Pirates' McKenry still working to prove critics wrong

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BRADENTON, Fla. -- It was a little after noon on St. Patrick's Day, and the Yankees fan leaning over the railing at McKechnie Field had one beer in his hand and probably a few more in his bloodstream.

Maybe he was out to prove why they call it "liquid courage" because the man in the Derek Jeter jersey was playing the tough guy, heckling any Pirates player he could find near the team's clubhouse.

That's when he found Michael McKenry, who had stepped under an awning to do some optional conditioning on a rare off day for the catcher. McKenry seemed like the ultimate target for criticism, the kind he has encountered for most of his life. He doesn't look like a baseball player -- short with a stocky build.

The fan mocked McKenry as he moved through each exercise. When McKenry did an abdominal workout, the heckler sarcastically shouted, "Core! Core! Core!" McKenry flashed him a smile. When McKenry jumped over a series of hurdles, the heckler piped in with some exaggerated "Oohs" and "Ahs."

McKenry stopped his workout for a second and looked toward the boardwalk. He smiled, pointed in his direction and said, "I like you."

It's a scenario McKenry has played out most of his life. Wherever his career has taken him, he has heard hecklers and doubters. His college baseball coach didn't think he wanted to be a catcher. Professional scouts thought he was too small to make it to the major leagues.

He reacts the same way every time: flashes them a smile, wins them with kindness and proves them wrong.

Judged by his size

McKenry's high school coach, Tommy Pharr, remembers McKenry as a strong hitter.

As an eighth-grader, McKenry drew rave reviews from some of Pharr's players -- compelling enough that Pharr went to watch McKenry hit in the batting cage at Thunder Baseball Academy in Knoxville, Tenn., where McKenry grew up.

"He could swing it pretty good," Pharr said. "That was my first memory of him."

As a youngster, McKenry never played T-ball because it wasn't offered in his area. So when he started playing baseball at age 6, he was swinging away at live pitching.

"He used to get the dirtiest of any child on the team," his mom, Shelia McKenry, said.

Once at Farragut High School, a top-tier program in Tennessee, McKenry excelled. Despite his size, he had tremendous power as a hitter. He played on the varsity level as a freshman and was the team's starting catcher his junior and senior years.

So Pharr was a bit surprised by how few colleges recruited McKenry. McKenry had dreams of playing for Clemson or Vanderbilt, but those schools never called.

"He's not the tallest guy in the world," Pharr said. "There were a lot of people that didn't think he could handle it at his height."

He accepted a scholarship from Middle Tennessee State University his junior year, but even there, the head coach was unsure about his future as a catcher. His size suggested he might be better suited as a middle infielder, and Steve Peterson, who was then-Middle Tennessee State head coach, was skeptical that McKenry had any interest in being a catcher.

Jim McGuire, now Middle Tennessee head coach who was an assistant at the time, was sold on McKenry's ability as a player. But he needed to convince his head coach, a former catcher himself. Every time Peterson scouted McKenry, mostly on travel tournaments, McKenry was playing in the field and not behind the plate.

McKenry remembers Peterson asking him during a home visit, "Do you really want to catch?"

He quickly responded "Yes sir. That's all I want to do."

Within two seasons, McKenry was the starting catcher at Middle Tennessee State and played well enough to be drafted by the Colorado Rockies, where Clint Hurdle was the manager, in the seventh round of his junior year.

Doubters abound

Before he was drafted by the Rockies, McKenry wanted to do whatever possible to improve his stock and separate himself from his peers.

Following his sophomore season, he contacted Charlie Petrone, a performance coach who ran a gym and training program in Knoxville.

But even he had his doubts about McKenry.

"I knew that he had the want, and I knew that he had the will," Petrone said. But there were other limitations.

Petrone was training Todd Helton at the time and asked the major league slugger to take a look at McKenry's swing.

"I don't know about Mike," Petrone remembers Helton telling him. "He's got a choppy swing."

Petrone also wasn't sure if McKenry would be as dedicated as possible. At the time, McKenry had a serious girlfriend.

"What he said was, 'You'll never make it if you stay in that relationship,' " McKenry said. "It was my wife to be, and I knew that. I was head over heels for her. I told him 'OK, I'll prove you wrong.' "

Three years later, in September 2008, McKenry married his wife, Jaclyn.

Two years later, McKenry made his major league debut with the Rockies.

"That's been my whole life," McKenry said. "It didn't matter what I did, they keep pulling that string back, like 'Oh, you're not going to do it. You can't do this, you can't do that.' I think that's what it's all about. If somebody tells you 'You can't,' why not? That's how great things happen."

Beyond baseball

McKenry had grown used to hearing others tell him he wouldn't make it. When those words started coming from within, it was a different experience altogether.

Before the 2008 season, McKenry traveled to Denver to work closely with the Rockies coaches on his swing. Coming off a tremendous season in Class A, McKenry was eager for the extra work. But in doing so, he lost his identity as a baseball player.

He wondered if he lost his game forever, destined to finish his career without ever coming close to the major leagues.

"It was the hardest year," he said.

Things got much worse in June when Jaclyn's father died.

"Then I realized, life is so much bigger than baseball," he said.

Since his sophomore year in high school, McKenry has been a devout Christian. In college, he started writing Bible verses next to his autograph -- a tip he learned from Los Angeles Angels slugger Josh Hamilton. He has used a variety of verses next to his name, but in recent years he has stuck with Colossians 3:23 -- "Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human."

"There's something way bigger than the game," he said. "The game is awesome, I feel like it brings so much joy to my life. But at the same time, I never want to make it No. 1."

That spot belongs to his faith. Second is his family. Third is baseball.

"No matter which part I'm doing, I want everybody to know I'm going to be relentless doing it," he said.

His faith is one reason why he treats the impaired heckler the same way he treats fans who ask for his autograph.

"I just want to love everybody, in a sense," he said. "Sometimes, it's to a fault. Most of the time, it's a good thing. At the end of the day, that's how you want to be treated."

Following the death of the man who was to be his father-in-law, McKenry took two weeks away from his minor league season to be with his fiancée and her family. And after that crystalizing moment, he returned to the game with a new outlook.

"My ministry is on that field, and I need to be there," he said. "That's where I felt led to be. That's where I knew I needed to be, and that was my love. Right then and there I said, 'You're an idiot. Get out there and go.' "

Not without a fight

McKenry made his major league debut in 2010, a brief appearance with the Rockies as a September call-up. But he got his big break one season and two trades later.

After the Rockies dealt McKenry to the Red Sox following the 2010 season, the Pirates went after the catcher midway through the 2011 season when their top two catchers -- Ryan Doumit and Chris Snyder -- went down with injuries. He has stayed on the roster ever since.

But many have placed limitations on McKenry's ability. By signing Russell Martin this offseason, the Pirates' front office has indicated it views McKenry as not capable of being a starting catcher. And waiting in Class AAA is Tony Sanchez, the Pirates first-round pick in 2009.

Sometimes, that's all McKenry needs to hear.

"I'm going to work every single day, and I'm going to prepare every single day to be that guy," he said. "Whether it happens, that's out of my control. But I'm going to go down with a fight. I want to play every day."

It's not just on the field that he has his critics.

McKenry has one big item on his to-do list: finish his degree at Middle Tennessee State. Since he was drafted after his junior year, McKenry still has about one year to go to finish his major in exercise science.

"I'm not going to say I wasn't smart, but I had to work harder than other people to get by," he said. "I can't tell you how many times my family members said, 'Man, I never thought you'd go to college.' "

So when he finally does get his degree, he has big plans for that piece of paper.

"I'm going to blow it up and I'm going to put it in my office at my house -- as big as it can go -- and say 'Ha! I did it,' " McKenry said.

Chances are, when he does that, he'll have a big smile on his face.

Spring training report

Game: Pirates 5, Red Sox 3

Starter: Jeff Locke 4 innings, 7 hits, 3 runs, 2 earned runs, 1 walk, 0 strikeouts.

Top batter: Pedro Alvarez 2 for 4, two RBIs, run, home run.

Of note: Tony Watson, who spent most of March working on mechanical issues related to shoulder discomfort, had his best outing of the spring, striking out one batter in one hitless, scoreless inning.

News of the day: The Pirates granted veteran outfielder Brad Hawpe his unconditional release Saturday, one day after he and manager Clint Hurdle met to talk about his future. Hawpe hit .136 with one homer and six RBIs this spring, but half of his 36 at-bats were strikeouts. "The game's gotten faster over the past couple years, and I just haven't been able to catch up yet," he said. The Pirates signed Hawpe to a minor league contract this offseason. He did not appear in the majors last season after having Tommy John surgery in August 2011.

Injury updates: Left-handed pitcher Francisco Liriano (broken right arm) began throwing bullpen sessions. He will throw his third bullpen session today and expects to use all pitches for the first time. He believes he is less than a month away from joining the team. ... Jeff Karstens (sore shoulder) is scheduled to make his first Grapefruit League appearance today. He has pitched in minor league spring training games. ... Brandon Inge, who was scratched from the lineup Friday with lingering soreness after being hit by a pitch March 14, did not play Saturday and is not in the lineup or reserve list for today.

Buried treasure: Andrew McCutchen was scratched from the lineup after experiencing flu-like symptoms. ... Reliever Vin Mazzaro entered Saturday with five strikeouts in 72/3 innings this spring. He struck out five in two innings. ... Florida Gulf Coast University, which upset No. 2 seed Georgetown in the NCAA basketball tournament Friday, threw out the first pitch last week when the Pirates played the Minnesota Twins in Fort Myers, Fla. The entire team jumped over the third-base line on the way to the mound, a move common among superstitious pitchers. Guess it worked.

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Michael Sanserino: msanserino@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1722 or on Twitter @msanserino. First Published March 24, 2013 4:00 AM


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