Josh Harrison has pretty strong ties with Lexington and UK.
Wait, before you get the wrong idea, the friendly and personable Pittsburgh Pirates second baseman didn’t play for the Wildcats. But his family members did.
His cousins from Lexington — John T. Shelby and JaVon Shelby — were baseball standouts at UK. Both were All-SEC performers and moved on to professional ranks. John was drafted by the Chicago White Sox and played six years in the White Sox and Tampa Bay Rays organizations. JaVon, who was selected in the fifth round by Oakland in this year’s MLB Draft, is now playing minor league baseball.
Also uncle John “T-Bone” Shelby played 11 years in MLB, hitting 70 home runs and stealing 98 bases along with two World Series championships. He is currently a hitting coach for the Colorado Rockies’ Class 3A Albuquerque Isotopes after many years as a coach with the Dodgers, Pirates, Orioles and Brewers.
And don’t forget Josh’s older brother, Vince Harrison Jr., who played football and baseball at Kentucky. Vince, a third baseman, later was drafted by the Tampa Bay Devil Rays (now Rays) in the 13th round of the 2001 MLB Draft, the only Wildcat player selected in the draft that year. (By the way, his UK teammates who eventually reached the major leagues included Joe Blanton, Andy Green and Brandon Webb. Also, Green is now the manager for the San Diego Padres.)
Vince played nine years in the minor leagues and served as a player-coach in the Pirates farm system.
While Josh was seven younger than Vince, he remembers many trips to Lexington with his parents to watch Vince play for UK. He also has another brother, Shaun, who is older, too.
“Yeah, I remember like it was yesterday,” smiled Josh in a recent interview before a Pirates-Giants game at PNC Park in Pittsburgh. “We used to go to home football games and even some of the baseball games. I was the bat boy a couple of times so I’m familiar with (UK) being down on campus and going to the games.”
What is Josh’s favorite UK memory or game involving Vince, who once caught a 78-yard TD pass against Vanderbilt in Kentucky’s 55-17 victory at Commonwealth Stadium?
“I wasn’t at the game but I remember watching the game (on television in 1998) and he caught his first pass, which was actually a touchdown,” said the Pirates standout who has a .274 batting average going into this week’s All-Star break. “I remember it. It was like a slant across the middle and it was a 78-yarder. I think that was his first collegiate catch. I will always remember it.”
Harrison, a wide receiver, and his 1998 Wildcats participated in UK’s first New Year’s Day Bowl in 47 years. Kentucky, led by star quarterback Tim Couch, faced Joe Paterno’s Penn State in a 26-14 loss in the Outback Bowl in Tampa.
And he got to watch them play against the Nittany Lions in person.
“Yeah, I can’t remember if this was my brother’s freshman or sophomore year but I remember they played Penn State,” said Josh. “(LaVar) Arrington was at the middle linebacker (for Penn State). We — my family, my dad, my mom and brother — all rode down and went to the game.”
Years later, Josh Harrison, a 5-8, 195-pounder who grew up in Cincinnati, became an exciting baseball star in high school and collegiate ranks. He earned All-American honors at the University of Cincinnati and set many school records before being drafted by the Chicago Cubs in the sixth round in 2008.
Did Harrison cheer for the hometown Reds when he was a youngster? Not really, he said.
“When I was growing up, I didn’t have a favorite team,” recalled Harrison, who turned 29 in early July. “I just like the game of baseball and when I got to a certain age my uncle (John Shelby) was coaching in the big leagues so I was pulling for whoever he was with at the time and it was the Dodgers at the time.”
Harrison also didn’t really have one favorite player, either.
“Barry Larkin is a local (player) from Cincinnati, getting a chance to watch him. (He) was one of my favorite guys to watch growing up,” he said. “I also liked seeing the highlights of Ozzie Smith (of the St. Louis Cardinals). I just like the game of baseball, and just watching and seeing guys do well.”
Harrison was asked about Cincinnati’s Great American Ball Park if that’s his favorite place to play when the Pirates travel on the road.
“In the sense somewhat but not so much,” said Harrison, who was a 2014 National League All-Star Game selection and finished that season with a batting average of .315, the second best in the league. “Don’t get me wrong. I like going back home sleeping in my own bed, seeing my family but sometimes it can get a bit hectic with everyone around but I don’t mind.
“And one of my favorite places, though, I like going to (Washington) D.C. I like going to New York. That will forever hold a special place in my heart. New York is where I made my debut so when I go back there; I always reflect and just say this is where it all started for me.”
The fans, by the way, love his hustle and passion for the game. The 5-9 Harrison is one of MLB’s hardest-working players around. In the past, folks have told him he was too small to play, but he said that actually didn’t bother him.
“There is no motivation for me to say (about) my size or this or that,” Harrison said. “I just come to the field every day and I enjoy playing this game of baseball. I go out and I have fun. To some people, it’s me playing hard, (but) it’s all fun for me.”
His favorite memory as a MLB player so far?
“Just in my short amount of time that I have played, I got a lot of good memories,” said Harrison, who is signed through 2018 with team option in 2019 and 2020. “Every day can bring something different but one of my favorites would probably be, I think, was my first career walk-off hit on Mother’s Day 2012 and my mom was there.
“My grandma was there, and I think my aunt, my cousin all who happened to be mothers. My
wife wasn’t pregnant at the time, but I think she was there but it was cool for me to get my first walk-off hit (in the 12th inning against the Houston Astros) on Mother’s Day.”
With Harrison being one of the most reliable and productive players in MLB, it wouldn’t be surprising to see him to get several more memorable hits down the road like he did on that Mother’s Day.
And his relatives in Kentucky and the greater Cincinnati area will be pulling for him really hard this summer as the resurging Pirates are aiming for another playoff berth after a struggling start.
Jamie H. Vaught, a longtime columnist in Kentucky, is the author of four books about UK basketball. He is the editor of KySportsStyle.com online magazine and a professor at Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College in Middlesboro. You can follow him on Twitter @KySportsStyle or reach him via e-mail at KySportsStyle@gmail.com.