Harrison, now a star, hasn't forgotten his roots
Rangers lefty and his wife proud of their upbringing in North Carolina
SURPRISE, Ariz. -- Meghan Rodgers didn't even know the big, tall senior at South Granville High School in Creedmoor, N.C., played baseball.
"Matt was pretty quiet," said Meghan, Matt Harrison's wife. "I just thought he was cute, but I didn't know him well. I used to ask him for a piece of gum all the time because I didn't know what else to say. He certainly never started any conversations."
The two finally found something to talk about and they finally started dating. Meghan even went to a baseball game, even though she didn't know anything about it. But she saw a few scouts pointing their radar gun at the hard-throwing left-hander and figured he might be something special.
"I went home and told my mom, 'Matt is a good baseball player,'" Meghan said. "My mom said, 'That's nice. I'm sure he's good.' She was just being nice. Then my parents went to see him pitch and there were like 40 scouts in the stands watching him. My mom went home and said, 'Oh my gosh, he is pretty good.'"
Harrison is more than pretty good. Ten years after his future mother-in-law saw him pitch for a small high school in rural North Carolina, Harrison was representing the Rangers in the 2012 All-Star Game at the midpoint of a season he finished 18-11 with a 3.29 ERA in 32 starts.
When it was over, Matt and Meghan Harrison, their daughter, Addie, and their Yorkshire terrier, Harry, packed up and drove back to the same north central North Carolina area where they grew up, where they met, dated and fell in love, where both their families still live and where they plan to make their home after his career is over. They are steadfastly proud of who they are, what their families represent and where they are from.
"When we retire, that's where we're going to build our dream house," Harrison said.
Creedmoor, just north of Durham, is in the heart of Tobacco Road. The town of 4,124 came into existence in 1905 when four tobacco warehouses were built along a railroad that shipped the cash crop to factories across the state, and for generations hard-working blue-collar people have raised families and worked the land side by side.
David and Pam Harrison raised four children in a double-wide trailer on 25 acres in the tiny town of Stem, not far from Creedmoor. Five acres were used to grow fruit and vegetables for the Harrison dinner table. Matt Harrison's father is now a supervisor, but he has been working in the same conveyor manufacturing shop for the past two decades, and his mother brings in extra income by cleaning houses.
"Everything we ate, we grew, except for the meat," Harrison said. "Everything we grew had to be picked by hand. I had to split the wood every morning before I could play baseball. It was tough growing up. We didn't have much. I remember Meghan paying for my lunch in high school because I didn't have enough money.
|"I had to split the wood every morning before I could play baseball."|
|-- Matt Harrison|
"My dad was very old school, a lot of 'yes, sirs' and 'no, sirs,' 'speak when you're spoken to.' We always said blessing at every dinner. He wasn't book smart, but he is common-sense smart. He was a mechanic for awhile, a construction worker. Whatever needed to be done, he would fix it himself. He wouldn't pay anybody to do it for him. What his dad passed down to him, he passed down to me."
That included his work ethic. Matt had to get up at 6:30 in the morning to do the chores, which included splitting wood and tilling the garden. The tough North Carolina wiregrass often needed to be tilled three times before the corn, green beans, watermelons, tomatoes and potatoes could be planted. He also learned from his dad how to work with his hands.
"Matt can do almost anything around a house," Meghan said. "If he wasn't a baseball player, he could get a job as a handyman. He can build stuff, he can do the plumbing, fix anything. He loves to cook, too. If he sees something he wants for dinner, he'll go on the Internet, find the recipe and whip it up."
"Our first house, I redid the whole thing ... floors, windows, plumbing," Harrison said. "A guy said he would remodel our house for $23,000. I said, 'Let me do a few things and see what happens.' I ended up doing the whole thing for $7,000 by myself."
These are the things you learn living in a double-wide Tar Heel trailer, but there was still time for baseball in a basketball-crazy state. David Harrison played baseball and football in high school before having to go to work, but it was Pam who was the real star.
"She played semi-pro baseball with a team called the Durham Bees," Matt said. "She played center field. She had two brothers, one was a catcher and one was a pitcher. They say she was an unbelievable softball and baseball player. Someone told me they lived next door and they heard the sound of a baseball popping loudly into a glove. They thought it was the two brothers playing catch, but they looked out the window and it was my mom who was throwing."
In time it became evident that her son could throw a baseball as well.
"I knew I was good in baseball," Harrison said. "When I was 11 or 12, I had a big growth spurt. I grew like a foot and was taller than everybody. Some kids came to the plate crying because they thought I was a coach. They were afraid they were going to get hit."
The scouts soon found their way to the small high school, and the Atlanta Braves, who don't miss much when it comes to finding talent in their Deep South backyard, took him in the third round of the 2003 First-Year Player Draft.
"I was surprised, I wasn't expecting to be drafted so high," Harrison said. "I didn't play all that much. I played some traveling ball, but mainly it was at my small high school."
He turned down a scholarship offer to pitch at North Carolina State -- what devoted Duke Blue Devils fan wants to pitch for the Wolfpack? -- and signed with the pitching-rich Braves. He was their Minor League Pitcher of the Year in 2006, and the following season, the Rangers insisted he be included in the franchise-changing trade for first baseman Mark Teixeira.
Harrison had nine wins as a rookie in 2008 and was off to a strong start in '09 before his season came to an end in June because of shoulder surgery. He was in the Rangers' rotation to start '10 but was shut down because of biceps tendinitis. He made it back as a reliever, but his command was erratic and he was left off the postseason roster.
But Harrison did not give up, and he had the right person to keep pushing him. The daughter of a Baptist minister from South Granville whose big dream was to marry a bullrider, Meghan is his most vocal supporter and doesn't care if the entire stadium knows it.
Harrison may be the most soft-spoken player on the Rangers, but his wife is often the loudest in the park when her husband is pitching. That is especially true in Spring Training, where the crowds are small and most people lay back to soak up the sun. Not Meghan Harrison.
"Even the umpires know who she is," Harrison said. "Bob Davison once asked me if she was coming to the game. I'll be pitching and everybody who is on the top step of the dugout will be looking back to see who the crazy lady is. She knows baseball now. She knows more than me. She'll be the first one to tell me what I did wrong. We've gone through a lot of ups and downs together, but most of it has been up. She's my biggest supporter."
It's not often that the wife is included in a scouting report. But the Rangers scout who followed Harrison in the Braves' system noted Meghan's enthusiasm when her husband pitched and wrote, "By the way, I don't know if this matters or not but his wife ..."
His wife simply has a devoted passion for all her family, and her husband has given her much to cheer about the past two seasons. Harrison came to Spring Training in 2011 more determined than ever. He was healthy, and he spent the offseason reading books by noted sports psychologist Harvey Dorfman on how to improve his mental focus. He had spent time soaking up valuable information from fellow left-hander Cliff Lee.
The result was a 14-win season in 2011, a spot in the postseason rotation and then his breakthrough All-Star season in '12. His reward came last month when the Rangers signed him to a five-year, $55 million contract.
|"You don't need 10 cars. You can't drive them all. We still clip coupons."|
|-- Matt Harrison|
"We're very grateful for it," Harrison said. "I can't tell you how blessed we are, it's amazing to get something like that, especially where I was a few years ago. But it doesn't change anything. I'm still going to keep working hard. The main thing is I know my family is taken care of and has some security. Now I can focus on getting better.
"If you look at our families, they didn't have nice things, so why should we? You still get nicer stuff -- a nice car that's more reliable, you spend a little more on a house. But you don't need 10 cars. You can't drive them all. We still clip coupons."
Said Meghan, "You live on what you need and help other people with the rest."
They now live in a house across the road from Meghan's family. David and Pam Harrison live 15 minutes away. A year ago, Matt and Meghan bought an additional 30 acres of land next to her family from a local church that needed the money to renovate its building. The people of the church told the Harrisons that the Lord told them that if the Harrisons met the asking price, Matt would have a great season.
"Next thing you know, I'm pitching in the All-Star Game," Harrison said.
Harrison celebrated his season and new contract by building a two-story playhouse for his daughter in the backyard. He could have paid somebody to build it for him, but why spend the money? This was something he wanted to do for his daughter, who is now 14 months old.
"He's great with Addie," Meghan said. "He's very patient with her. He does let her get away with more stuff than I do, but he's very patient and always calm. He's also good at changing diapers."
Apparently he's also good at reading to her "The Animals of Farmer Jones."
"I try to make the sounds of the animals like the horse and the pig," Harrison said. "She thinks that's funny. It makes her laugh like crazy."
It's all about who the Harrisons are, where they came from and what made them successful. They haven't forgotten their roots on Tobacco Road, and they are not about to leave now, not even after the kid who used to rise at dawn to help work the land has turned into one of the best pitchers in the American League.
T.R. Sullivan is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Postcards from Elysian Fields, and follow him on Twitter @Sullivan_Ranger. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.