McCann, family relish in catcher's ascent

McCann, family relish in catcher's ascent

McCann, family relish in catcher's ascent
PHILADELPHIA -- As they relaxed in their first-class seats and prepared for a cross-country flight back to Atlanta, Howie and Sherry McCann were still energized by the euphoric sensation created less than 24 hours earlier, when they watched as their son stood on the grass at Angel Stadium and was proudly recognized as the All-Star Game MVP.

At that moment, life seemingly couldn't get much better for the McCanns. But somewhere between Atlanta and Anaheim, their grand All-Star experience was enriched by Hank Aaron, who was seated two rows back on the same flight.

As Aaron moved toward the bathroom, he folded the sports page that featured a bright picture of Brian McCann on the cover and dropped it in Howie's lap while simply saying "Congratulations."

"That's one of those 'you've got to be kidding me' moments," Howie said earlier this week as he excitedly detailed the pride felt in the seventh-inning of last year's All-Star Game, when his son ripped the three-run double that gave the National League a 3-1 victory.

Aaron's gesture simply added to the euphoria felt by the McCanns, who have become experts of the All-Star Game experience, as their son Brian has earned selections in each of his first six full Major League seasons. There was an overwhelming sense of joy when he made his 2006 Midsummer Classic debut in Pittsburgh, and a historic sensation when he donned the NL uniform again at old Yankee Stadium in 2008.

But this year will prove different than any of the previous five because, in a sense, it will confirm that the baseball world has come to recognize McCann as one of the game's elite All-Stars. When the NL takes the field to begin Tuesday night's All-Star Game in Phoenix, he will be assuming the honor he gained by being elected to serve as the starting catcher for the first time.

"It's cool to have 3.5 million people vote for you," said McCann, who previous five selections came via players' votes. "It's a cool way to go to the All-Star Game. Everybody wants to start the game and this is my chance to do that."

McCann will be standing in rather unique company this year. American League starting shortstop Derek Jeter will be the only other player present who has been selected to participate in each of the past six All-Star Games, though the Yankees shortstop will not play due to concerns over a right calf injury that had recently sidelined him for three weeks.

At 26 years old and just nine years removed from his successful high school career at suburban Atlanta's Duluth High School, McCann has established himself as a true veteran on the All-Star scene.

Alex Rodriguez, Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Michael Young, Roy Halladay and Chipper Jones will be the only players at this year's game who have tallied more All-Star selections. Of that group, Jeter, Rodriguez and Rivera will not play due to health concerns, and Jones will have to sit out the game after a trip to the disabled list Saturday with a torn meniscus in his right knee.

"I think people are just now tapping into how special he really is from a national-recognition standpoint," Braves right-hander Tim Hudson said. "I think the national media is just starting to figure out he is the premiere catcher in the league. He's not playing second fiddle to anybody -- [Joe] Mauer, Russell Martin or whoever else they want to put in there."

Dating back to 2006 -- his first full season at the Major League level -- McCann leads all Major League catchers in homers (121), doubles (189) and RBIs (491). But to simply say he leads in these categories is like saying Randy Johnson was taller than Greg Maddux.

McCann has compiled 37 more homers, 37 more doubles and 126 more RBIs than any other player while serving as a catcher during this six-season span. This season, he leads all Major League catchers in batting average, homers, RBIs, on-base percentage and slugging percentage.

"When you've been around the game as long as I have, you can tell some guys have the right approach, the right mentality, the right work ethic and heart," Jones said. "Some of those things you can't teach. You've just got to have them, and Mac has them. There's no questioning why he has gotten what he has as a ballplayer."

Like when they were together with the NL squad in 2008, Jones was thrilled about the opportunity to share this year's All-Star Game selection with McCann, a player that seemingly drew immediate respect from the Braves' veteran third baseman.

McCann's father helped his son develop tremendous hitting skills. But the young catcher's willingness and eagerness to learn allowed him to gain from the tips provided by the 39-year-old Jones, who admits he will be filled with pride when he sees his pupil serve as the NL's starting catcher Tuesday night.

"It's kind of that proud papa thing," Jones said. "We're so close and we've talked so much over the years. To see him go out and apply that on the field gives me a sense of accomplishment and the feeling that I've done my job as a mentor."

With all due respect to Jones, the proudest papa will be the one who spent a little more than a month sleeping on the floor of an office above a hitting facility during the winter of 1996.

After he was relieved of his duties as Marshall University's head coach, Howie McCann landed a job as an instructor at a baseball facility in Duluth, Ga. But instead of immediately moving the entire family, he allowed his oldest son Brad to take advantage of the opportunity he had earned by making the eighth-grade basketball team as a seventh-grader in Huntington, W.Va.

While his mother remained with Brad, Brian chose to go south with his father, who did not see the need to pay for two different residences at the same time. So he and his youngest son chose to sleep in Al Goetz's office at The Ballpark -- the baseball instructional facility that was serving as his place of employment and his temporary home.

Six years later, Goetz was the scout who signed McCann after the Braves drafted him in the second round of the 2002 First-Year Player Draft.

"I could have stayed up in the house in Huntington, but I wanted to come down and play baseball and get started," Brian said. "I knew the situation going in. My dad was already doing it. I knew I was going to do my homework in the weight room and sleep in the office. But I got to hit every night."

After going to school with the other sixth graders, McCann would return his dad's office with the understanding that he needed to complete his homework before he would be allowed to hit in the one of the facility's many batting cages. When it was time to sleep, Howie would place a mattress on the ground, turn on the television and get ready to repeat the schedule again the following day.

"We had it going on there," Howie said with a laugh. "We had a mattress, television and if he got his homework done, he could hit. You could say he was truly a gym rat."

Nine years after sleeping on the floor of an office, McCann was one of the most influential members of the Baby Braves -- the group of 18 rookies that the Braves utilized on the way to winning their 14th consecutive division title in 2005.

During the second inning of Game 2 of the 2005 Division Series, McCann strolled to the plate to make his first career appearance against Roger Clemens. After gaining a 2-0 count, he energized his hometown with a three-run homer that proved decisive for the Braves and also gave the 21-year-old catcher motivation to continue attempting to take his game to another level.

"I had never had a feeling like that," McCann said. "It came so unexpected. I was 21 years old and all my buddies were down the road at [the University of Georgia] and Georgia Tech. They were juniors in college and I was facing one of the best pitchers to ever toe the rubber."

"I think making the playoffs that year helped. It was something different than anything I had ever experienced. I always thought if I could take that same mindset into a 162-game scheduled, I would be successful."

As McCann progresses through the sixth season of his career, it's obvious that he was blessed with athletic skills that have helped him become one of the game's top catchers. But those around him also understand he has been blessed with a heart that drives him to prove successful on a daily basis.

"Some people are OK with being average," Hudson said. "He's not."

When the Twins gave Joe Mauer an eight-year, $184 million contract last year, he might have been widely regarded as the game's top catcher. While this perception has since been altered, many members of the Braves' organization have held true to their belief that McCann is the game's top catcher.

"Would you give Brian McCann Joe Mauer-money?" Braves backup catcher David Ross said. "I'd do it tomorrow. But I don't know if the outside perception says that. You're talking about a big-time player who is great in the community, great in the clubhouse and a team leader. He's just the total package. That's the appreciation I don't think everybody gets."

Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.