By John Perrotto
MINNEAPOLIS -- It was one of those odd questions that always seems to be asked by a non-sports reporter during a media day at a major sporting event.
"If you could be an All-Star in anything other than baseball what would it be?" a young man with the handheld camera asked the Pittsburgh Pirates' Josh Harrison on Monday as he sat at a table of a hotel ballroom.
Harrison pondered the question for a moment.
"I'd like to be an All-Star at everything," he said. "I'd like to be an All-Star husband, an All-Star father, an All-Star son, an All-Star brother, an All-Star friend. I would like to be as well-rounded as I could possibly be."
Harrison has become a well-rounded baseball player in his fourth major league season and that is a big reason he is the most unlikely of the 68 players who will suit up for tonight's All-Star Game at Target Field. Harrison will be part of the National League squad despite starting the season as the 25th man on the Pirates' roster, a utility player who had continually shuttled back and forth between Pittsburgh and Triple A Indianapolis during his first three seasons in the big leagues.
Harrison, 27, has helped keep the Pirates in the thick of the National League Central and wild-card races by hitting .297 with five home runs, 28 RBIs, nine stolen bases and a .783 OPS. The 5-foot-8 Harrison has also been a ball of energy on defense, making diving catches and stops in the outfield and infield
"For the last couple of weeks before they announced the teams, some out guys in the clubhouse would tell me to be ready to go to the All-Star Game because I might get picked," Harrison said. "I thought it would be great, but I also didn't think it was realistic. You look around the league and see so many great players and it's hard to compare a guy like myself against some of the best players in the league. It's hard to believe I'm actually here."
It was manager Mike Matheny's decision to put Harrison on the NL's 34-man roster -- raising eyebrows from many people around baseball -- but he is also the St. Louis Cardinals' manager and his team plays the Pirates 19 times a season. Thus, Matheny has a good feel for what Harrison adds to a team.
"He's been important part of [the Pirates] this season," Matheny said. "He can do a lot of different things to help a club. He's a very valuable player."
What makes Harrison especially attractive to Matheny is he has played second base, third base, shortstop, leftfield and rightfield in his career. Harrison even pitched some mop-up relief last season in a game against the Rockies in Colorado.
The versatility gives Matheny various late-game options in trying to win the game and the World Series home-field advantage that goes to the victorious league. It is especially important to Matheny considering the Cardinals seem poised to mount a serious run at a second straight NL pennant after seemingly being stuck in the mud for most of the season.
Harrison's career seemed stuck last year as he played only a minor role in an otherwise magical season for the Pirates, who made their first postseason appearance and had their first winning season since 1992. He received just 95 plate appearances in 60 games and was not placed on the postseason roster.
However, Harrison, a sixth-round pick of the Chicago Cubs in 2008, has always been able to rely on a family member to help him through the tough times.
Harrison's uncle, John "T-Bone" Shelby, was a major league outfielder for 11 seasons with the Baltimore Orioles, Los Angeles Dodgers and Detroit Tigers, and is now a member of the Milwaukee Brewers' coaching staff. Harrison has always kept one piece of Uncle T-Bone's advice close to his heart.
"He's always been a great resource for me," Harrison said. "I've been very fortunate to have an uncle who has pretty much seen it all at the major league level over the years. The one thing he told me from the time I first came into pro ball is that you never know what might happen in this game. You have to be ready for anything at any time because you never know when your break might come."
Harrison's break came in early May when Pirates manager Clint Hurdle was desperate for offense in rightfield after Travis Snider and Jose Tabata failed to seize the starting job. Hurdle decided to play Harrison for a few days in right. Harrison played so well he kept the starting job until top prospect Gregory Polanco was called up June 10.
Harrison then spent a little more than two weeks subbing at second base while Neil Walker recovered from an appendectomy. Harrison has continued to play nearly every day, subbing at third base for Pedro Alvarez against left-handed pitchers while also seeing time at other spots. There has been some speculation Harrison might also start taking some at-bats away from Alvarez against right-handers.
"He's a hard guy to take out of the lineup because he brings so much energy every single day," Hurdle said. "We need to keep him in the lineup, someway, somehow, because we're a better team when he's on the field."
It will be interesting to see where Harrison's career goes from here. Will he able to shake the label of being a "4A player" -- too good for Triple A but not good enough for the big leagues -- and become a major league regular or drop out of the bigs in a few years like so many other players of his ilk?
When asked that question, Harrison brought up another piece of valuable advice he received from Uncle T-Bone.
"He told me when I got called up to the big leagues for the first time that there is always someone in Triple A looking to take your job," Harrison said. "I think about that every day and that's why I don't ever take anything for granted. Just because I made the All-Star Game isn't going to change that. I know I'm the kind of guy who is going to have to work hard every single day to keep my spot in the big leagues."
John Perrotto has covered professional baseball since 1988 for such outlets as USA Today, USA Today Sports Weekly, The Sports Xchange, Baseball America and the Beaver County (Pa.) Times. You can find more of his work on Facebook or follow him on Twitter.