Brian McCann squatted in the catcher’s position, full gear on, and pounded his glove. All he needed was a pitch.
It’s a scene that’s played out hundreds of times over the past eight years, but what made Monday in Cincinnati so unique was that McCann was alone in right field at the time, other than a grounds crew worker on a mower dragging the outfield warning track.
It was 34 minutes before first pitch against the Reds, when McCann would make his return from shoulder surgery.
“I told him to wait, I’d come with him,” Braves bullpen coach Eddie Perez said. “He said ‘Take your time. I just need to stretch; I need to throw.’ He was just crazy to go out there.”
Normally Perez goes out on the field with the catcher and starting pitcher to warm up before a game, but he quite wasn’t fast enough for McCann on Monday. McCann had been waiting almost seven months for the moment.
“It’s time to go,” McCann said when asked what he’d been thinking about, alone out on the field. “It’s time to help this team win ballgames and come in and do my part.”
For somebody who spent the better part of April in extended spring training in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. while the Braves were playing, and who was in the dugout last October while David Ross started last year’s wild card playoff game, it was a big moment. And for somebody who plans to spend the 2013 season living in the moment, even bigger.
“You’ve got to go out and you’ve got to play and help the team win in the moment,” McCann said. “I’m not worried about the future. I think when you get ahead of yourself is when you get in trouble.”
McCann is in the option year of his contract, making $12 million. He figures to command well more than that on the free agent market, especially from an American League team that could play him 150 games by using him as both a catcher and designated hitter.
The Braves might not be prepared to give McCann that kind of competitive long-term commitment, especially given the emergence of Evan Gattis and prospect Christian Bethancourt, who has showed at least defensively he could be ready to step in.
McCann who graduated from Duluth High, drafted by the Braves in the second round in 2002, and made six All-Star teams and won five Silver Sluggers for his hometown team, has never faced this kind of uncertainty.
“I love it here,” McCann said, and left it at that for now. “Whatever happens, I’m worried about playing baseball….I’m worried about helping this team win. I’m worried about getting my shoulder stronger every day. And I’m in a good place. I’m very happy with where I’m at right now.”
That his shoulder feels good has a lot to do with the hop in his step these past few days.
McCann said his shoulder started bothering him last June. He continued to play through it in hopes that he could still contribute for the team. He hit 20 home runs for the fifth straight season but batted a career-low .230.
There were times last season he was in obvious pain at the plate. Sometimes his shoulder would partially dislocate at the top of his follow-through. After the season a dye-contrast MRI revealed a tear in his labrum was more extensive than what an MRI in August had first indicated.
For the first time in his seven full major league seasons, McCann missed the All-Star game last July. That was also around the time his son Colt was born.
“My son obviously is by far the greatest thing that I’ve ever experienced in my life,” McCann said. “It kind of puts everything in perspective. You see him come home smiling at you, that’s what living is about for me.”
Chipper Jones had predicted last year fatherhood would do for McCann what it had for him earlier in his career – give him new perspective. He wouldn’t be living and dying over baseball anymore.
“Growing up, baseball is everything, then you become a father,” McCann said. “When you become a dad, you have something that’s bigger than what you’ve done your whole life. You’re going to put 100 percent of what you can into doing your job, but back in the day you’d take your bad days home with you. Now when you get home, it’s about the kid and the wife and the family. That’s what brings joy to me.”
His wife Ashley is expecting their first daughter now too.
Being back around his teammates is what has made McCann happiest at work this week. You can see it in his demeanor. So can Perez. And so can his father Howie McCann, who watched his first two games back in Cincinnati from the front row behind the visitors’ dugout.
“He’s in a good place,” Howie McCann said.