Willie Harris admitted he doesn’t know anything about Great Falls, Mt., a town of just under 60,000 where he’ll begin working this spring.
The former White Sox utilityman and 2005 World Series champion was hired this winter as the hitting coach for the Great Falls Voyagers, the franchise’s rookie ball affiliate in the Pioneer League. Great Falls is closer to the Canadian border than it is to Montana’s largest city (Billings), and is a relatively remote place for someone to begin his professional coaching career.
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There is some serendipity to his move, though: Harris’ college roommate from his days at Georgia-based Kennesaw State works as an electrician in Great Falls, so at least he’ll have someone to live with and help him adjust to life in Montana.
But this is the path Harris wants to take, even if it leads him over 2,000 miles from his current home in Jacksonville, Fla. He’s four years removed from the final at-bat of his 12-year major league career, and floated his desire to become a coach to White Sox brass during last season’s 10-year reunion of that 2005 championship team.
“Willie’s been on our radar for years,” White Sox director of player development Nick Capra, who offered the position to Harris, said. “… The passion and love of the game he has, it was a no-brainer to contact him and see if he wanted to get back in the game.”
Harris currently is coaching a travel ball team in Jacksonville, which he boasted is undefeated in its 16 games — “I don’t want to take the credit, but right now they got a hell of a coach,” he said — and will continue to manage them until he leaves for spring training.
Coaching hitters in rookie ball, of course, will be far different than his under-16 travel team. Most of the players who are assigned to Great Falls are fresh out of high school or low-level prospects — the biggest name on Great Falls last season was 18-year-old Corey Zangari, a sixth-round draft pick — and Harris wants to get through to these players mentally more than anything else.
“When I played, my numbers don’t say I was a great hitter overall, but the role I had, I was pretty damn good at it,” Harris said. “I just want to be able to help some kids along the way who get homesick, or when they struggle they don’t what to do, they don’t know how to handle it, I want to be that guy they can lean on and show them the way and guide them to where they want to be.”
Soon after accepting the job, Harris called up two of his former hitting coaches — Greg Walker, who worked with Harris with the White Sox, and Rick Eckstein, who oversaw Harris’ most successful stretch of his career with the Washington Nationals — to pick their brains on some best practices for his new role.
“The main thing that they both told me was build a relationship with your guys,” Harris said. “Know their strengths, know their weaknesses and just give them confidence. All hitting is is confidence. If you watch Miguel Cabrera hit, Miguel Cabrera knows he’s going to hit. He knows he’s going to hit. And just the way he walks to the plate — it’s all about confidence. Sometimes people take the word swag and they say you’re arrogant. You’re not arrogant, you’re just confident in what you’re doing. And that’s where we need to get our guys.”
Harris should provide a relatable story for many of the players he’ll coach. He was a 24th-round draft pick who quickly figured out how to navigate the minor leagues, hitting .305 for Baltimore’s Double-A affiliate in 2001 — two years after being drafted — and earning his major league debut later that season. But moreso, he’s entrenched in the game of baseball, which is partly what attracted the White Sox to bringing him back.
“I don’t have any worries with Willie,” Capra said. “Just talking to him after interviewing him and over the course of the last 10 years, he loves what he does. I don’t know if the passion is in hitting or in being a manager down the road, that’s something we’ll figure out, but it’s a perfect spot for him right now.”
So later this year, Harris will pack his life up and begin the next step in his baseball career in Montana. It’s not glamorous, but it’s a challenge Harris is excited to tackle.
“I knew when I was in college baseball that I was going to be a lifer in the game,” Harris said. “I didn’t know what magnitude. Obviously you have to very fortunate to play at the major league level but when I was in college and then on to minor league ball and made it to the major leagues, I knew this was me. The was who I am as a person, this is what I know, and this is just something that I want to do.”