It was only 23 months since Brian McCann’s last game as a Brave, but when he returned Friday to Turner Field with the Yankees it felt like it’d been a lot longer for the veteran catcher and seven-time former National League All-Star.
“It’s nice to be back here,” said McCann, a Georgia native, Duluth High School graduate, and Suwanee resident. “I’m excited to play here at Turner Field, where it all started. I have a lot of great memories from here…. My teammates. That’s what comes back to mind. We had some great teams here and some great guys I got to learn from. Chipper (Joness), (John) Smoltz and (Tom Glavine). And I came up with some great friends.”
He came up with the so-called “Baby Braves” class of 2005, and now he and another member of that class, Kelly Johnson, are playing for New York teams in the thick of playoff races, Johnson with the Mets after being traded away by the Braves last month.
“It’s always good to see him,” said Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman, who plays golf with McCann plenty during the offseason. “I’m sure he’s going to be a little nervous playing in front of the old fans. It’s going to be a packed house. I’m just looking forward to it, to seeing the reaction from the crowd. I’m sure he’s going to get a long standing ovation. It’s going to be exciting for him, and I know he’s excited.”
The reaction wasn’t as long or as loud as one might’ve expected for a homegrown, drafted-and-developed guy who was the only Brave ever to make All-Star teams in each of his first six seasons, but then again, there were a huge number of Yankee fans in the crowd Friday. His homecoming didn’t mean as much to them, obviously.
Freeman and Andrelton Simmons are the only position players still with the team since McCann left as a free after the 2013 season, although Michael Bourn is also back with the Braves now and was a teammate of McCann’s for part of 2011 and 2012. Julio Teheran and reliever Peter Moylan are the only current Braves pitchers from the McCann era in Atlanta.
After struggling in his first half-season with the Yankees, McCann since July 2, 2014, hit .246 with 36 homers and 114 RBIs in his past 169 games before Friday. He had 22 homers and 75 RBIs in 104 games this season, his eight consecutive 20-homer season and the ninth time he’s reached that plateau in 10 full seasons.
“That’s impressive,” Simmons said. “I’m just happy he’s doing good. It’s going to be cool to see him back in Atlanta.”
“It’s incredible,” Freeman said of the 20-homer seasons. “I think he’s well on his way to a Hall of Fame career if he keeps going. He’s going to keep going, staying healthy. He had that eye problem five or six years ago and still was able to hit 20 homers that year. What he’s doing is special, especially at the catching position.”
Despite all the turnover on the Braves roster, McCann was nonetheless thrilled to be back at Turner Field for the first time since he left as a free agent. He signed a five-year, $85 million contract with the Yankees after the Braves, with catchers Evan Gattis and prospect Christian Bethancourt in their system at the time, didn’t try to retain him. The Yankees could afford to give him a lucrative contract, and will move McCann to designated hitter at some point during the contract if he and the team feel the need.
For now, he’s healthy and happy, having recently become only the fifth catcher in baseball’s modern era to have nine seasons with 20 or more homers. He also led American League catchers in percentage of runners caught stealing at 36.4 (20 of 55) before Friday.
Pleased that he would get to play a series at Turner Field before the Braves move to Cobb County in 2017, McCann drove down from Suwanee on Thursday with a sense of anticipation. It was a bit odd for him to go to the visitor’s clubhouse, the first time he said he’d been in that clubhouse at Turner Field. But he also spent about 20 minutes talking with Freeman and others in the Braves clubhouse.
“I got really excited (coming to the ballpark),” he said. “And again, it goes back to the relationships I made here. I’m going to get to see a lot of guys I don’t get to see anymore, a lot of guys behind the scenes, a lot of the staff.”
McCann rattled off the names of Braves trainers Jeff Porter and assistant Jim Lovell, coaches Terry Pendleton and Eddie Perez, strength coach Phil Falco, and others.
“There’s a lot of new faces (on the team), but at the same time there’s a lot of faces that I came up with,” McCann said. “A lot lot of coaches that taught me how to play this game, taught me how to win. And I’m excited to compete against them.”
McCann made his Braves debut at age 21 in 2005, and in 9 1/2 seasons with the Braves he batted .286 with 200 doubles, 136 home runs and 537 RBIs in 882 games, with a .358 OBP and .486 slugging percentage. He hit 20 or more homers in eight of his nine full seasons with the Braves and won five Silver Slugger Awards as the best-hitting catcher in the National League.
“He was a great teammate,” Simmons said. “I talked to him a lot when he was here. He really helped me a lot. Great guy, funny guy. Good to see him back.”