Having shuttled between multiple infield positions while playing for five organizations over five seasons, Brendan Harris understands the politics of baseball. With a political science degree from the College of William and Mary, the 28-year-old Harris also understands the American political system. Now with the Minnesota Twins, Harris shared his thoughts on both political spectrums as the country prepared to inaugurate a new president.
David Laurila: How would you describe Brendan Harris?
Brendan Harris: I would say that I’m pretty representative of the area that I come from; I’m from kind of a small town in upstate New York and have a pretty blue-collar, working-class, middle-American background. I had an opportunity to go to a great university in William and Mary, and have been very fortunate to have a career in the big leagues. I love what I do; I love baseball, but I also have a lot of other interests and things I want to pursue when I’m finished playing. I’m a hard worker and really like to totally immerse myself in the task before me. I’m very appreciative to have the opportunity to play in the major leagues, and of the things it has allowed me to see and do.
DL: What are some of the things you hope to pursue after baseball?
BH: I’ve always been into history and politics and would like to do something in these fields. My degree is in political science, and I’d like to put that to use. I don’t think I’d ever want to run for office, but I think consulting or lobbying might be something I’d be interested in. I’d also like to invest in some of the businesses of people I went to college with. Hopefully I’ll stay pretty diversified.
DL: We’re talking two days before Barack Obama is inaugurated as the 44th President of the United States. Historically, how important is what happens in Washington DC on Tuesday?
BH: I think it is obviously historic, and whether you voted for him or not, people should respect the office as well as acknowledge the incredible path he’s taken to the presidency. I think that people should continue this new era of unprecedented participation and awareness in government, and start putting the country first and not each person’s individual agenda. I’m going to be watching the inauguration, and I think everyone should try to catch at least a little bit of it. I think that we have an opportunity to put to bed a lot of the stereotypes and labels that we put on people with the election of an African-American, and that we can truly declare that America is the land of opportunity.
DL: What are your thoughts on the country’s political climate?
BH: In a way, I’m completely disappointed with many of the leaders we’ve elected to represent us, as well as the atmosphere that goes on in Washington. In terms of the campaign, and just the general atmosphere, everything has become so vicious and personal that it has completely paralyzed our government. And it hasn’t helped our economy at all. I think that people on both the left and the right are voicing their frustration with our public servants. That’s what leads to them getting nothing done, and it leads Congress to grandstand and take hold of an issue like steroids in baseball, and then try to take credit for helping the drug problem in baseball, as if that’s really going to help our tax burden or our housing market.
DL: How much were politics discussed in the clubhouse this past season compared to what you’ve seen in the past?
BH: You saw a lot more. I remember a couple of years ago, when the war in the Middle East broke out between Israel and Hezbollah, you’d have a few guys reading the paper and the question would be, “who, or what, is Hezbollah?” Now you’d have different guys in the clubhouse saying, “did you hear what was being debated last night?” or they’d be talking about different tax policies that were being proposed. It was a big topic of conversation, which was good. There was a lot of water-cooler discussion about politics, much more than usual around the country. I think that the level of awareness was unprecedented.
DL: Have the clubhouses you’ve been in leaned more Democratic or more Republican?
BH: It’s pretty conservative. You get guys from all walks of life, but I think most of the guys are traditional, hard-working guys, and they pretty much lean toward the right. You have your guys who lean left, but for the most part it’s more of a conservative slant.
DL: How much influence do you think the Republican Party’s philosophy on taxes has on those political views?
BH: I think there are probably a few guys who vote with their wallet, but I would say that it’s not as many as you might think. So I think it is a factor, but it’s not the number one. I would say that most guys worry about their families and their security first, and taxes come somewhere after that on their list of priorities.
DL: Who are some of the guys in the Twins’ clubhouse you discuss politics with?
DL: It is often said that there are a lot of politics within the game of baseball. Do you agree with that?
BH: You see it. Politics are becoming more relevant in baseball, maybe because of all the money involved. You have so many people having to put themselves on the line for another guy, and that’s one of the parts of the game that you’ll see rearing its ugly head in a bunch of areas. The stakes are much higher, and sometimes you get scouts or coaches who are kind of hesitant to put themselves on the line for a guy, because if he goes down it’s on them. Then it goes up to the GM who gave him X amount of money, or the owner or the guy who drafted him, and it trickles on down. If you get too many of those you might be out of a job, so there are some money-based politics. But I also feel like there’s a modified spoils system that goes on in baseball as well. There are a lot of positions filled by friends of friends, whether it is on-field staff or front office positions. It is tough to truly evaluate people on that side of the game, so I guess the only thing we can go off of is personal relationships and character. I think there’s also an interesting balance going on now with the old school scouting of players, and the more numbers-driven Moneyball style fashioned by Billy Beane originally, and now with the Red Sox. In any event, I hope the people who have worn the uniform continue to have the most influence on how the game is managed.
DL: You’ve been a bit of a baseball nomad, playing for five teams in five seasons. Do you think that has adversely impacted your career in any way?
BH: Well, I think that it definitely got off track a little bit when I left the Cubs. That was for a couple of reasons. They had drafted me and I had played well in their minor league system, and felt like I was on my way up and was going to be a part of that organization. Then I got traded to Montreal, so I had to fit in there, and then they went through their own transition, which almost made it feel like I had gotten traded again. When Montreal became Washington, the GM that had traded for me-Omar Minaya-left, and all of a sudden it was Jim Bowden in there. I had only been a September call-up at that point, and the team was in last place, so they wanted to kind of clean house a little and bring a lot of new guys in. So I kind of got lost in the shuffle where I wasn’t really a priority. I was just a young guy hoping to get a chance, and they brought in a few veterans to try to plug some holes. So I think I got lost in the shuffle a little bit, and at the same time I had to almost re-ingratiate myself to that organization. All of the good years I’d had in A-ball, Double-A, and Triple-A were kind of lost. I had to build up my credibility all over again in a new organization, and once I felt I had done that, I got traded again. Basically, I would go two steps forward, and one step back.
DL: Two of the trades you’ve been involved in featured big-name players. Which of them stands out as being the most compelling?
BH: Probably the first one, when I went from the Cubs to the Expos, because it was big. At the time it was huge. Nomar was an institution in Boston, and he was leaving. It was something to be a part of that. But then, the last one with Delmon [Young] and me going [from Tampa Bay] to Minnesota for Garza and Bartlett-I feel like those two guys, Garza and Bartlett, really helped that team, and I feel that Delmon and I brought something to this team. Both teams had outstanding clubs and exceeded expectations.
DL: What was it like for you watching the Rays this past season?
BH: It was fun. It was a little bittersweet, but it was still fun to watch. I actually got laughed at a little bit when I got over to Minnesota, because I said that team wasn’t very far away because they had a lot of young talent and just needed a little more experience. I really thought they were pretty close. Not that I thought that they’d run away with the AL East, but I thought that for sure they’d be better. I was real happy for B.J. Upton, who had a phenomenal playoff series and kind of put himself on the map. I was happy for Carlos Pena, too, and for Joe Maddon.
DL: How do Joe Maddon and Ron Gardenhire compare as managers?
BH: They’re two different guys with two different styles, albeit both successful. Joe is more of the professor type where he’s very analytical, although he will definitely get intense, too. He is more of a “thinks things through” [type]. Gardy is a little more emotional and really gets into the game. Sometimes you almost can’t tell if Gardy is out there playing or if he’s managing. He wears it on his sleeve a little more.
DL: How would you describe the 2008 Minnesota Twins?
BH: I would say that we performed above the expectations of the experts, but along the lines of how we thought we would play. I think that we had a lot of emerging young arms that carried us through the middle part of the year, and then we also leaned on probably two of the best hitters in the game in Joe [Mauer] and Justin [Morneau].
DL: You saw action at all four infield positions last year. How has your career been impacted by playing multiple positions rather than settling into just one?
BH: You know, early on it helped, but overall it can be both a blessing and a curse. Mostly it leans toward being a good thing, but even if you’re at one spot, if you have injuries like we did this year, you might be the first guy to move and go over there. I think that it adds value to the team, so I don’t mind it at all.
DL: Depending on who you talk to, Brendan Harris is either an above-average defensive infielder or a below-average defensive infielder. Why do you think that difference of opinion exists?
BH: I think that I was thought of as a pretty solid, or above-average defensive player when I was coming up with the Cubs. And I always remember this one game. I got traded, and I was in spring training with the Nationals, a new organization who, like I said, kind of cleaned house and got a new GM. I lost a ball in the sun, and then I made an error. Afterwards, the GM comes in and says, “I didn’t know that you were that stiff defensively. You’re really going to have to work on that” I think that was the second game of spring training, and defense is like hitting in that you need to get some rhythm; you need to get your feet moving in rhythm on ground balls. And I legitimately feel that he held that early-season impression against me my whole time there. Then I had different coaches I had never seen, and never worked with, say that I was stiff defensively. I felt like that rumor kind of permeated through the whole team-all of that from an early first impression. I wasn’t that defensive about it; I just said, ‘OK, I’m going to put some more work in.’ There were some areas I thought I could improve, and I got after it and attacked my weaknesses, but it was still frustrating to have one guy, from a five- or ten-minute assessment, kind of give me a label. Even when I got to spring training in Tampa, I felt like I had a good camp, especially defensively, and Joe Maddon said, “Man, I didn’t know you could play short; I didn’t know you were that good defensively.” I said, “Well, you haven’t really seen me play,” and he goes, “It was in this report,” or whatever. So that report is still out there. I kind of want to find it and rip it up. But, seriously, I’m conscious of always getting better and always improving, and not getting defensive about somebody’s critique of me. But at the same time, I feel that the critique was somewhat unwarranted, so it has been a little frustrating.
DL: There are a variety of defensive metrics, just as there are a variety of numbers used to assess offensive performance. Are players sometimes in denial of individual statistics that may show a specific weakness?
BH: I think so, yeah. Everybody can be a little sensitive if they had a down year. That’s kind of what I was talking about with the defensive thing. You don’t want to be defensive about something, or completely in denial; you want to put your work in so that people can’t say you weren’t willing to work on it. But yeah, absolutely-guys spin different things different ways. But at the end of the day, it’s like Bill Parcells says, “You are what your record is.” It’s not, ‘We had a tough schedule’ or ‘Hey, we had Sunday day games against Verlander and C.C. Sabathia, and that’s why I went 0-for-4.’ Sometimes it isn’t completely fair when guys aren’t put into situations to succeed, but at the same time it’s your job to get ready to go every day. At the same time, I think there are numbers that people can spin to make it look like you didn’t have as good of a year. Maybe you didn’t bat well with runners in scoring position or something like that. Guys will be in denial about a number, and most guys have a very good handle of what their numbers are.
DL: I can’t let you get away without bringing up that you were once compared, as a minor league prospect, to Albert Pujols.
BH: Oh, man. Let’s put it this way: If that was a diagnosis, I’d say, ‘Doctor, you were way off base on that one.’