Last week, after his Braves were eliminated from the playoffs in a stunning Game Five rout, catcher Brian McCann told assembled reporters in the clubhouse that he was retiring. In his final game, McCann was right where we usually saw him: crouching behind the plate in the tools of ignorance, and playing for his hometown team.
Major League Baseball will miss McCann. He was a rugged competitor and a guardian of baseball’s unwritten code. Just ask Carlos Gomez. But McCann’s career goes far beyond that one instance of standing up for what’s right. McCann hit 288 home runs and was a seven-time All-Star, all of those selections coming with the Braves. He’s one of the thirty best catchers to ever wear a chest protector.
In June of 2011, McCann hit one of those 288 homers in a game that seemed fairly typical. But actually it was a tipping point in the history of the Braves, a franchise that traces its history back to the days when Ulysses S. Grant was in the White House. When The West was still wild and mail was delivered on horseback. You see, McCann hit a game-winning homer that tipped the scales in favor of the Braves, making them winners for all-time. It was an appropriate and eerie event that evened an old baseball score. Even if no one knew it at the time.
McCann’s parents lived in Atlanta, his father a high school baseball coach, his mother working in a hospital in nearby Athens. That’s where Brian was born in 1984, back when Superstation WTBS was beaming the Braves into homes all over the country. McCann wasn’t born with a catcher’s mask on, but he could have been. He was made to play the position.
In the 1990s, McCann rooted for the Braves like every other kid in Georgia. He loved Chipper Jones and Greg Maddux and John Smoltz, the core players on a team that won the division title every year for almost 15 years. At Duluth HIgh School, McCann was a power-hitting catcher, earning a top-25 ranking among prospects in America. The Braves drafted him in the second round of the 2002 amateur draft. Dream come true.
A little background on the Braves: they hadn’t always been a winning team. Once upon a time, in ancient baseball history, they had been a laughingstock. They were so bad in the 1930s that they frequently struggled to make payroll. They hired a fat Babe Ruth to be a gate attraction. Later, they stunk so badly in Atlanta that yachstman turned owner Ted Turner installed himself as manager. The Braves were so bad that they left Boston in 1953, relocating to Miwaukee, the smallest market in the game. They had success there, but 13 years later they loaded up their truck and moved to Atlanta. This was while they had Henry Aaron, the greatest power hitter since Ruth. But for more than a decade, the move to Atlanta looked like a disaster as the team continually lost.
Turner got himself out of the way in the 1980s and let the baseball folks make the decisions. The team started to win, and by the early 2000s, the Braves were a model franchise, a perennial winner. But the road to respectability was still ahead of them, at least for the record books.
When McCann made his major league debut in 2005, the Braves were 23 games under .500 as a franchise. It was an amazing reversal. In 1990, after their fourth straight 90+ loss season, the franchise was 523 games under the .500 mark. In 1991 they went from worst to first and started their quick climb up Win/Loss Mountain. At the summit was the magical .500 mark.
After a few years of missing the playoffs, in 2010 the Braves won 91 games and earned a wild card spot. McCann, the big beefy kid from their own backyard, hit 21 homers for Atlanta that season. The team crawled to within nine wins of the .500 mark.
When was the last time the Braves had been a winning franchise? It was way back in 1923 when they were still playing in Boston. Back then the Braves were “the other team” in Beantown, an afterthought. They were a team where old ballplayers went to hang on. On June 4, 1923, when they were defeated 9-7 by the Phillies at the Baker Bowl in Philly, the Braves slipped under the .500 mark all-time. All the wins and success of the 1890s, when the “Beaneaters” were the best team in professional baseball, all of that was buried under the pile of losses the Braves suffered in the first two decades of the twentieth century. From 1900 to 1920, the team had four winning seasons. Ouch.
But on June 11, 2011, the Braves were in Houston to face the Astros. Most people didn’t know it (a check of the game notes for that series shows no mention of the historical Braves win/loss record), but the Braves were on the precipice of shrugging off the loser label. Not since Warren Harding was president had the franchise had a all-time mark over the even-steven line. Back then, it wasn’t legal to drink a damn beer.
The first man to homer in that game for the Braves was Eric Hinske, a man born only a few miles from Milwaukee, the former home of the franchise. Had to be karma, yes? But the Astros used four pitchers to keep the game close and the two teams went into extra innings.
I think it’s safe to say that no one in Minute Maid Park on June 11, 2011, watching the game between the Braves and Astros on a Saturday evening, was aware that the Braves record, going back to 1876, was 9,981 up and 9,982 down. No one, not one person, and certainly not Brian McCann, who caught all nine innings before coming to the plate for the tenth.
The Braves got a pair of runners on and McCann faced Brandon Lyon. He worked the count to 2-1, when Lyon tried to sneak a pitch past him on the inside portion of the plate. McCann lofted it into the right field seats for a three-run homer. Later that inning, Hinske drove in another run. McCann and Hinske, the Atlanta kid and the Wisconsin kid, had righted 88 years of wrong.
The Braves won 6-3 and evened their franchise ledger. Amazingly, in about twenty years, they had made up more than 500 games on their record. They won the next night too, and a few days later embarked on a 14-3 run that pushed them somewhat comfortably above the .500 mark. They eventually built a +63 mark, fell back again, and returned to over .500 last season. At the end of McCann’s career the Braves find themselves 38 games over .500 all-time. Winners, just like Brian McCann.