By Manny Randhawa
The rise of Josh Harrison comes as no surprise to Josh Harrison.
The 5-foot-8 super utility player for the Pirates, who became an All-Star for the first time this summer and entered the final game of the regular season on Sunday with a chance at a National League batting title, is very matter-of-fact about his abilities even as the baseball world continues to marvel at his sudden ascension.
Along with reigning NL Most Valuable Player Andrew McCutchen, who is having another McCutchen-esque season in 2014, Harrison is one of the main reasons the Pirates are headed back to the postseason for the second consecutive year after a 21-year playoff drought.
But when he's asked how he's come so far, so fast, Harrison -- who was batting .250 in 532 career at-bats coming into this season -- gives the verbal equivalent of a shoulder shrug.
"Not to toot my own horn or sound cocky, but ever since I was little, growing up, Little League, going through high school and college, I've always been an instrumental part of any team I've been on, even through the Minor Leagues," Harrison said.
"I've always been a guy that played every day, always in the middle of something, making something happen. And people look at the big leagues and say, 'Oh, it's the big leagues, not high school or the Minor Leagues or anything like that,' but the bottom line is: if you can play, you can play."
Harrison can play, and while the rest of us have only recently come to that realization, people who were around him before he seized his big-league moment already knew it.
Pirates shortstop Jordy Mercer is one of those people. When the Cubs, who drafted Harrison in the sixth round in 2008, traded Harrison to the Pirates in 2009, Mercer was his roommate at Class A Advanced Lynchburg.
"As soon as you see him play, everything goes out the window," Mercer said of any preconceived notions about Harrison based on his size. "It seems like if the game's on the line, he pretty much has something to do with it. He shines in those moments. I can remember that exact thing at Lynchburg. We traded for him and the first game he played he was in left field, I think. And he made an unbelievable diving catch. And we're like, 'Who is this guy?' right away. And ever since then, he's been nothing but great."
Harrison moved quickly through the Pirates' farm system, going from Advanced A to Triple A within two years. But after getting his first taste of the Majors in the summer of 2011, he became very familiar with the route between Pittsburgh and Indianapolis, home of the Bucs' Triple A affiliate.
Harrison made that trip 13 times in 26 months between 2011 and 2013.
"Last year was a grind for me," Harrison said. "It was up and down, up and down, and I just wanted an opportunity to play. But it's more than the game. I just stuck with it and waited for my opportunity, and I got it this year."
To understand Harrison's motivation, you have to go back to where it all started for the 27-year-old: his hometown of Cincinnati. Fittingly, it's the city to which he returned on Friday to open the final series of his breakthrough season.
It was in the Queen City that Harrison began his love affair with baseball as a child. The game ran in his family: his older brother Vince, who preceded him at Princeton High School, spent nine years in the Minor Leagues. Harrison's uncle is John Shelby, a former big-leaguer who is now a coach with the Brewers.
"I had two older brothers and I used to go to their games," Harrison said. "I just remember growing up going to all their games and practices, trying to stay after, and while they're cleaning up the field or getting dressed, I'm trying to hit in the cage. I'm just trying to be involved in any way I can even though it's probably annoying to them."
Harrison would go from Princeton High to the University of Cincinnati. His baseball coach there, Brian Cleary, saw Harrison's pure love of the game -- his motivation -- up close the first time he ever saw him play.
"An opposing high school coach told me I needed to go and see this kid," Cleary said. "So I went out to see him and he had the flu or something; he was throwing up and still playing. You could tell he felt awful."
"I remember," Harrison said. "We were playing Colerain High School. I was sick, throwing up and everything between innings behind the dugout. So I definitely remember that. Hey, I was still fighting for a scholarship. I wasn't gonna let being sick keep me from an opportunity to play at the next level. If I can play, I'm gonna play."
Harrison wasn't heavily recruited in high school, overlooked by many because of his size. But that didn't lead to a need for him to prove anything. That wasn't his motivation.
"We had Kevin Youkilis, too," Cleary said about another standout UC player that went on to have a distinguished professional career. "Both guys are kind of similar stories. Both were kind of overlooked guys. Youkilis had more of an obvious chip on his shoulder; he was clearly out to prove everybody wrong.
"I never got the impression that Josh was out to prove everybody wrong. But you certainly got the impression that he knew he could play. He was always very comfortable with his ability and comfortable letting his play do the talking."
Harrison's play spoke volumes in the Minors. But as young talents like McCutchen, Starling Marte and Gerrit Cole emerged on the scene at PNC Park, Harrison's ability did not immediately find a long-term home in Pittsburgh.
In 126 Triple-A games, Harrison batted .314 with an .856 OPS. After being called up and making his big league debut in 2011, he hit .272 in 65 games, 46 of which he started in place of Pedro Alvarez, the everyday third baseman who was sidelined with a quad injury.
Harrison started 56 games the next season, but there weren't many lengthy strings of starts for him, making it difficult to get any traction offensively. He hit .243 when starting in 2012, and just .186 in the 43 at-bats he got off the bench.
Harrison played even less in 2013. He batted .280 in the 15 games he started, and .211 in 38 at-bats off the bench.
"It's hard whenever you don't play every day," Harrison said. "I always tell people, it's like somebody in the corporate world: They work 9-to-5 or whatever. You take somebody that works one day a week versus somebody who works five days a week. The person who works five days a week is going to be consistent, and his work is probably going to be better as a whole just because he gets to do it every day as opposed to once or twice a week.
"You have to do things to stay sharp, but also knowing the game of baseball, not everybody can be an everyday player. Some guys have to fill roles. And my first couple years, I was that guy that, I had to wait on my opportunity. You've just got to make the most of it and keep plugging away until you get that chance."
Plugging away, for Harrison, meant a lot of uniform-changing from the black and gold of the Pirates to the black and red of the Indianapolis Indians. His manager in Triple A, Dean Treanor, says he had never seen anyone persevere the way Harrison did before bursting onto the Major League stage.
"The thing that impressed me more than anything is that when he came back [to Triple A], it was like he worked even harder, where a lot of guys don't do that -- most guys don't do that. But he just continued to work and continued to drive," Treanor said. "I've never seen anybody really as driven as this. He wasn't going to stop, and nothing was going to stop him."
As a Minor League manager for much of the last 26 years, Treanor has had his fair share of closed-door meetings in his office with players that had gotten a taste of the big leagues and returned to Triple A, seeing an immediate decline in their performance. He even had the talk with Harrison.
"We did talk. And I think the more times it happened, and it wasn't very many times, but the more times it happened, it was tougher for him to come back," Treanor said. "And I think it's because in his heart, he knew he belongs here [in the Majors].
"You have to have that conversation, whether it's somebody like him that handles it very well, or somebody who doesn't handle it well. And I think I emphasized to him that the time he spends in Indy, you have to take advantage of that time; it gives you a chance to work on some extra things and maybe refine some things and just continue to push, and that's what he did. He never stopped working. He wanted to get out there early, asked to go out and work early, and it just points to his character."
Harrison's work finally paid off in May of this season. Bucs manager Clint Hurdle began playing Harrison more consistently when the right field platoon of Travis Snider and Jose Tabata wasn't producing offensively. Later in the season, when Alvarez injured his foot, Harrison became the everyday third baseman.
The offensive spark he provided and the bursts of energy he infused with his electric play -- particularly on the base paths -- resulted in effusive praise for Harrison, heretofore unknown in the national baseball consciousness.
Harrison takes issue with one of the terms used to describe his unforeseen success, however.
"A lot of people looked at it as, 'Oh, he's not the biggest guy,' or, 'Oh man, he's a hard worker, he's scrappy,' and all that," Harrison said. "I've gotta put a stop to that, because I understand I'm a hard worker, but everybody at this level is a hard worker. So you can't say one guy is a hard worker; everybody worked hard to get to this level. The bottom line is that if you can play, you can play. I might be 5-8, but you put me out there, I can play like I'm 6-5."
Though working hard is a prerequisite for any big leaguer, Mercer pointed out that Harrison does seem to take it to another level.
"Continuing to put the work in each and every day at different positions, that's a hard thing to do," Mercer said with a genuine sense of awe. "You take some fly balls and then take some ground balls, taking three gloves out for the game, whatever it might be. And then you've still gotta go hit, too. All that stuff, it wears on you and takes a toll on you, and yet he was able to handle it."
The postseason is Harrison's next challenge in this year during which he's met so many challenges with success. He was on the playoff roster in 2013, but the only action he saw was as a pinch-runner in Games 3 and 4 of the NL Division Series against the Cardinals.
This time around, Harrison will dig into the batter's box for his first playoff plate appearance. But that doesn't mean he'll do anything differently.
"I'm going to prepare the same way," he said. "I mean, I know adrenaline is going to be pumping with my first postseason game. My adrenaline was pumping last year and I didn't start. So I know it's going to be pumping this year. At the end of the day, it's the same game. You've gotta go out, you've gotta pitch, you've gotta hit, you've gotta play defense and you've gotta run the bases.
"The more that we sit back and understand that, the easier it is to go out there and just have fun and take the game for what it is, which is what we love to do."
Cleary said he'd be on hand at Great American Ball Park on Sunday for the Pirates' regular season finale against the Reds. Like the rest of us, he can't say he knew all of this was coming for Harrison.
"Would I have scripted this? I don't know that I could have done that," Cleary said. "It's just thrilling to watch because he wasn't the first-round guy. This guy's a baseball player that hasn't made himself into a big leaguer; he's made himself into a great big leaguer."
Along with the rest of us, Cleary is viewing Harrison's rapid rise from the outside looking in, trying to process what he's witnessing.
But for Harrison, success was never in doubt. It was always just a matter of time.
"I never thought I wasn't going to get my shot, I just didn't know when," Harrison said. "The window of opportunity in baseball is different for everybody. Some guys have a bigger window and some guys have a smaller window. Me, I didn't care what my window was; I just waited for the opportunity to present itself, and no matter how big or small my window was, I was going to be able to show what I could do.
"I don't do anything to prove people wrong. I just prove myself right."
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Manny Randhawa is a Sports on Earth contributor and reporter for MLB.com. Follow @MannyRsports on Twitter.