‘ONE OF THOSE DREAMS I HAD AS A KID’
Aspiring baseball player James McCann faced his first Judgment Day two decades ago.
“I was only about 8 or 9, and I had my mom drive me to the Goleta Valley South Little League fields,” he recalled. “They were going to post the list of those who’d made the all-stars.
“I saw my name up there … and I was so happy that I had my picture taken next to it.”
That Kodak moment flashed back to him last week when Major League Baseball announced the three finalists for each position in the balloting for the 2019 All-Star Game.
For American League catcher, they are Gary Sanchez of the New York Yankees, Robinson Chirinos of the Houston Astros … and James McCann of the Chicago White Sox.
McCann, who’s in the midst of his fifth and best full season in the big leagues, took the news like a Goleta Valley South Littler Leaguer.
“Being in the conversation for an All-Star game, and hopefully being there in a few weeks, is one of those dreams I had as a kid,” he said. “I vividly remember ESPN running the Home Run Derby from previous years – a marathon of them – and sitting in the living room with the back-door open, watching them all with my little brother Michael and my family.
“After it was over, we’d go outside and play Whiffle Ball and swing like those guys.”
McCann, the son of Goleta’s Jim and Carla McCann, received 580,394 online votes for American League catcher in the preliminary fan balloting. That put him second behind Sanchez’s 1,357,340 but ahead of Chirinos’ 487,868.
All three will go back to zero when the “Starters Election” begins today at 9 a.m. PDT (at mlb.com/all-star/ballot). The online fan vote will conclude on Thursday at 1 p.m. PDT.
If he wins, or is later selected as a reserve, McCann would become only the third Santa Barbaran to become a Major League All-Star.
Baseball Hall of Famer Eddie Mathews, a Santa Barbara High graduate, played in 10 All-Star games for the Milwaukee Braves, from 1953 to 1962. He even slugged it out against teammate Hank Aaron in 1960 in the original Home Run Derby – a made-for-television series.
Another former Don, New York Mets’ reliever Jesse Orosco, was picked for two All-Star Games. He made just one appearance, striking out Milwaukee’s Ben Oglivie during the 1983 Midsummer Classic held at Chicago’s old Comiskey Park.
The White Sox moved eight seasons later into the new Comiskey – now known as Guaranteed Rate Field. And now James McCann, Dos Pueblos High Class of 2008, has a shot at representing the ChiSox in the next All-Star Game set for July 9 at Cleveland’s Progressive Field.
It’s been “a whirlwind,” he admitted, ever since he signed with the club as a free agent six months ago.
“It means a lot, seeing where I was in the voting, that people would recognize the work that I’ve put in,” McCann said.
He leads all American League catchers in batting average (.328) and on-base percentage (.389), and is second to Sanchez in slugging percentage (.508).
McCann came to Chicago as a .240 career hitter, having slugged 40 home runs during four full seasons with the Detroit Tigers. His turning point came, ironically, when he decided to stop swinging like the Home Run Derby contestants he used to idolize.
“I was coming off a down year, and I knew I needed to make a few adjustments during the offseason,” he said. “The biggest thing was I wanted to define who James McCann really was.
“I was blessed to have come up to the Tigers with great hitters around me like Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez and J.D. Martinez, but what I was trying to do was become just like them. I had to step back and realize that I’m not those guys, and figure out what got me to the big leagues in the first place.”
He opened up his stance and began hitting the ball to all fields.
“It allowed my legs to be the foundation of my swing,” he said. “I’m getting out of the way of my body and using my hands a little bit better.”
McCann, a 6-foot-3 and 225-pounder, is also in better physical shape than in 2018. He had spent much of previous offseason in a neonatal care unit in Nashville with wife Jessica after their twin sons, Christian and Kane, were born 10 weeks prematurely on Dec. 6, 2017.
“We spent two months at the hospital,” he said. “Eating hospital food for that long really didn’t do well for my body heading into spring training.”
McCann batted a career-low .220 last season and became a free agent on Nov. 30 when the Tigers declined to offer him a new contract.
“It’s not the way you’d draw it up,” he said. “But at the same time, everything happens for a reason. I’m a big believer that God has a plan in place for me.
“Immediately after the deadline had passed, with the Tigers not bringing me back, the White Sox were on the phone, letting me know they had a need for me.
“There were a lot of uncertainties, but we knew that God was going to put us exactly where we needed to be.”
McCann trained hard, shedding 20 pounds – and that helped add more than 100 points to his batting average.
He had also worked to find his place in a new clubhouse.
“It was difficult to start,” he admitted. “Detroit was the only organization I knew coming into this year. I was drafted by them and came up with them. I hardly knew anybody’s names when I went to spring training.
“I was just trying to get to know people and integrate myself on the club.”
He’s quickly gained his teammates’ respect.
“He’s been the perfect piece to this team,” outfielder Nicky Delmonico told the Chicago Tribune last month. “He’s a really hard worker. He prepares better than I’ve seen anybody prepare for a game.”
For every series, McCann studies the statistical reports that show the hitting tendencies of their opponents. He puts them into a spreadsheet and then tailors them for each White Sox pitcher.
“I’m able to draw on that,” he said, “and that keeps the stress down no matter how big the moment is.”
He’s earned his White Sox stripes with his defense alone. In 49 games behind the plate, he has yet to give up a passed ball. He’s also caught 13 runners trying to steal – the second-most in the American League.
“No matter how good you are as a hitter, how you receive and throw and game-plan as a catcher, calling every pitch, has more of an impact,” McCann said. “You can’t control the offensive part as much – you can hit the ball hard four times and still go 0-for-4 – but you can always control the defensive part.”
The rest of it, he leaves to his strong Christian faith.
“Having your sons born 10 weeks early, and spending seven-plus weeks in the NICU, does put life into perspective,” he said. “You realize how precious life is.
“Just being Dad, coming home at night and seeing those two boys smiling whether you’ve gone 2-for-4 or 0-for-4, is a special feeling that puts everything in a whole different light.”
McCann got sunshine on a cloudy Father’s Day in Chicago, and it wasn’t because he went 2-for-4 with a home run in an otherwise drab 10-3 defeat to the Yankees.
“All the players’ kids got to come out with their dads and throw the first pitch,” he said. “Our twin boys are just 18 months old, but they gave it their best attempts.”
A day later, Dad made the final All-Star ballot, and was feeling like quite the kid himself.
Mark Patton’s column appears on Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday.