STOCKBRIDGE, Ga. — “Country” is a loaded term. As a noun, it describes a nation-state, a stretch of land with defined borders and customs. As an adjective, it describes the drive from Truist Park to the former high school of Michael Harris II, the scintillating Atlanta center fielder who is a big part of the reason many people think the defending Major League Baseball champions can repeat.
Heading toward the home of the Tigers, you pass places such as Connie George’s Rodeo Casino, multiple homes with boats and/or tractors on their lawns, and kids riding down the road helmetless on all-terrain vehicles, just because that’s what they do. Once you get on campus, before you ever get to a baseball field, there’s a chicken coop. With a billy goat, too — as part of a farming class. For real, it’s pretty dang country.
Three short years ago, this is where Harris was playing baseball. When he walked the stage for his high school graduation, he was wearing the same jersey he wears every day in the big leagues right now. Sitting 35 miles apart, it’s everything in between that makes the guy known as “Money Mike” go.
On the field, he’s been an absolute force. Ever since he was called up in late May, he’s won two Rookie of the Month awards. He’s a home run shy of joining fellow rookie Julio Rodriguez of the Seattle Mariners in the 20 homers, 20 stolen bases club, something a rookie hasn’t done since Ellis Burks with the 1987 Red Sox. The Braves are 56-24 with Michael Harris II in the lineup, 22-25 without him.
He’s been hosing guys from center field, hitting the snot out of the ball and showing more personality every time he comes to the plate. They call him Money Mike, even though his Twitter account bio says he’s just a “Professional Baseball Player in the Atlanta Braves Organization.” Even though he signed a $72 million contract extension in mid-August.
“Class act, baseball player, aptitude, everything you want to see in a young kid. Five tools,” Ron Washington, his third base coach, said before a game at home against the Washington Nationals. “And he’s only got three months in.”
The most interesting thing about Harris’ path to the top is how he got here. We’re not talking about a well-known son of a former big leaguer. We’re not talking about a college baseball star whom America watched for a while. He wasn’t some random athlete who stumbled his way on to a baseball team with “raw” tools.
He’s just a Georgia boy who grew up playing baseball, with two parents who loved the game, rooting for their hometown team. They both still work, they bring their friends to games and none of it seems particularly out of place. Just a Black family who produced an everyday star in the big leagues.
A product of Braves Country, as they call it. And in more ways than just Atlanta.
Michael Harris Sr. did not set out with the goal of playing college baseball. Heck, when he first started Little League, he said, he was a late bloomer. At 9 years old, after not getting signed up on time, he didn’t make any of the good teams, but he could play. After that revelation to the league, things changed.
An opposing coach offered him a fairly risky deal for a 10-year-old. If he tanked his next tryout, nobody would want him, but he’d pick him up. It worked, with little Michael sailing balls from shortstop all over the yard. The coach, Willie Coleman, kept his word and Harris Sr. grew up to become a big league dad and a Gresham Park legend.
Oftentimes when we hear generalized lament about Black baseball, a Rockwellian faux fantasy scenario enters many minds as a reason to bemoan what they perceive to be a lack of participation. “We don’t just see kids playing sandlot baseball anymore!” or “Where are all the Black kids just playing baseball for fun?” — as if they’d ever cared to look in the first place.
Gresham Park in Atlanta is one of those places. And has been for decades.
While technically the name of a larger neighborhood, the baseball complex off Bouldercrest Road is a community pillar. Home to a slew of fields of all sizes, including a football field, it’s basically where the magic happens in East Atlanta for Black folks and youth sports.
“There’s nothing to compare it to, because there was no other park like Gresham Park as far as baseball,” Harris Sr. explained. “We had some of the best coaches. We had the best players. See, back then, that’s when baseball … kids played outdoors. You didn’t need a trainer. You trained against each other. You wake up playing. Summer, that’s all we did. And then as we got coaching, it helped us out. But that culture, it was like a family. You went to school with each other, you played against each other, but you was family.”
Last year, the big league club put some put $1.5 million into it to help the neighborhood restore all the fields, and it’s a sight to behold. Sort of feels like an MLB Academy, just without the actual big central instructional building. There’s still work to do, but the legacy of the park is unmatched. Over the years, Harris Sr. would get back to help coach and umpire, but the bonds he made there are evident to this day.
It’s a day game, and every person in his crew played there and all have stories they remember to this day about the talent that came out of that space. Harris II grew up playing there, too. Now, Morehouse College plays its home games on their gorgeous show field, which has been renamed Hank Aaron Field. In February, the team brought the Commissioner’s Trophy there on a tour.
From there, Harris Sr. went on to play semipro ball, another relic of the past, where he met a grad assistant from a historically Black university. After seeing the infielder play, Harris Sr. was given an offer, only this time, he didn’t have to make any intentional errors. He got a scholarship.
Friday, he’ll be inducted into the Alcorn State Braves Hall of Fame. He was an All-SWAC player and eventually a pitcher on the staff.
It’s an experience that was even deeper in the country than his own hometown, but taught him the value of dedication.
“I showed up down there … Didn’t know what I was getting into. Toured the campus, I said, ‘Oh, my God.’ And I actually had to hang the numbers on the scoreboard. ’Cause in my high school, we had electric scoreboards, so I wasn’t used to that,” Harris Sr. recalled with a laugh, referring to the his alma mater in Lorman, Mississippi. “And it’s deep in the woods. But I wouldn’t change it for the world. Once I got there and learned the culture … it’s so family-oriented out there. They take you home. I hardly ever came home.”
Instilled with those same values, his son never really left.
“He could have gone anywhere.”
Karl Brooks is talking about the most recent baseball player to have his number retired at Stockbridge High School, whom he saw since he was a freshman and knew he was different from the beginning.
“I can remember the first day that I saw him over here in the cage, the first day of trials, his freshman year, that you could see that the ball just came off his bat different,” the assistant coach said. “The way he carried himself was different. You don’t see that often.”
What he means by “anywhere” is high school. He was a two-way player who touched mid-90s with his fastball and blasted balls out of the park into the space underneath the bleachers of the neighborhood football stadium.
“I think baseball is his worst sport and he’s still the best out here doing it,” said Braves second baseman Vaughn Grissom, who faced Harris II in high school. “He’s just, he is a freak athlete and I think whatever he would’ve chose to do, he probably would’ve been great at.”
“Sometimes I reminisce, sometimes I catch myself,” Harris II said about whether he misses pitching. “Now I feel like going through my windup. Yeah, sometimes I do. I feel like there might be times where I was like, maybe I could have done the [Shohei] Ohtani thing, but I’m happy where I am now. Playing outfield every day and being in the lineup.”
Harris II had options. It isn’t uncommon to see kids play their senior year at some other school to get more proverbial eyeballs, but Harris II didn’t do that. He started with those guys, he wanted to finish with them.
“Played different, attitude was different, makeup was different. And just he knew the game. He understood the game.”
— Marquis Grissom Sr.
But after getting drafted in the third round in 2019, he only got to play in a few dozen games. Then, the next season was canceled. So, ever committed, he made moves. Between the alternate site, his house and another location, the work didn’t stop.
He used some of the money from his $548,000 signing bonus to build a double-barreled batting cage in his family home’s backyard.
“We thought it was important for him to still be able to work out,” said his mother, LaTaucha Harris. “We sacrificed the backyard for him to be able to put those two huge cages back there instead of my swimming pool. But I mean, as a parent, though, that’s what you sacrificed. You sacrificed for your kids so they can be successful. We knew he needed to work out, and I mean, he did, and it was beneficial for my daughter as well, because she played softball.”
Jokes aside, it’s a pretty impressive sight with a lovely chair setup and nice natural foliage behind it, complete with tiny lizards scampering all over the turf. But it’s a paradise compared with a spot even deeper in the country, where he and a couple other big league prospects cut their teeth that season without baseball.
“The Hill” as it’s known, is a farm that belongs to former big leaguer and Braves World Series champion Marquis Grissom. As evidenced by its name, the land is expansive and the turf pretty unforgiving. It was there that year that Harris II, Grissom’s son Marquis Jr. (now a pitcher in the Nationals organization, after Georgia Tech), Cam Collier (2022 No. 18 overall pick by the Reds and son of ex-MLB utility player Lou Collier) and a couple other names you’ll hear about soon enough, including outfielder Lawrence Butler, who’s in the Oakland Athletics organization, all gathered.
In short: They got after it. No gloves, no bats, for the first two weeks. Nothing but conditioning. At the time, Harris II was the only one in the pros. Grissom Sr. and Collier used him as the example of how to train. While the younger guys were still trying to get acclimated to the environment and brutal training, Harris II led the way.
“The group we had there, we’re a strong group,” Harris II said. “We don’t pretty much let anybody else in because we really appreciate The Hill. And, yeah, it’s tough. When we first started, it was tough, but we got a little acclimated to it and it was just a grind. Basically it just showed how bad we wanted it because he tried to make it as difficult as possible for the workouts and we kept coming every day.”
A quick study of the game — his dad says he could catch popups at 5 years old — the big league mentality that showed way back in high school (just kidding) was there then, too, for Harris II. Grissom Sr. knows that the kid he first met in summer travel ball is capable of a Gold Glove. One, because he has four himself, and two, he was the one hitting him fungos for all those months.
“Played different, attitude was different, makeup was different. And just he knew the game. He understood the game,” Grissom pointed out. “Not just understanding the game, but he’s going to win the game. His preparation is relentless.”
It’s that type of drive that is now on display every day in the major leagues — he batted third in Wednesday night’s 3-2 loss to the Nationals. And it was all built on work he put in close to home.
“See, that was a decision we were proud of,” Harris Sr. said. “Me and his mom were like: ‘This is your life. Your decision. Do you want to go to another school or do you want to stay here?’ He wanted to stay there. He put in the work there. So we said, ‘Once you get on the map, you’re noticed, they’ll find you.’ ”
Now, after moving up in the lineup after the Braves secured a playoff spot, it’s clear his country needs him.