We had a chance to chat with Pirates catcher Michael McKenry last week, in advance of spring training, to talk about last season, this offseason and the upcoming 2012 Pirates season. McKenry is looking to break camp with the Pirates this year and likely backup newly acquired Rod Barajas.
The first thing I asked him about was his offseason, considering last year he started in the Colorado Rockies organization, then was traded to Boston and then in June, to the Pirates.
“I was very fortunate to be able to go down to instructs and spend a little time with the younger guys in the organization, get to know some of the coordinators, short A, low A, high A coaches, and that was really neat. So I feel even moreso part of the Pirate family, and to know more of what their mission and mindset is for the future. I’m just very excited to be a a part of it, going into my first spring training in Florida, in Bradenton… I love Bradenton, I got to go there for the mini-camp recently and I enjoyed that. And I think it’s going to be a good year for all of us. We’re going to be young, we’re going to have a lot of fun every single day, and we’re going to go out and play this game the way it’s supposed to be played.”
I’m sure it is nice to have a full offseason with the big league team that he is expected to be a contributor to, after arriving in Pittsburgh last year do to the injury situation at the catcher position in Pittsburgh last year.
“Last year, it was a whirlwind type year, being on three different teams, in three different organizations, in a short amount of time. It was a lot to go through, but it was a blessing at the end of the day. Even when I got traded to Boston, that was a blessing, to get the opportunity to go over there. It is a great organization, with a lot of tradition and then to be fortunate enough to come over here, and catch Paul Maholm in my first game in Pittsburgh, who’s a veteran and one of the guys that’d been there the longest. It was just kind of surreal, at that moment. I remember walking in, and it felt like I never sat down, like I floated around the clubhouse, and then all of a sudden after the game, we’re on our way to Houston and was like ‘wow, that just happened’. I didn’t even know it happened, it went by so fast. So you know, it was a whirlwind, but it was a blast. I really enjoyed the time when we were pushing for first place, and I hated that we fell off towards the end. But that’s part of the growing process, and I think this being a young team, I think we’re going to come a long way just with that year of experience. “
Before moving on from last year, I wanted to ask him about the 3 run home run, his first major league home run, that he hit against the Cubs on July 8, 2011 to put the Pirates up in the 8th inning and ultimately to win the game. I played the radio clip from that moment for him…
“First and foremost, I have goosebumps just hearing that. Every time I hear it, the way the fans were behind us, that was remarkable. And getting a curtain call that day, it was so surreal. And the fact that it was my first ‘shot’ in the big leagues, here I am, I hit my first homer and I’m getting a curtain call? It was amazing. And leading up to that, the whole game, we had younger guys stepping up and the veteran guys leading us along the way. Something that I remember before that, (Josh) Harrison getting that base hit to tie the game, and then I hit the home run and I come in, and Lyle Overbay gives me a hug, (Andrew) McCutchen’s at the bottom of the stairs and just bear hugs me, and if you see the video clip, Neil Walker is swinging a towel up and down. It’s just the excitement and enthusiasm on that team, it’s a special group of guys. And like I said, going down to mini-camp, we had some free agent guys there who hadn’t been a part of this clubhouse, and the way we got along, and the fellowship and the comaraderie, it is really special. So I’m really excited to see where this year takes us. “
I then brought up a little Pirates history, specifically similarities to Mike Lavalliere, and how McKenry seems to fit in as a tough, lunchpail to work, Pittsburgh kind of guy.
“Well, that’s the best compliment you can give a player, and let alone my personality, that’s the compliment I want to have. And you know, I feel part of the Pittsburgh family… hard nosed, hard working, I just want to be that guy that goes out and gives it his all every day. Don’t take a day for granted, because you don’t know if you’re going to have a tomorrow, so I just go out and play hard, and give my team a chance and be the team guy, and root on my team throughout the ups and downs of 162 games, it gets tough. It’s fun riding that roller coaster, but remembering what’s most important is that we’re out here playing a kids’ game, and that’s the way we need to play. We need to have fun, we need to smile, we need to give 110%. I believe that’s what the fans deserve too.”
I asked him about the doubleheader against Milwaukee last year, when Josh Harrison got dinged up and he went out and played third base.
“I think that’s our mindset as a team in general. If we have to pick up a teammate, we’re going to do it in a heartbeat. When Clint Hurdle asked me that question, ‘Hey, can you play third base?’ I just said ‘I’ll do my best’ and I think that’s the mentality from top to bottom. Even when we brought in Derrek Lee and (Ryan) Ludwick last year and they brought in that veteran leadership, they were willing to do that. And here they are, older players who’ve been around the game a lot, and they were like ‘hey, whatever I can do to help, I’m going to help’ - hang out with the younger guys, doing what they can to be a good presence in the clubhouse. I think that’s what Pittsburgh is all about, and I think that’s going to really help us set off this year.”
Regarding his defense and the handling of the pitching staff…
“Number one thing is putting yourself second to every one of those guys. Whether they are a bullpen guy, a guy coming up from AAA, it doesn’t really matter. It’s putting yourself second and being their right hand man. Asking them, ‘what do you need?’, ‘how do you feel?’, ‘what key words do you need me to remind you?’… just some of the little things to push them over the edge. That’s all I try to do. I want the best for those guys and I try to make that known from the get go. I do my homework, I like studying video, I like studying hitters. I really like spending time with my pitching coach, Ray Searage, and my bench coach, Jeff Bannister. They pump me full of information, and I just try to relay it, being the middle man as much as possible. But the biggest thing I would have to say when I first got there, was to keep my mouth shut and my ears open, and when the opportunity came about, that’s when I spoke. I wasn’t a pushover, but at the same time, when I needed to get stern or get confident and convicted with what I say, then that’s what I’d do. I think a lot of guys built some trust, and every guy is a little bit different and you have to work with their personality. It’s a relationship, you have to fine tune some things here and you have to know the guys you can bark at a little bit and the guys you have to be a little more sensitive with. And you have to roll with the punches with them. If they are having a bad day, you have to help them out, be their helping hand or their listening ear, whatever you can be. It’s being a good friend as well as a comrade. “
On free agent acquisition, fellow catcher Rod Barajas…
“I’m ecstatic. I had an opportunity to meet Rod Barajas, he’s been in the league a long time and he’s full of information. He’s a guy I can hopefully attach myself to during spring training and grow from him. I really like the opportunity to hang out with veteran guys and let them talk to me and if they have something to say, treat it like ‘ok, cool’. Not try to be a pest, but be a fly on the wall and let them fill you full of information. That’s how you learn, you grow. I feel like every day, you have to adapt and grow a little bit more. That’s how you get better.”
On the newest member of the starting rotation,Erik Bedard:
“I’ve never caught him, but I’ve heard a lot of good things. I’ve heard he’s a competitor. I’ve heard he can pitch, and I’m excited about catching him. I’m going to spend as much time as I can during spring, getting to know him – what he likes, what he doesn’t like, and all that jazz that will build a relationship. “
On how much time he gets during the offseason to see the other guys, specifically pitchers with whom he will be catching this season…
“The Pirates do a good job with the mini-camp, we were able to see a bunch of guys. And PirateFest and Caravan, once again got to see a bunch of guys. And this team in general, a lot of guys got married this offseason. I got the opportunity to go to Charlie Morton’s wedding, and we try to keep in contact. We joke around on Twitter a lot. And I feel like our friendship and relationship continues to grow during the offseason. But if we don’t get to talk for 100 days, we’d walk into the clubhouse, give each other a hug, and it would be like we were talking every single day of the offseason. You build up a really strong relationship through 162 games, and I don’t think you could ever describe how that is.”
And finally, in light of Pujols and Fielder leaving the division, what’s it going to take for the Pirates to make a run at the Central this year?
“We just have to show up and play every single day. Take it one day at a time, do the little things, and it doesn’t really matter who is on the field. Whether Pujols is up, or if we’re facing nine Pujols’, we need to find a way to compete that day. I’m not going to say that I’m not pretty ecstatic that him and Fielder are going to be out of the division, but with that being said, it’s huge to win in our division but we also need to win outside of our division. So the biggest thing is just going out every day and competing. And if we can go out and compete, and if we lose 10 games in a row, to not let it affect us, keep going forward, keep pressing and then wait for that 10 game winning streak that we’re going to have. I think too often we panic in this game, and I think if we do a good job of just going out every single day and focusing on the day, then after it’s over, shower it off, move on, and focus on the next day. I think that will pay dividends in this year’s success.”