In his first season in professional baseball, catcher KJ Harrison is quickly making his mark with the Helena Brewers. He is also bringing an enthusiasm to the clubhouse that reminds people everywhere that baseball is truly a kid’s game, even when you’re 20.
Introducing KJ Harrison
Looking into the Helena Brewers dugout, one player seems to be a bit out of place. He is the right age and surely has a great deal of talent, but in a sport where failure is by far more common than success, his smile and happy demeaner seem wholly out of place.
Most seem stressed and angered by their previous at-bat or pitch they had thrown, but not KJ Harrison. It is clear that he is loving coming to the ballpark every day, not only cherishing his opportunity to play professional baseball but also his chance to be a part of the history of America’s Pastime. It is clear that he is having a whole lot of fun, just as the game was meant to be played.
A Love Affair Born
When you have a father who played professional baseball, it is easy to see that a pathway in the sport seems like destiny. However, KJ Harrison (Kainoa John) chose baseball because he simply loved the sport.
His father, Kenny, was drafted by the Minnesota Twins organization in 1993 and spent a season playing for the Pittsburgh Pirates High-A Lynchburg team. Baseball was clearly the family game, but his mom (Kaleka) and dad did not push him to play the game at all. They wanted their son to enjoy baseball, but they wanted his passion for the game to be something that was from his own heart.
“I just think I kind of fell in love with baseball myself. My dad being a baseball player, I grew into baseball family but it was my choice. At the end of the day it was me who really loved the game. My dad set the path for me and guided me through it. He’s the one who said to me that if you want to play baseball it’s your decision. It’s always something that I’ve loved ever since I was young, so it was something I wanted to do and decided to do.”
It did not take long for KJ to start to enjoy the game. While he loved playing, there was a lot more that he appreciated about the game and this kept him wanting to play more each day.
“The whole aspect of the game. How it’s such a big team oriented game. Just being around great teammates, great players, and it just has such a rich history. I have always been a baseball rat. I loved watching, loved playing it, and I just think that with its history, it is just a really special game. I just think part of being competitive and just playing baseball is something that I love.”
Kainoa became a star at Panahou High School, where he was a four-year varsity letter recipient playing for his dad. During his senior season, KJ hit .534 with 3-homers and 28-RBI. That earned him All-League as well as All-State honors. He was also an honorable mention in both those categories in his sophomore and junior campaigns.
His play was already earning him a lot of attention as, coming out of high school, he was selected by the Cleveland Indians in the 25th round of the 2014 MLB draft. However, Harrison had other visions for his future pathway.
“I just felt like I wasn’t ready from a maturity standpoint. I wanted to go to college, start my degree, start getting my education, just mature as a baseball player and as a person, learning how to live on my own, learning how to manage things on my own. Get the college education. It just worked out the best for me and it was a great decision for me individually as a person and as a player to prepare myself for where I am today.”
Making the Beaver State His Next Destination
Looking to mature as both a ballplayer and a man, KJ Harrison opted to attend the Oregon State University, entering as a business and marketing major. He had several options but the Beavers won him over with the way the coaching staff and the university viewed their students.
“I think the biggest thing for me was the coaching staff and what they preached. I’ve always grown in a family where your family members are important. Oregon State really preached that, they really preached playing with your teammates, playing for each other, and battling and competing for one another. That’s something I was raised in. Oregon State has a great baseball history. I fell in love with the coaches, fell in love with the baseball stadium, fell in love with the place. It was a very special place. They welcomed me with open arms and to have such rich history and to be able to play in that program was unbelievable.”
While KJ may have fallen in love with the school, his coaches loved the way he performed on the diamond. In his freshman season, he appeared in all 58-games for the Beavers, hitting .309 and he lead the team with 10-homers and 60-RBI. He was not only named the Pac-12 Freshman of the Year, but also earned All-Pac-12 First-Team honors.
In his sophomore season, Harrison saw his average drop to .265, but he still put up huge power numbers, hitting 10-homers and driving in 47 in 54-games. He was named to the All-Pac-12 First-Team again, and showed that he was just as much of a star in the classroom as well, earning Pac-12 All-Academic team honorable mention honors.
In his junior season, KJ earned his third straight honors as All-Pac-12 First-Team, hitting .313 with 9-homers and 47-RBI. He earned All-Academic Honorable Mention honors again as well and was named to the Corvallis Regional All-Tournament Team.
KJ Harrison…Go East Young Man
KJ Harrison decided to go to Oregon State to mature, and he clearly proved that he was ready for the next level. He entered the 2017 MLB amateur draft and was selected in the third round by the Milwaukee Brewers. His dream was about to become a reality.
“It is truly a dream come true. I’m very thankful and blessed for the Brewers to give me the opportunity to continue my career and play professionally. I was so excited once I got the call. I was shocked, it was unbelievable. It’s an unbelievable feeling to be a part of. It’s something that you dream about and to see it happen was truly awesome.”
Kainoa signed in July, and was sent to Helena where he appeared in his first game on July 10. His career got off to a fast start, as KJ opened up the season with hits in his first nine-games. He was 2-5 in both of his first two games, and had a three-hit game on July 15, his fourth game as a pro.
Nine-games into his pro career he was hitting .371 with 4-runs and 4-RBI. However, he would face the first challenge of his career when he endured a little slump, going hitless in his next three games. It was a time that he could have worried a little, but the Helena catcher understands that there are going to be struggles at times.
“I have played baseball for a long time now and so I know the ups and downs and I know how it is. You just have to keep a positive attitude and a positive mental mindset. When you think things are bad, it’s really not that bad in reality. You’re still playing baseball, you’re still healthy, you’re still living a great life. I just try to think positively and I don’t take any day for granted.”
Since then, KJ has hits in his last five-games. That includes multi-hit games in his last four contests and during the streak he is 10-20 with 6-runs scored and 7-runs driven in. That has seen him raise his average to .359 and his on-base percentage to .481. He also hit the first two home runs of his professional career during the five-game hitting streak.
He’s Got Spirit, Yes He Do
While KJ Harrison is off to a hot start, the team as a whole is struggling. They have won just three of their last 12-games and the pitching staff has struggled, posting an ERA of 6.04. It would be easy for the team, and especially the pitching staff to get down on themselves, but the Brewers catcher understands that his role goes beyond what he does at the plate.
“You’re pitchers need to trust you sometimes they can lose their confidence. You have to know what they’re comfortable with and know what kind of person they are when you talk to them. If you make a mound visit you need to know if he’s the kind of pitcher that you need to fire him up, or he’s the kind of pitcher that you need to calm them down. All of that comes into play in knowing their personality, because the catcher-pitcher relationship is really important.”
He also understands that it is easy for his staff to get down on themselves and so reminding them that this is supposed to be fun may be the perfect prescription.
“You just got to try to keep a positive mindset. There’s nothing you can do about it, and baseball is one of those games where you can do everything and it doesn’t reward you. You just got to really get out there and just tell the pitcher to keep working. Remind them to have fun out there and keep believing in themselves.”
Standard Bearer of the Family Tradition
While having a great deal of success early on, KJ Harrison is not taking credit for his success. He understands that hard work is necessary to have this kind of success, but gives all the credit for his success to two people.
“My parents work so hard to support my family. They’ve given my brothers and I the opportunities that we’re getting. I owe it all to them. They inspire me to work hard every day and they have inspired me to do my best every day and not take one day for granted.”
His success also entails a phone call each night to get coaching from 3,000 miles away.
“I call my dad every night after the games to just kind of debrief everything. He’s a huge mentor and a huge person ini my life. I love him and I’m so thankful that he’s helped me through the process. He really knows what he’s talking about and I owe all my success to him.”
KJ Harrison is just 17-games into his professional career and the smile he wore on day one is still as prevalent as ever. Many will look at it and say he is just 20-years-old and there will be a time where he will become hardened, grizzled, and angry like everyone else is the game. He is simply not old enough to know any better right now. However, don’t count on that anytime soon. The Brewers catcher approaches each at-bat like it is Christmas morning and he knows there is a bicycle waiting under the tree. Good to know someone didn’t forget that baseball is supposed to be enjoyed like a kid.
By Robert Pannier
Member of the IBWAA