Brian McCann’s final game in Turner Field as a Brave came in a playoff series against Los Angeles two years ago. He was walked intentionally and then he was pulled for a pinch runner — B.J. Upton.
“Sounds about right,” McCann said Friday.
There was no gold watch or warm embrace as he headed out the door. General manager Frank Wren, who was running point for the organization, had big plans to reshape the Braves in his image and those plans didn’t include re-signing one of the better players, leaders and human beings the organization has ever had to a long-term deal.
So McCann signed with the New York Yankees, who must have had no great plans for the future.
When McCann showed up at Turner Field on Friday night, he ranked third in homers and second in RBIs for a Yankees team that is sitting in a strong position to make the playoffs and possibly win the American League East. Meanwhile, in Atlanta, Wren is gone, the Braves have churned through 56 players — Open tryouts Sunday! Bring the kids! — they probably are headed for their worst record in 25 years and they’ve mostly started a 38-year-old catcher (A.J. Pierzynski) because their touted prospect (Christian Bethancourt) is still just that (if that).
Yeah. How did that work out?
McCann, Athens-born, Atlanta-raised, a Braves fan from birth to free agency, returned to Turner Field for the first time since 2013. He felt at home. Of course he felt at home. He still has owns a house in Gwinnett, and the stadium was filled with mostly Yankees fans.
“This really is a perfect time for me right now,” McCann said in the visiting clubhouse.
Perfect time, perfect timing. McCann’s return was homecoming gold: a three-run homer, three walks, four RBIs and three runs scored in a 15-4 Yankees win over the Braves.
Not surprisingly, he avoided taking any shots at his former team. But in referencing some injury issues and dip in batting average his last two years in Atlanta, as well as a slow start last year, McCann said, “I never doubted my abilities. Last year was obviously rough for me. The year didn’t go like I thought it would. But I’m back to driving the baseball again, I’m back to working counts — things that I always did when I was here.”
He was 21 years old when the Braves called him up in 2005. It was the year of the, “Baby Braves.” McCann was one of 18 rookies that played for a team that illogically wound up winning a division title, the last of the 14 consecutive.
In his major league debut, he had two hits, a walk and an RBI.
In his second game, he homered and caught a complete-game win for the 38-year-old John Smoltz
When Jeff Francoeur mania took over Atlanta, McCann was walking in the back door, merely earning everybody’s respect in the clubhouse. It wasn’t long before everybody came to realize what coach Terry Pendleton said so well: “I think we’ve all been paying attention to the wrong guy.”
Seven All-Star games. Five Silver Slugger awards. McCann was the perfect, quiet leader. He didn’t always say a lot, but when he did everybody knew about it — like late in the 2013 season when he blocked home plate and tore into Milwaukee’s Carlos Gomez, who had mouthed off and showboated before and during a home-run trot. (Gomez later apologized.)
McCann has carried that passion to New York.
“You love to see when a pitcher is struggling and after the game the catcher is visibly upset in his locker,” teammate Brendan Ryan said. “It shows how much he cares and how much he takes it to heart. That’s not something you can fake. Brian doesn’t always say a lot but the way he carries himself is infectious.”
McCann knew the 2013 season would be his last in Atlanta. He knew about the payroll issues and the blueprint that included Bethancourt. So did his family. His father and long-time hitting coach, Howie McCann said, “You know how the Braves were then. They were going through changes and they weren’t going to give him a five-year contract.”
“I loved my time here, but was time to move on,” McCann said.
It felt a little strange to him coming back Thursday, sleeping in his own house, then coming to the stadium early to see a few old friends (Freddie Freeman, trainers, clubhouse employees).
“I don’t know a lot of guys over there,” he said. Freeman, Andrelton Simmons and Julio Teheran are the only current Braves who were on the roster in 2013.
There’s obviously a different vibe playing in New York, and it’s even a more pronounced difference given the way this season has unfolded.
“The biggest difference is even the Tuesday night games in New York, the atmosphere is great,” said McCann, who has a number of family members and friends in attendance. “Every game is magnified. There’s nothing like it. I loved my time in Atlanta. Playing for Bobby Cox was huge for me, to see what it took on a nightly basis, the passion he had for the game.
“I feel fortunate to have come up in this system. I got to play with guys like Chipper and pick his brain all the time, and Smoltzy, I have a lot of great feelings about this place.”
He received a nice ovation before his first at-bat Friday. Then he walked and scored on bases-loaded double. Soon it was Yankees 5, McCann 1, Braves 0. It wasn’t the way the Braves’ dreamed this up two years ago.
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