There’s no doubt it’s been a difficult season for Willie Harris, hitting under .200 and playing sparingly. Fans, writers, and broadcasters have been critical of his play this year - easy to do when a player is hitting 80 points under his career batting average and making few contributions to a team that’s in last place.
Thursday in Atlanta, it all changed for Willie in a matter of minutes.
With the Nats leading 4-2 into the ninth, we were all sweating out another close game, fully expecting the mighty Braves to pull out another miracle win at home. Relievers Joel Peralta, Tyler Clippard and Sean Burnett kept the lead intact. Surely the Nationals would go 1-2-3 in the ninth and the Braves would sweep the series?
Not so fast...here came Hot Rod Harris, as my partner Rob Dibble calls him. Willie, after all, loves fast cars.
After a walk to Adam Kennedy by fireballer Kyle Farnsworth, the totally unexpected happened. Harris lifted a long fly ball to right field, and out it went to pad the Nats’ lead and make all of us breathe easier. I sat in the booth watching Willie round the bases and knew he had to be exploding inside at doing something heroic in his home state of Georgia against a team he had played for before Washington. The Nats led 6-2 and I thought, “By golly, we’re finally going to win a road game!”
But Willie wasn’t finished.
In the bottom of the ninth with one out, Melky Cabrera sent a drive to right-center that looked like a sure double. But, here came Hot Rod, diving headlong, snaring the ball off the turf and giving Drew Storen a big second out; and moments later Storen struck out Eric Hinske to put the game away.
I watched Willie come in and get the well-deserved congrats from his teammates; then he was featured in Debbi Taylor’s post-game interview for Nats Extra. “Good for him,” I thought.
Here’s my point: Baseball is a game that flows from day to day for six months - It’s hard to play and even harder to play well consistently. It’s a game of failure, as the best hitters fail seven out of every ten times just to bat .300. Those below that line are about ninety percent of them, and at the very bottom are the .200 hitters - and Willie has been below that.
Willie is a proud African-American who is very much in touch spiritually with his hometown hero Jackie Robinson and what Jackie had to endure just to play baseball, much less to play it at a high level. He is not happy with the way this season has gone for him, but he never blames anyone or anything else; he just works harder and tries to do well during the infrequent times he’s in there.
During the long season, every player on that roster will have his bright shining day, and Thursday was Willie’s.
Would the Nats have won the game without that home run and catch? Maybe. But he put his stamp on it and gave his teammates the opportunity to relax and relish a decisive win - hard to come by for our boys on the road this season.
The man from Cairo, Georgia put on quite a show not far from home with many family members and friends watching.
Willie “had a day,” as we say, and I hope he has many more in him. We need more hard-working, no-nonsense players like Willie Harris in the major leagues, players who desperately care about the game and how it’s played.