A torch has been passed. It wasn’t supposed to happen quite so soon, but a grab-and-whirl-and-throw one dark night in Houston revved the timetable. We’re seeing the team that for more than a decade has belonged to Larry Wayne Jones Jr. being shouldered by Brian Michael McCann.
On Sunday he hit the walk-off homer against Florida. (OK, actually a stop-at-second-and-wait-a-bit walk-off. Still counted.) On Monday he hoisted another home run, this one a no-doubter, and also dropped an actual bunt single against the Mets. Since the All-Star break, McCann is hitting .311 with 10 homers and 33 RBI’s, as opposed to .267 with 10 and 37 before it. And his team has needed every blessed hit.
The guy who has carried the Braves for more than a decade was lost to a torn knee ligament. The guy who carried them through May and into June, the stopgap Troy Glaus, has been dispatched to Class AAA. Jason Heyward is an undeniable presence — he had four hits and four RBI’s Monday night — but he’s also a rookie. With so much in flux this wild season, the Braves needed someone of both seasoning and gravitas to light the way. On cue, B-Mac has become the beacon.
It just isn’t that he’s the most accomplished Brave still standing; it’s that McCann has grown into his role in a way we weren’t always certain he would. He was considered the lesser of the famous Gwinnett duo when he arrived in 2005, the famous Jeff Francoeur being the shining light and Sports Illustrated star, and the younger McCann seemed disinclined to offer more than boilerplate responses to the media. Put simply, he didn’t act as if he wanted to be The Man.
But now he is, and he’s wearing it well. He’s more forthcoming, more of a spokesperson. Clearly he has learned from being around Chipper, whose locker sits just across the doorway at the far end of the clubhouse, that a player of such portfolio bears certain responsibilities off the field as well. Even before Chipper was lost, McCann had become the junior spokesman, and now he’s the senior man. Indeed, he’s the last healthy everyday Brave (meaning a non-pitcher) of uninterrupted tenure to have played when last this club graced the postseason.
“You’ve got to know your place,” said McCann, speaking after Monday’s walkaway victory. “When I first came up, mine was to show up on the field and keep my mouth shut and play the game … When you’re young, you’re supposed to be seen but keep quiet.”
And now? “As you get older, you feel a little more sure of yourself. And you can be a little more yourself with [the media].”
Evidence to the contrary, McCann isn’t ready to pronounce himself a leader. (He’s still just 26, we must note.) “We’ve got so many great players in here,” he said. “Derrek Lee has won a World Series. Tim Hudson has been a great pitcher. I’m still learning this game from them. I look up to those guys.”
That said, there’s no active Brave who commands more respect among his mates. McCann plays the toughest position, gets some of the biggest hits and stands now as the constant in a lineup that has undergone monthly alterations. Again, he doesn’t see it that way: “We’ve got Martin Prado and Jason Heyward and Omar Infante, who could win a batting title.”
The theme of this happy season has been that the Braves are a team of No Stars. But Brian McCann is a star. If these Braves play their way into the World Series, it’s McCann — whose bases-loaded double made the National League a winner and him the All-Star Game’s MVP — who ensured that it will commence at Turner Field. It’s McCann who stands as the finest catcher in his league, McCann who ranks with Minnesota’s Joe Mauer as the best in the business.
Someday this will be Jason Heyward’s team, perhaps in joint ownership with Freddie Freeman, but for now it belongs to the big man with the blond beard, the man who stepped up when the great Chipper Jones went down. It belongs to Brian McCann.