At the same time, McCann was producing a season that, had it continued, would have put him on a par with Chipper Jones of 1999 -- Jones remains the Braves' most recent MVP -- or Johnny Bench. McCann ranked ninth in the league in slugging with a .514 percentage, and eighth in batting with a .310 average. His on-base percentage was .381, He had hit 15 home runs, driven in 50 runs and scored 36. And he was the Braves' regular catcher, which in itself put him on a higher level than of the competition.
"He was doing the things an MVP does. And he was catching," Braves coach Terry Pendleton said earlier this month. And Pendleton should have known. He was the NL MVP in 1991, the first year of the Braves' 14-season dynasty. Pendleton recalled a game against the Astros last May when McCann hit a pinch-hit home run with two outs in the ninth inning to tie the score. Two innings later, McCann's two-run home run provided the winning margin. "That game had to put him in the MVP discussion," Pendleton said.
|A catcher has won the MVP Award 15 times. Yogi Berra and Roy Campanella won the award three times each in the 50's. Johnny Bench won the second of his two MVPs 39 years ago. No NL catcher has won it since. |
McCann's run-scoring single in the 10th had defeated the Nationals five days earlier. When the All-Star break came, he was batting .333 with 21 RBIs and five home runs in 99 at-bats after the sixth inning. His name was prominent in every MVP conversation. "I was going pretty good at the time, I guess," McCann said 10 days ago. "I wasn't doing anything different. But my confidence was high. I wanted the big at-bats. And every time I came through, it seemed a little easier the next time."
Jones had won his Most Valuable Player Award by producing in that manner for six months. The more critical the moment, the grander his response. He puts aside his postseason moments and identifies a series in Atlanta against the Mets the third week of September in 1999 as his most rewarding. It unquestionably was the one most responsible for his MVP Award.
"I had four hits in three games, but they came at the right time," he says 13 years later. And they fueled a sweep that left the second-place Mets four games behind the Braves. Jones hit two bases-empty home runs in a 2-1 victory in the first game, a two-run home run in the first inning of the second game -- a 5-2 victory -- and a three-run home run in the fifth inning of what became a 6-3 Braves victory in the third game. "I'm still very proud of that series," Jones says.
"That's the way Brian was hitting the whole first half," Jones said in the Braves' clubhouse in Orlando. "You could see his confidence growing, and you could see how the rest of us responded to what he was doing. He was making his move on the award."
McCann said the award wasn't in his thoughts when he caught the first four innings of the All-Star Game. "I was catching [Roy] Halladay and [Cliff] Lee," he said. "Besides, you don't think about awards until other people start bringing it up. And that doesn't happen till August."
By mid-August, McCann had become less prominent in MVP discussions. By the end of the month, he had been displaced by Braun and Matt Kemp thanks to a strained left oblique suffered two weeks after the All-Star break. He left the Braves' 19-inning victory over Pittsburgh in the 10th inning and didn't return until Aug. 14. His team won 11 of 17 games during his absence, but when he returned, he no longer was the player he had been for 103 games.
"I'm not making excuses," McCann says. But a distinction exists between excuses and reasons. An absence extending beyond two weeks is likely to undermine any player in this game. It certainly did hit McCann hard. And that is a reason. His performance following his return wasn't remotely comparable to what it had been before the injury. He batted .180 in his final 37 games, hitting six home runs and driving in 16 runs in 133 at-bats.
Those numbers, and the distress and disappointment they caused are what prompted McCann to fall on his sword last week. "I truly felt if I played up to my standards, the Cardinals don't get in the postseason." Perhaps that is true -- the Cardinals only won one more game than did Atlanta.
"I couldn't get back to where I was," McCann says. "I know I had one big game [two home runs and four RBIs against the Cubs on Aug. 25], but not much else. I didn't feel guilty. But I did feel...I guess responsible. I wasn't trying to win the MVP. I'd love to. It would be great if I did. But I wasn't trying to win it. But I think you can say, as it turned out, if I had won it, if I played well enough to win it, we probably would have been in the postseason."