He carried the team at the end of last season, and he’s carrying it again. He’s at worst — at worst – the second-best player at the sport’s most demanding position, and he’s about to play in his sixth consecutive All-Star Game. And yet somehow Brian McCann remains …
“Around here he’s not,” said pitcher Tommy Hanson, meaning within the Braves’ clubhouse. But outside it?
“I don’t think he gets the credit he deserves,” Hanson said. “And it’s not only his hitting — it’s his catching, too. It’s the way he works with us. He takes a lot of pride in trying to get us through the game.”
Said David Ross, McCann’s understudy: “He gets All-Star votes, but I don’t think he has the reputation [nationally]. He’s kind of seen as a complementary piece.”
He’s more than that. He’s the centerpiece. He’s at worst — at worst — the second-best everyday Brave of the past two decades, and he has become the leader of a team that has the potential to win the World Series.
Said manager Fredi Gonzalez: “If we were in New York or Chicago, he’d be on every billboard. But I think people who are into baseball know how good he is.”
How good is he? McCann leads the Braves in batting (.305), home runs (13) and RBIs (43). His on-base percentage is .380, tops among regulars. He went 2-for-4 with a two-run homer Wednesday as the Braves swept Toronto on their way out of town.
There are great players who aren’t necessarily good teammates. (Barry Bonds comes to mind.) Brian McCann is a great player who’s an even better teammate. Ask Chipper Jones, the finest everyday Brave of the past 20 years, to name the best Brave he has played alongside, and the answer comes without hesitation.
“He’s my favorite,” said Jones, meaning McCann.
But then … a moment’s pause. “He’s either that or second to [former catcher and current bullpen coach] Eddie Perez.”
Then, smiling, Jones said: “Obviously McCann’s a better player than Eddie was.”
A slew of distinguished figures have come through this clubhouse, some of them bound for Cooperstown. Not one has been more respected than the blond catcher from Duluth. McCann didn’t arrive in the big leagues trailing a coattail of hype, but he got here in the summer of 2005 and has made his own quiet noise ever since.
The closer you watch him, the better he gets. He could always hit, but he has gotten more selective over time. He has become a deft handler of pitchers. And where once McCann seemed content to let Chipper handle the big moments, he now seems to revel in them.
Jones: “He’s on the cusp of doing some things offensively that catchers rarely do.”
Ross: “To me, there are two really good catchers in baseball — Joe Mauer [of Minnesota] and Mac. Buster Posey [of San Francisco] has come on the scene and he’s a good player, but he’ll have to have a few more good years to be in that class. Yadier Molina [of St. Louis] is definitely a great catcher, but he can’t hit [like Mauer and McCann].”
Hanson: “He cares about his teammates. He’s fun to be around. He’s got the whole package.”
Jones: “He’s a great person. He’s a cut-up. He plays all-out … If you ask him, I think he’d say the only thing he cares about is being respected by his teammates and the fans.”
There are times, however, when it’s possible to wonder if even we Atlantans know what we’re watching. Sustained excellence can sometimes have a numbing effect. When we consider the Braves, we tend to think of them as the team of pitching and Chipper, but in truth this whole operation has come to hinge on McCann.
“Chipper’s the face of the team because of how long he has been here,” Ross said. “But Mac gives you power and average at a position where either is a bonus. He calls a good game. And he’s a great dude on top of that.”
It has been instructive to watch McCann’s progress from shy and wary rookie to assured and accomplished veteran. There was a time when you wondered if he had within him the drive to become more than just a complementary piece, but there can be no wondering now. He’s there. He’s among the very best handful of players in his sport. Among Braves, he’s The Man.
By Mark Bradley