Former Marine and local standout to pitch for Illinois
BEECHER — Upon meeting Josh Harris, one of the first distinctions one makes is the colorless, heavy tattoo sleeve that adorns his right arm, from wrist to shoulder.
The United States Marine Corps Veteran has his sleeve book-ended with military-related themes.
“;IGY6” adorns his wrist — a semi-colon and acronym of, “I got your six (back),” which is a signal of post-traumatic stress disorder and suicide awareness among veterans. On the inside of his bicep, a scroll reads, “For those I love, I will sacrifice.”
Harris has plans to complete a sleeve on his left arm full of life and color. But as long as there’s life in that left arm of his, the ink on his arm will have to wait.
Harris, 24, was a four-year varsity letter-winner for the Bobcats’ baseball team before graduating in 2011. But before his senior season began, he knew he had bigger plans than baseball after high school.
The summer before his senior year at Beecher, Harris, then 17, enlisted in the Marines with his mother, Karyn, having to sign for him. Josh said that while he wasn’t sure of his original motivation to check it out, he knew enlisting was what he wanted to do shortly after looking into it.
“I went there, (the officers) did their little recruiting thing, and I said, ‘Sure, why not?’” Harris said. “I wasn’t really sure at first, but I went, and I liked it. I kept showing up to events before I was enlisted and ended up enlisting shortly after.”
While Josh was excited for the next challenge in his life, Karyn — although signing off on his enlistment — wasn’t so excited at first.
“When he was shipped off to boot camp, that was one of the hardest moments I’ve ever seen,” Karyn said. “The Marines put the fear of God in you, and they said that he wasn’t a baby anymore. He was going to come back a man.”
From 2011-15, Harris was stationed in California and did two tours overseas, spending the last six months of his time working in the military police before his honorable discharge in October 2015.
Part of the allure of joining the military was the chance to keep active in baseball during his time. But it didn’t take long for him to realize how far of a backseat baseball would take in his life during his time with the Marines.
“I had asked my recruiter, if I joined, if I could still play baseball, and he said that I would have time for both,” Harris said. “Once I got enlisted and got in there, they said there was no chance (to play baseball). I played a couple of slow pitch weekend softball tournaments out of love of the game, but I didn’t play any baseball at all.”
Instead of playing baseball, Harris spent what little free time he had in the gym. Accompanied by Preston Moehring, a friend he met in the Marines, Harris dedicated his down time to sculpting his body and attaining peak fitness levels.
When Harris got back to Beecher and picked up a baseball again, he noticed something different about his arm — his fastball had some extra “zip.”
Then a student at Prairie State College in Chicago Heights, Harris was again denied the chance to play college baseball, despite the fact his fastball was topping 90 mph.
“I asked (the coaches) if I could play, and they said, ‘No,’” Harris said. “They beat around the bush, saying the roster was full ... while also saying they needed pitchers.”
He finally got back into baseball last summer when he joined the Beecher Muskies after working with Muskies pitcher and Beecher High School baseball coach Brandon DuBois, Harris’ coach at the school his senior year.
And according to Harris, it was DuBois and another Muskies teammate, Todd Sippel, who pointed him toward the path back to school, where he could give college baseball another shot.
“Todd asked me what I was going to do with (baseball) and I said that I was just playing for the love of the game,” Harris said. “He said that I was still young and going to college anyways and that I should think about playing.”
Still not convinced he could pull it off, Harris continued to pitch for the Muskies, struggling to keep his arm from hurting. After six years away from baseball, tendinitis and other nagging arm soreness issues plagued the now-flamethrowing southpaw.
“I would throw an inning or two and then go on the disabled list for a week. That’s how bad it was,” Harris recalled. “There would be games where I would walk off the mound and go behind the dugout in tears because of how bad my arm hurt.”
Another of Harris’ Muskies teammates, Bryce Shafer, pitcher and assistant baseball coach at Kankakee Community College, was able to start working with Harris on his arm conditioning and health, slightly altering Harris’ fitness routine he built with the Marines.
“You can tell he’s pretty shredded as far as his body goes, but that doesn’t mean it was good for his arm,” Shafer said. “We loosened him up a bit, stretched him extra after practice and just trained his body to become a pitcher.”
Coming off of their 2017 NJCAA National Championship, it didn’t take Shafer long to convince Harris to transfer to KCC and finally pitch in college.
And for Harris, the decision to transfer was just as easy.
“(Shafer) said he would get my velocity up and get my arm healthy. I just had to transfer to KCC,” Harris said. “So that’s what I did.”
Harris excelled as the Cavaliers’ closer, finishing in the top ten in the country with eight saves, while allowing a 3.72 earned run average and striking out 34 hitters in 19 1/3 innings.
While he said it took a little bit of time to adjust to playing with teammates five-plus years younger than him, he naturally became a leader for head coach Todd Post’s team.
“At first I was a little standoffish ... I just drove there and back and did my own thing,” Harris said, “But it worked out. I found those kids and we all became friends.”
“(Harris) liked the mature approach of our guys, even though they were significantly younger than him,” Post said. “I think he was a good influence on our players and it was a good, natural fit.”
During the season, Harris increased his fastball’s velocity to 94 miles per hour. Shafer, who spent three seasons in the Chicago Cubs farm system, said that Harris also throws a slider that is, “one of the best I’ve ever seen.”
With a devastating combo of pitches, Harris began drawing attention from colleges across the country before deciding to further his career, both in the books and on the mound, at the University of Illinois.
“They cared about my well-being,” Harris said of Illini coach Dan Hartleb and his staff. “Whether it was the health of my arm, where I lived, my academic performance, they cared about all of that.”
Harris has pitched with a heavy heart since he was 13, when his father, Cal, passed away from colon cancer. According to Karyn, Josh and his sister Jordyn, lost not only their father, but their biggest fan.
“(Cal) was with them for sports 24/7 until the very day he died,” Karyn said. “It was up until his last breath that he supported both of our kids and their athletics. By (Josh) doing what he does now, it’s very emotional for both him and myself.”
For Harris, although he lost a fan on Earth, he also knows that his dad still watches him pitch.
“He taught me the game of baseball,” Josh said. “I don’t consider myself religious, but I believe in a higher power and that he is still watching me somehow.”
Coincidentally, when Harris gets to the University of Illinois next month, he won’t be the only college pitcher in town who previously served as a Marine.
Anthony Silkwood, 25, will pitch for Parkland College in Champaign.
Harris said the two struck up a friendship last winter, and now that they’ll be playing baseball in the same town, the two will live together in Champaign.
“(Silkwood) contacted me on social media about eight months ago and we just started talking about what I was doing for my arm, workouts, stuff like that,” Harris said. “We’ve been chatting ever since and now that we’ve ended up next to each other, we’re going to live together down in Champaign.”
Shafer thinks that his teammate and pupil has a chance at advancing his career to the professional level after his time in Champaign, despite the fact he is already past the age of a typical major league rookie.
“I’m just hoping someone gives Josh a shot at that level,” Shafer said. “I’ve seen a lot and he can be a guy that makes it if someone gives him a chance.”
Like Shafer, Moehring also believes his friend has a chance at making his incredible story that much more amazing.
“You hear about those stories of Veterans who go to school and play sports after they get out,” Moehring said. “He’s got a chance to be one of those guys and to be drafted.”
When he first left the Marines, Harris was intent on pursing his law enforcement career. But thanks to the coaches and teammates that he was surrounded by, he now has the opportunity to play Big Ten baseball.
“I have so much appreciation for KCC and for the Muskies for being patient with my comeback,” Harris said. “Todd Sippel, Brandon DuBois, coach Shafer and coach Post have been great mentoring me through the process.”
While Harris would love the opportunity to further his baseball career after college, the future police officer is already grateful for the rare opportunity he’s been given already.
“I’m just thankful to be this far, it was unexpected,” Josh said. “I couldn’t have asked for more. If it ends here, I’m thankful for what I’ve already done.”