen Harris (Toronto, Ont.) stands at second after sliding in with a double for Ontario Black. Released by the Milwaukee Brewers he played this summer with the Toronto Maple Leafs and now hopes to catch the eye of a pro scout. Photo: Alexis Brudnicki.
By Alexis Brudnicki
Jalen Harris is just looking for another chance.
After a surprising release from the Milwaukee Brewers organization at the end of spring training this year, the 22-year-old second baseman struggled to find another professional job. He was offered an opportunity to showcase his skills at the second-annual Tournament 12 at Rogers Centre and hopes that another shot might be the result.
“My agent talked to [Toronto Blue Jays Canadian scout] Jamie Lehman and they said they would try to get me to T12 so to keep training,” Harris said. “Then a couple of weeks went by and he said I was invited but just for the scout day because of my age. Then after the scout day they told me to come back and they said I could stay.”
After throwing, taking batting practice and running a 6.75 60-yard dash on the scheduled workout day of the event on Tuesday, Harris took an open spot on the Ontario Black roster, playing with the draft-eligible high schoolers from his home province.
“This is the greatest,” Harris said of Tournament 12. “I don’t think anything else can beat this to be honest. I’m just happy to be here. I feel lucky to be here.”
The infielder does stand out a little bit among the crowd.
“I’ve been playing this game for a while and I played pro ball for three years so I feel old here,” Harris said. “But I feel good and it feels like I’m younger again now so that’s good. And I’m playing here [at Rogers Centre] where I grew up watching games so it’s fun. I’m having fun.”
Harris had three seasons with the Brewers after being drafted in the 41st round out of high school by Milwaukee’s Canadian scout Jay Lapp in 2011, and it was the highlight of his life.
“It’s the greatest feeling,” Harris said. “That day when I got drafted is still my favourite day of all time. It’s just a happy feeling. I never knew I would get drafted until I started playing with Team Canada. I had never thought about the draft at the time but it’s a dream come true. I was a happy guy and I had a great last three years. It was the greatest three years of my life. That’s why I want to get back.”
To get the news that he would no longer be a member of the organization was tough for the second baseman who hit .287/.356/.376 with a home run, a triple, 11 doubles and 32 RBIs over 52 games with the Helena Brewers in the Pioneer League last season.
“It was the hardest thing in the world,” Harris said. “If you had a bad year, okay maybe you might get released, but I had a great year. Last year was my best year. I had a good year, we made it to the championship and we lost that game but I was really surprised about getting released because I never thought about it.”
It was a tough moment.
“The last week of spring training they told me to come in the morning and see them in the office,” Harris said. “I kind of knew there was something going on. They said, ‘We know you had a great year last year but we have to release you.’ There was nothing I could do about it after that. It was tough. It was really tough for a while. My dad said, ‘You’re still young, keep it going, stay training.’”
Immediately after it happened, Harris had thoughts of playing for other professional organizations. When he learned that no one had room for him, he ended up coming home and playing in the Intercounty Baseball League for the Toronto Maple Leafs.
“When I got released I tried to get in touch with other teams,” he said. “I have a house in Arizona so I stayed there for a month and talked to a couple teams but they told me it was really tough because everybody had left for the season. But everybody told me to keep training and not give up and hopefully something would come up.”
But overcoming obstacles is nothing new for Harris. Born completely deaf and having cochlear implant surgery in his right ear at just 2 1/2 years old to provide him a sense of sound, he’s always had a different experience than many other baseball players.
“I wear hearing aids,” he said. “The wind gets caught in them all the time [and that’s all I can hear sometimes]. Here there’s nothing because the roof is closed but it happens all the time. When I’m playing in the wind I can hear people talking no problem but when somebody says, ‘I got it,’ sometimes I just run into somebody. I tell my teammates every year on every team I play if I call it, it’s my ball. I don’t want to hit anybody.”
Born with what the doctors said might have been 0.002% hearing, the Toronto-born infielder has never known anything else.
“People ask if it’s different but it’s not because I was born that way,” Harris said. “It’s not like I lost my hearing at 10 or something.
That’s just how my life is. Nothing affects me and the coaches understand. We’ll have meetings and then after the meetings my coach will tell me again and ask if I heard. They always double check.”
Sometimes it comes in handy, for example when pitchers and catchers meet on the mound or other teams are trying to discuss strategy, because Harris is an avid lip reader.
“I do it all the time,” he said. “I’ve got to stop reading lips. I could be here and looking at a guy 40 feet away from me and I would know everything he said. So it’s a good thing, but sometimes I don’t want to know everything and I can’t help it.”
Harris is one of two hearing-impaired Canadian professional baseball players, joining fellow Team Canada alumni Tyson Gillies in that category. The two have formed a significant bond because of it and Harris is even spending some time trying to help Gillies in his current fundraising attempt for the Hearing Loss Association of America through the Walk4Hearing.
“The first time I met Tyson was at a Team Canada banquet in 2010,” Harris said. “I knew him before, I just never met him. It was great to meet another guy who is hard of hearing. I was born deaf [and Gillies had about 30% hearing] but it was nice and we talk a lot.
“I was talking to him yesterday and I’m trying to help him with the Walk4Hearing. I’m going to raise some money because I love helping the deaf culture. I volunteer at Sick Kids and I’ll do speeches about the differences between the hearing world and the deaf world and tell them if you have a cochlear implant you can live in two worlds.
“I live in the deaf world and I live in the hearing world. I like the hearing world and I love listening to music. But I do sign language too. The high school I went to had a bunch of deaf kids and it was pretty cool. I had to learn sign language because I really wanted to talk to them and it was fun. I love it.”
Times have changed a little bit since Harris had his surgery two decades ago, though he is happy with the hearing he has and the options he was given.
“I’m deaf in both ears and when I was two-and-a-half years old I was allowed to only have one [implant],” he said. “They changed the rule about seven years ago so you can have two and asked if I wanted two. I thought about it and how much it would help. They said it would only add five per cent so I didn’t want to go back to the hospital and do the surgery…I said no thank you.
“My dad [Terry] was really happy because when I had the surgery it was a nightmare for him. It took four hours and my dad said it was the worst four hours of his life. He was worried. But the last time I talked to the doctor he said it took 49 minutes to get it done…the technology is amazing.”
Harris knows he’s an inspiration for young athletes and hopes to continue to have a positive influence on those around him. Before he decided to solely focus on baseball he played hockey at the world deaf championships and had a great response from hockey fans as well.
“We were pretty big,” Harris said. “A lot of people look up to me. When I go to Sick Kids Hospital a lot of guys know who I am because I go there a lot. I get a lot of emails and some parents asking me questions … I love being deaf.”
He also loves playing baseball so for at least the next year, Harris will continue to do whatever he can to keep the dream alive. And if it doesn’t work out, maybe he’ll head back to the ice.
“I’m going to keep training for a year at least because I’m only 22 and there’s still time,” Harris said. “If nothing happens I might go back to school. Or maybe I might go back to hockey. I miss hockey a lot.”
– Follow Alexis Brudnicki on Twitter @baseballexis