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McCann brothers close, but a distance apart

Editor's Note: This story appears in the Aug. 27 edition of ESPN The Magazine.

From: Chris Smith To: Jon Scher

Subject: Story Pitch

Hey, Mr. Baseball Editor, here's a great story for you. Brian McCann is a terrific player, right? An All-Star in his first two full seasons, hit .333 with 24 homers last year, a rare lefty-swinging catcher who doesn't box the ball around, grew up 30 minutes northeast of Turner Field, and he's only 23 years old. All good. But here's the real hook: Brian wasn't even supposed to be the best player in the family. Brad, his older brother by 14 months, was the big star through high school, a stud shortstop who would have been a top pick in the 2001 draft. But Brad got greedy: He rejected the Reds when they offered a $400,000 bonus instead of the half-mil he thought he deserved. He fell out of the draft entirely and made plans to play at Georgia. Weeks later, UGA's coach quit, and Brad bailed. So while little bro soared through the Braves' system, big bro's been on an odyssey through juco, college ball and the minors. Brian is catching John Smoltz; Brad is stuck in A-ball at 24. Brian is supposed to be laid-back and beloved in the clubhouse; I hear Brad is a hothead, and he's probably bitter.

The plot gets richer, and darker, too. Howie McCann, the dad, is a former college coach. When Howie got fired at Marshall, he moved to Georgia and opened a baseball academy. You just know he drove his sons hard to fulfill his own dreams.

So what do you think?

From: Jon
Like it. But shouldn't we be writing about Russell Martin? He's having a better year.

From: Chris
True enough. But Brian's been hurt -- his hands were banged up for months this season -- and he's always been a second-half guy. Also, Brian is key to the Braves' chances of catching the Mets. And Martin's from Canada! How much fun can that be, compared with a two-generation baseballpsychodrama?

From: Jon
Sounds like a nice, edgy counterpart to our story on the wacky Giles brothers. Go for it.

******

From: Chris Smith To: Jon Scher

Subject: Atlanta, Take 1

How perfect is this? I showed up at Turner Field, and Brian's first AB of the second half was a liner ripped into the rightfield seats. I was sitting directly behind home plate, with his very enthusiastic mom, Sherry, an intensive care nurse. Howie was stuck in brutal traffic on his way from teaching at the batting cages, and when he finally arrived, his first words to his wife were, "Brad's not in the lineup tonight in Wilmington."

This wasn't a total shock. Brad signed as a sixth-rounder with the Marlins in 2004 and had a great season the next year at Greensboro (low-A), going .295/28/106. But he didn't get the promotion he expected. He wasn't happy when the Marlins sent him to Jupiter (high-A), their Florida training center, the next spring, and his production fell. He was even crankier this year when they sent him back there. I came across a clip that says Brad went AWOL in June, which can't have helped. Or maybe it did: The Marlins ultimately dumped him on the Royals, who shipped him to Wilmington, Del., in the Carolina League (high-A). In 18 games with the Blue Rocks, mostly at first base, he's hitting .220. That's why he was riding the bench tonight.

Howie found out because Brad called him from the clubhouse right before the game. So even when Brian hit a ball harder and farther off Ian Snell of the Bucs in the sixth inning -- his second homer and third extra-base hit of the night—Mom and Dad were tense. "If Howie could travel with Brad, Brad would be in the big leagues right now," Sherry blurted out, unprompted. "The smallest adjustment, he sees it."

Howie just laughed and changed the subject. He's plenty confident in his talents as a hitting coach; sessions are booked so tight that some kid is making a three-hour trip from Savannah for an 8 a.m. slot tomorrow. And yes, Howie will stay up until 2 a.m. tonight, as he does most every night, going back and forth on the TiVo to dissect Brian's ABs. But he says he never offers advice unless asked. (Yeah, right. You say that all the time too!)

From: Jon
Is Brad the favorite son?

From: Chris

Hard to tell. It's clear Howie has a special bond with his older boy, even though Dad throws right and bats left, just like Brian. Howie's 51, grew up in upstate New York, made himself into a fine infielder and got drafted by the Twins in 1974. But when they didn't offer enough money, he went to juco in Florida, then Mississippi State (where he became pals with teammate Buck Showalter), but never got another shot at pro ball and went into coaching.

From: Jon
You're talking to Brian tomorrow, right? See what he says about the family dynamic. And let's get an independent take on Howie.

******

From: Chris Smith To: Jon Scher

Subject: Atlanta, Take 2

Spoke to Brian's high school coach, Bobby Link. He says Howie was shockingly sane: "He'd help whenever we wanted, but he didn't pressure his kids. During games he'd sit on a stump way behind the centerfield fence, to stay out of the way."

One part of my premise is still solid: Brian's a great kid. This morning he did an autograph signing at a car dealership somewhere deep in the Atlanta sprawlopolis -- four sessions in exchange for a free Corvette. About 200 people were out there waiting for him in the rain, and he chatted up all of them, especially the shy little kids. Brian's kind of a stuffed animal: His clothes are perpetually rumpled, he's grown a fuzzy blond beard he desperately hopes makes him look older, and he's got a beer-league paunch. His teammates call him Heaps, as in heaps o' fries.

When I told him lunch was on me and to pick any restaurant he wanted (I'm billing it to you!), Brian chose Willy's, a strip-mall Mexican joint. He was craving a burrito, double chicken.

As for the interview, here's a sample. I say, "It must have been tough living up to Howie's baseball expectations, right?" Brian's response: "He never made us do anything. He never made us go out and take batting practice; he never made us go take ground balls. Dad did such a great job with letting us figure it out. He was a coach, and we gravitated toward that because you want to be like your dad when you grow up. That's why me and my brother started playing baseball."

Brian says he still leans on Howie for advice. While he was hitting .238 in June, and tips from Chipper Jones and Terry Pendleton weren't working, Brian asked Howie to meet him late one night (on Father's Day, if you can believe that) in the old, tin-roof warehouse Howie converted into the Windward Baseball Academy. Dad fed balls to the pitching machine for hours, dripping in sweat (there's no AC), reminding Brian to take the ball the other way. The next day, Brian got two hits.

Really, how tough can life be if you've just signed a six-year, $27.8 million deal and you're getting ready to marry your high school sweetie? The only thing missing from this fairy tale, other than a World Series ring, is Brad.

From: Jon
They're tight?

From: Chris
Seems like it. They go back and forth at least three times most days. (Example: When Brian texted Brad to tell him he was in the middle of an interview for ESPN, Brad replied, "Make sure you wear your hairpiece.") For most of their lives, Brad has been Brian's protector, whether he was saving little bro from a pit-bull attack or taking the abuse that came from being the first freshman promoted to the Duluth High varsity -- so when Brian came along the next year, none of the guys bothered to haze him.

"We're basically identical," Brian says, which is endearing, if inaccurate. Brad hits righty and is way more intense; Brian is so spacey, he loses a cell phone once a month. Brian also worries that his success increases the pressure on Brad: "I hate talking about it—why he's in the minors and I'm here. I know Brad deserves to be up here." That doesn't help my story, but it does make me appreciate Brian even more.

"Brad is a better hitter than me," Brian says, and he believes it. "I've always been one step behind him, so I got to see all the good things and all the bad things. I benefited from it huge."

Here's how much their baseball roles have reversed, and how much it pains Brian: After lunch, I made the short drive over to the house where the boys grew up. When I arrived, Sherry had just gotten off the phone with Brian. He was reminding her not to say anything that suggests he's better than Brad, or that makes people feel sorry for him. Brotherly love -- ain't it touching?

From: Jon
If Brad's so good, what's holding him back?

From: Chris
I'll find out. I'm heading to Delaware. That ought to give us the edge we need.

******

From: Chris Smith To: Jon Scher

Subject: Wilmington, Take 1

Oh, man, this is great -- and awful. Instead of the Hooter-ish girls who dance on top of the Braves dugout, the Blue Rocks have Mr. Celery, a mascot created from a leftover "Eat Healthy Night" costume. Speaking of wholesome, Brad was a coach this morning at the Blue Rocks' kiddie day camp, and he was great -- patient and helpful even in broiling, 90 degrees heat. He definitely has inherited the teaching gene. And unlike Brian, Brad looks like a classic ballplayer: He's a strapping 6'3", with a full head of jet-black hair, square jaw and shoulders, long legs. When he showers and changes into a purple-and-yellow striped Polo shirt, he looks as if he's stepped right out of a Ralph Lauren catalog. He's been living with a host family on a farm outside of Wilmington, and he is so polite that he leaves all his clothes in his car, changing at the ballpark rather than messing up his bedroom with piles of laundry.

At lunch in some strip mall, I asked him about the headstrong attitude, the one that supposedly had him raging when the Marlins wouldn't promote him. Brad admits he got down last year: "Basically, it was every emotion you could have -- bummed out, pissed off, shocked. But that's baseball. Either you deal with it or you go home." (I also heard from a Marlins exec who said, "We had no disciplinary problems with Brad.
He played hard for us.") When his power numbers plunged, his confidence crumbled. "You start changing your swing, you start questioning yourself," Brad says. "I ended up getting 12 jacks in a tough park, but I hit .231. I'm not a .231 hitter. I'm a .300 hitter."

As it turns out, Brad did go a week without playing in June, but he says he wasn't AWOL. During the Florida State League All-Star break, he was in Howie's batting cage, adding a front-foot toe tap -- just like Brian's -- to his swing. "It's hard not to give it a try when your brother hits .333 using it in the majors," Howie tells me. When Brad returned to Jupiter, the Marlins pulled him off the field and told him he'd been traded. It took him a couple of days to catch up to his new team.

Brad also owes Brian for the change of scenery. They share an agent, B.B. Abbott, and as Brad was languishing in Jupiter this spring, Brian kept prodding the guy, saying, "Can't you make something happen?" Abbott talked to Dayton Moore, who spent 12 years with the Braves before becoming GM in Kansas City last year. "He's seen me and my brother play our whole lives," Brad says. "Hopefully, I'll make him proud."

Brad is a better hitter than me. I've always been one step behind him, so I got to see all the good things and all the bad things. I benefited from it huge.

Brian McCann on his older brother Brad

Besides a steady diet of inside fastballs, Brad's worst problem is tragicomic bad karma. Get this: He arrives in Wilmington sky-high, ready to seize his new lease on baseball life. He stops at a recommended local restaurant and gets food poisoning from a pulled-pork sandwich. "I'm the new guy, eager to play and make a good impression," Brad says, "and here I am in the clubhouse toilet, yakking." He still isn't sure how he found his way to the batter's box that night to pinch hit in the eighth inning, and he barely remembers going deep. The rest of the week, when he was chugging Maalox and barfing on the team bus, is all too clear.

Today at lunch, he picked at some chicken tenders, but his strength is finally back. "Just gotta keep swinging," he said, without a hint of anger. Brad got aggravated only when I told him Brian says he'd trade places in a minute. "I wouldn't let it happen," he said, leaning across the table. "Brian has busted his ass since he was a little kid. He's gonna be there for a long time, and he deserves it. He is my best friend. He's my brother. I tell him all the time, 'Whenever something goes bad for me, I'm glad it's me and not you.' I'd rather it happen to me and not him." Long pause. "One thing, though. Just make sure the story says I'm funnier."

******

From: Chris Smith To: Jon Scher

Subject: Wilmington, Take 2

Tonight Brad was staring at an 0-for-4 but he hit the ball hard twice, and the Rocks were up 3-1 with one out in the ninth. Then Wilmington's closer blew the lead. Oh, boy, extra innings, which allowed Brad to extend his night to a truly miserable 0-for-6, including a game-ending K in the bottom of the 11th with the tying run on.

I knew there was no chance we'd have any laughs. In the clubhouse, Brad had stripped down to his Under Armour, but he was still sweating profusely. I offered up some line to break the silence, about how this must be the kind of night when it's great to have a brother who understands the lows of the game. "Nah," Brad said, looking me straight in the eye. "I just sucked tonight. No way around it." And then he stuck out his hand for a shake. "Thanks for coming down."

Damn. I don't think I've ever interviewed two guys I've liked more than Brad and Brian. Certainly not two who were related.

From: Jon
So it's a happy family story?

From: Chris
Other than the fact that as of tonight Brad is hitting .216 ... yeah.

From: Jon
It'll never work.