Not big on utility, Harrison earns top billing at third
All-Star enters with hot-corner job after spending past springs looking for work all over field
BRADENTON, Fla. -- During Josh Harrison's first three nomadic seasons, as he went about changing positions more often than a yoga instructor, Pirates manager Clint Hurdle went out of his way to compliment him with comparisons to notably versatile predecessors.
Hurdle would liken Harrison to Tony Phillips, or to Chone Figgins, or to Mark DeRosa. At one point, he even hoped Harrison could become the Bucs' Jose Oquendo, the St. Louis defensive chameleon with whom Hurdle had played in 1986.
If the skipper, who was only trying to make nice, only knew how much the characterization chafed Harrison.
"I didn't want to come into the league labeled a utility player. I'm a Major League ballplayer, I can play this game at a high level. I just happened to be able to play more positions. There's a difference," Harrison said. "A utility player is a guy who plays once or twice a week. That's not me -- though that was my role for a couple of years. That's not a label for me."
Harrison checked into this camp with a different label, as applied by at least one credible source, MLB Network: Best National League third baseman. Harrison ranked third at the position in the network's Right Now! series, behind Texas' Adrian Beltre and Josh Donaldson of the Blue Jays.
Ballplayers don't like to smell the flowers while they're still in the rose garden, but, come on, how about that? For a guy who started 55 games all season at third base, where he'd had 77 career starts until taking over as the Bucs' regular on Aug. 19.
"I got calls and texts and tweets and all that [when that list came out]," Harrison said, grinning. "But stuff like that, I don't dwell on. It wasn't anything more than me going out there and being the athlete I have always been. I always knew that if I had a chance to go out there and play, regardless of the position, I'd make them find a way to keep me in there."
The Bucs dropped a lot of jaws by producing a pitcher who in three months went from independent ball to the Majors (John Holdzkom), but Harrison's emergence may have been on the same scale.
To put it mildly, Harrison checked into this camp with a different agenda.
"Mentally, I still prepared the same way," he said, "but physically, it's different because I know I'll spend the majority of my time at third base. The past couple of years, I had to come in and fight for a position on the team."
At times last spring, the Pirates appeared to leave him out of even that fight. Harrison saw little action during the first phase of exhibition play, while comparably versatile guys like Michael Martinez and Brent Morel were getting most of the field time and at-bats. Harrison kept his bench job -- but still had only 23 at-bats into May.
Hurdle and general manager Neal Huntington have both offered retrospective mea culpas.
"We may have underestimated Josh in the past," Huntington has said. "All the credit to him for grabbing the opportunity and running with it."
Making the most of an opportunity was the easy part. Getting it is tougher for guys cornered by first impressions.
"Utility may not have been the label I wanted, but it was my role for a couple of years," Harrison said, nodding. "The toughest part is getting out of that role, once you wear the label, because that's how they're going to see you. Not everybody gets that opportunity to prove otherwise."