Brian McCann Has Never Been a Train Robber

Bryan Harvey, who has previously written here about Jason Heyward and John Henry, is a high school teacher and poet, who writes for The Faster Times and The Lawn Chair Boys. His poetry has appeared in the Cold Mountain Review and DeckFight Press released his eBook, Everything That Dunks Must Converge, in April.

The best Westerns do not feature the men who laid the tracks for the railroad’s methodical predictability, and seldom do they make heroic the movements of a conductor checking his watch for an estimated time of arrival or of a gritty man, hunched over and sweaty, shoveling coal into a hot furnace. No, the best Westerns feature the men who threaten the set path with dynamite, upending the train’s metal cars, blowing open the safe’s cold door, holding passengers and employees at gunpoint, stealing the business man’s gold, and preventing the execution of plans laid in hard steel. In short, watching too many westerns can make a person believe that the only way to be a hero is to become the personification of riotous freedom. And, if you come to believe that rebellion is the stuff that makes men courageous, then you can also come to believe that order is a lukewarm drink sipped by quiet men. And baseball is full of quiet men.

Brian McCann has never been a dynamo, and he’s never been a train robber. There is no mystery to the Braves catcher. He’s homegrown and ripe with familiarity–another ballplayer taught to swing a bat by his father. And, if he were in a Western, he’d probably have a green visor and an accountant’s arm bands, because the truth of the matter is that Brian McCann’s game has always been calculated, reduced or enhanced by a score on an eye test, a vision-correcting prescription, or how many starts can a catcher make without blowing out his knees. Nothing about Brian McCann has sparked our imaginations to run wild about whether he’s killed a man, got a family somewheres, or just how far can he hit a baseball. By consistently hitting around twenty home runs every season, he’s shown himself to be a power hitter that always makes contact, and there’s something less dramatic about a slugger who doesn’t come to the plate with an all or nothing mentality. In other words, Brian McCann, in all of his chubby generosity, has found a way to be too dependable for his own good, for his style of play is not as inspiring as say a Buster Posey’s, who has risked his very life protecting the plate. And, while announcers, fans, and analysts weep over his tragic sacrifice, the cuddly McCann is discussed in a manner that, like his name, suggests he is merely capable. Both men are catchers, but only one is followed through swinging saloon doors by hushed whispers and pointed fingers. Only one of them is a gunslinger, and Brian McCann is not that man.Brian McCann, in all of his chubby generosity, has found a way to be too dependable for his own good

To have a torrid passion for the game of Brian McCann, an individual would have to be in love with the catcher almost as much as they are in love with the game of baseball itself, for even his game-winning hits, whether in the All-Star game or a meager regular season outing appear to be the work of percentages, that they were due to happen, like an accountant playing the odds in poker, rather than the mythos of The Natural’s Roy Hobbs or Jason Heyward’s spring training blasts. And, while McCann’s swing is round and smooth, it’s delivered in a very matter of fact style, lacking the poetry of Ken Griffey, Jr., the killer instinct that rode Fred McGriff’s line drives like a bullet, or the freakish monstrosity of a Barry Bonds lightning strike. And it also lacks the same static crackle that resonates from the bat when Chipper Jones sends one flying for the fences, but I doubt there’s any science behind the difference; the physics of Brian McCann hitting a baseball 400 feet are the same as when any of those other guys do it; so why then doesn’t a Brian McCann home run have the same scorched earth effect as it sizzles down our optic nerves and is engraved upon our brains?

Somewhere along the line, the career of Brian McCann became less than the sum of its parts. He was too quiet, too underrated, too underappreciated, and there was a storyline that was all too easily available for defining his career; a metaphor that was perhaps too perfect to do anyone any good, even if that somebody happened to be a Major League baseball player who hits clutch grand slams with an air of regularity.

Cowboys and baseball players are the quintessential American heroes, but how many cowboys wore glasses? Then consider not just the Western genre but all of Western literature, and ask the same question: how many of our heroes wear glasses? The list probably isn’t much longer than Atticus Finch, Harry Potter, and Ben Franklin; a pacifist lawyer, a moping teenage wizard, and a bald tinkerer, not exactly the vivacious, muscular archetypes of the sports world.

For the longest time, no matter who was calling the game, the discussion about Brian McCann began and ended with a mentioning of his glasses. Were they fogging up? Was he wearing them? Was he not? To Lasik or not to Lasik? What did he see at the plate? Behind the plate? He was always at the crux of where the baseball universe unfolds with a Big Bang crack of the bat, but he was reduced to a pair of eye glasses, or spectacles, which has the same root word as spectator. Think T.J. Eckleburg, gold rims and blue sky, in a Braves uniform and a catcher’s mask, and you have Brian McCann reduced into a passive symbol, like a teddy bear at bedtime, watching, listening, not saying a word; his whole world limited by a flimsy pair of frames.

A few days ago, Ted wrote a great column that revolved around the general principle that familiarity with the limitations of a subject breeds disinterest, and maybe even disappointment, because it is the idea of unlimited potential that spurs the imagination to run wild. To back up his statement, Ted cites the example of how a city’s enthusiasm wanes drastically after a team is mathematically done with its season. Another example of this principle can be found by looking at the television show Lost, and how more people watched when the island could be anything they as a viewer imagined it to be, but the more the show proved that the island was really nothing more than a physical hub for the characters’ physical time on earth (or a wampeter, a la Kurt Vonnegut’s book Cat’s Cradle) and the real focus of the show was simply the characters’ relationships with one another the more people split into camps that admitted confused frustration, hurled scornful disdain, or heaped on praise.

And people’s reactions to the show’s ending, especially the negative ones, seemed to be founded on the stubborn belief that the show should have been what they imagined it to be, rather than what the writers wrote it to be. And the same vehement reactions can be seen in how the average fan reacts to a prodigious athlete when his/her talents wind up less than what the fan had hoped and longed for. And that’s the challenge with rooting for a player like Brian McCann: the response to his play on the field is never visceral, because he is, to quote long-time NFL coach Denny Green, who we thought he was, and, therefore, we will never be surprised nor disappointed with his play.

When McCann came to the Majors, he was twenty-one years old and viewed as the obvious sidekick to future face of the franchise and (then) can’t miss kid, Jeff Francoeur. Chipper Jones was thirty-four and still hitting well over .300, but the search for the heir apparent had already begun and McCann garnered very little consideration for the position. Francoeur was the guy on the cover of Sports Illustrated, hitting his way into the hearts of the fanbase, and McCann was prepping to give the Hall of Fame introduction. Now, it’s five years later and Francoeur is in Kansas City and less than we wanted him to be, Chipper Jones is one more injury away from a church softball league, and the young phenoms, Freddie Freeman and Jason Heyward (well, one more than the other), are all the rage, and McCann, who carried the Braves’ offense single-handedly for the first half of the season, has had his thunder interrupted by Dan Uggla’s hit streak. In some ways, it’s as if McCann’s baseball cap is already faded blue, like a synthetic throwback, that, somehow, he got old without a legacy.

So, while the only catcher to hit twenty home runs in each of the last four seasons (including this one) inhabits a universe that is neither shrinking nor growing, he does shed his skin, like a snake giving us the chance to every so often admire his sheen.
There are athletes who explode into our worlds, announcing themselves like hurricanes, threatening to decimate what was, leaving the past in a haze of grainy black and white photographs, and then there are those who catalogue the scope of their world in mechanical increments, without our knowing, and we find them one day like a bear in the attic, bridging us to some mundane, insignificant moment when we may or may not have learned something. And, while scratching our heads for the memory, we say to ourselves:

“Damn, Teddy Ruxpin sure could talk, couldn’t he?”

3 Responses to “Brian McCann Has Never Been a Train Robber”

  • I always wonder why the sportswriters who suddenly found new ways to measure players haven’t yet discovered McCann. He’s one of the best percentage players in the game.

  • I wish I knew, Dana, I wish I knew. I do think he’s gotten more attention this year in a variety of places across the internet and in spot ads for Braves games on ESPN, but he’s not exactly a household name (which could be a problem for baseball overall right now…read an article somewheres about that). Again, this whole piece might have just been my way of apologizing to McCann for the fact that I’ve ordered merchandise with the names of other players but never his, and there’s probably something misdirected in that.

  • Glad to see an article about McCann, whose game temperament reminds me so much of my favorite player of all-time, Fred McGriff. McGriff’s swing was indeed a thing of beauty, but both he and McCann share the rare ability to be consistently exceptional to the point that it’s not remotely exceptional anymore. Barring injury, I would happily drop $100 on McCann hitting .280/.365/.480 for the next three years…because he’s just going to and we all know it.

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