We were lucky enough to have former Pittsburgh Pirates catcher, and current announcer, Michael McKenry agree to give us some of his time for an interview in which he discussed life, baseball and more.
During my time at Rum Bunter I have had the pleasure of making connections with genuinely incredible people. Today was no different as I had the pleasure to sit down and speak with former Pittsburgh Pirates catcher and current AT&T SportsNet announcer “The Fort” Michael McKenry.
For those of you who don’t know who McKenry is, well, what is wrong with you? Luckily for anyone who does not who The Fort, as he is affectionately known by Pittsburgh Pirates fans, was kind enough to give a brief description of who he is exactly as a person. “I’m a hard nosed, hard working, and sports loving guy. I’m very blue collar with an amazing wife. I’m someone who has chased everything with my hair on fire my entire life.” The Fort also mentioned if he had to use one or two words to describe himself, it would be “God fearing.”
To get inside the mind of McKenry, I wanted to know if any particular driving forces in his life made him want to play baseball. “Not really. I had a fire lit underneath me as a kid, and I was always a self motivator. I didn’t need anyone to tell me to get extra reps in or go to practice. I was almost annoying asking my parents always to take me to this place or that place because I wanted to play for every team possible.”
Michael continued, “If I had to say someone from the Major Leagues, it would be Jackie Robinson. The way he carried himself after doing some book reports on him, I just fell in love with his character. Somebody that can not only go through what he was going through off the field and perform on the field and do it with such high character is remarkable.”
Now, as most of you know, I’m a big fan of minor league baseball, and when I looked at Michael’s history, I noticed he spent nine years in total in the minors. I wanted to know how his time in the minors was and if it was frustrating or not.
“It depends on when you ask me. I’ll always say I enjoyed the journey, but I had to remind myself of that sometimes. There were times when I’d let the game control too much of my life, and when that happened, it was usually a bad thing. Baseball has always come number two if not number three in my life. God being first and my wife being second.”
“When I kept that head space, I was in a good place and when I didn’t, and I put too much pressure on myself. When you start playing GM, it’s never a good thing. You have to control the controllable and forget about everything else. When I got called up in 2010, and when I played in the minors in 2017, it was a big difference. Going back down and being the mentor in 2017, they called me dad. I was an extension of the coaching staff, and it was a completely different from 2010.” He went on to say how incredible it was to see in a six or seven year span how much things can change in your career, and it was a blessing.
When you hear The Fort talk, it just seems he could be a coach at some point in his life. So I figured I’d ask the obvious and see if he has given any thought on becoming a coach. “I’ve been told I was going to be a coach my whole life. When push came to shove, and I was ready to walk away from the game, I wasn’t ready to coach yet. I wanted to learn more and understand the front office side and the analytical side, and I’ve been blessed with AT&T because I get an oversight of everyone and not just on one team and see from a bunch of different lenses. This gives you an opportunity to open up Pandora’s Box and sift through the things you like and don’t like. You get the opportunity to gain knowledge which then turns into wisdom, and THEN, maybe, one day I’ll coach.”
Sticking with the coaching them, I was curious about what coach had the most significant influence on his life.
“Probably one of my favorite men in the world who is Tommy Farr. He was my high school coach he won national coach of the year a couple of times, and I think 11-12 state titles now. I was part of his first championship in 2003, and he’s such a special human being, and it was because of who he was as a human being more than a coach. Even if you talk to him now, he’s continuing to be a life learner, and you have to respect the man for all he’s accomplished. He cares more about the human being than he does the ballplayer, and I think that’s really important when you breakdown someone you look up to.”
The Fort continued with a second coach, “The guy that has grabbed hold of me since I’ve been out of the game is Jerry Weinstein. He’s one of the best catching guys in all of baseball, and he’s a big reason why I retired. I called him and said listen, Jerry, I have this opportunity to play with a team I wanted to play for who has contacted me and given me an incredible chance to come in and make the team, and then I have the AT&T opportunity what should I do? He asked me one question, would you be upset to breakdown someone you’re better than? When I said no, he said, take the job.”
McKenry equated his experience with John Gruden’s experience as an announcer with his. “When John Gruden took the job with the Raiders, he said I wouldn’t take one minute away from the time I had being an analyst because I got to learn from 30 different teams.” When you have the opportunity to take “the leap,” as McKenry said, you have to do it.
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Being a catcher, The Fort has seen many pitchers throws to his glove, but I wanted to know if there were any that stood out to him as special. “There has been a lot across the journey, but I’d say one of the first ones was Jhoulys Chacin. He really stood out, he could be bad and still be really good at a young age. That was one of the first guys I caught where I realized he’s just different, and the ball moves all over the place.”
“Samuel Deduno was another one I caught. He pitched for the Dominican Republic in the World Baseball Classic in that final game. He still has special stuff just started a little late, but there were a ton of guys that wowed me. There are even guys that wowed me that never came close to the Majors. That’s the baffling thing about baseball. It’s not always about who has the best talent that makes it to the top. Some of the best pitching I ever caught as a whole was my last year with Tampa. You look across the board, they throw a hundred their stuff is absolutely nasty. It’s remarkable what they put together over there.”
One of the most extraordinary years for me came in my graduating year of high school, and that was in 2013. Coincidentally, that was the year of “CUETO” chants and the feel of the Pittsburgh Pirates playing winning baseball again. I wanted to hear from The Fort himself on what the city felt like to him that magical playoff year.
“Going into that year, there was something to prove. In 2011 we fell off and the same with 2012 and in 2013 we felt there was a bigger chip on our shoulders. Things got a little bit bigger, and we were more consistent throughout the year and had more depth throughout the roster. I think from day one in spring training on, we just had a different edge, and it carried on throughout the season. I think it rippled through Pittsburgh, and the fans picked up on it, and they got that edge too.”
“Being in Pittsburgh quite a bit over the last ten years it makes me realize that they want to win and they want winning baseball. If you leave it all out there every single day, they will ride and die with you. If you complain and don’t show up the right way, they’ll bury you. I hope when Pittsburgh Pirates teams of the future look back, they see that and carry that same mentality with them. You can go back all the way to the 70s with cut throat baseball rough around the edges style. I think that’s the way the Pittsburgh community wants you to play.”
McKenry is a big proponent of advanced stats, especially when it comes to the catching position. In the world of advanced catching stats a word that keeps coming up is pitch framing or receiving. I wanted him to explain just what that is and why it’s essential.
“Stealing strikes turns into runs saved, so the better you can receive the baseball, the better you can help your team. You can have much more impact on the game with receiving than you can with blocking runs saved and throwing runs saved.”
He continued, “Austin Hedges last year had 28 runs saved, so let’s put that in perspective. He saved 28 runs receiving the baseball, and you take a guy who saved seven runs, so he saved 21 more runs than the other guy. Even if the other guy had 20 more RBIs on his batting stats, I say Austin Hedges was better because he still had one more run saved than the other guy. A guy who can call a good game, has a good ERA, a good report with his pitching staff, and can receive the ball is going to impact the game day in and day out.”
He went on to mention how cool it was to see these different stances and more athletic guys looking to impact the game in this way and how crucial that is. “Even if you went 0-4 at the plate, but you saved three runs with your receiving, and your team won by three, you made the most impact on your team that day. I guarantee you if you go talk to any pitcher in baseball, you’re going to hear I want a guy who can receive the ball and call a good game.”
For all of you Jacob Stallings haters, I suggest you leave now. I was one of his supporters last year purely on his defensive acumen, so I asked McKenry what he thought of the Pittsburgh Pirates new every day backstop.
“I think there were only four guys ranked in the top 20 in receiving, blocking, and throwing, and he was one of them. He had a plus value in all aspects catching plus he had the best catching ERA on the staff. So not only does he have a good ERA, but he receives blocks and throws in the top 20 in the entire league. If he can grow off of last year and get in the top ten in those categories, he might win a Gold Glove.”
“That being said if he hits .250-.260 drive in 50-60 runs and then saving 20+ runs, you’re talking about a guy with potentially 70 RB’s if you factor in his defensive runs saved with his receiving, blocking and throwing. I think he’s going to throw people for a loop with his ability.” See, I told you, The Fort knows his stuff and is a stat head like me.
To get a little bit of an understanding of the pitching coach and catcher dynamic, I wanted to know how often a catcher would be right there talking to the pitching coach.
“I think it’s a little different for everyone. Personally, I was always on their hip. I thought it was important to be the extension of his voice. I always wanted to be as close to him as I could because if I wasn’t into what he was talking about day in day out with the pitchers, I shouldn’t have a voice. I tried to play that mediator I wanted to be as good as I could be for the pitching coach, but my number one priority was the pitcher. If the pitching coach and the pitcher were butting heads, I would always be on the pitcher’s side.”
“When you’re not playing it’s important that you’re with that pitching coach or bench coach to understand how the game flows, what you should be prepared for, and how to play the game within the game. I’m already playing things out in my mind, and if player X is coming in I don’t want them to face (Bryce) Harper even though they’re a lefty I don’t like that match up I’d rather them face (Ryan) Zimmerman so let’s be careful around Harper and focus on Zimmerman.”
Some of The Fort’s breakout Pittsburgh Pirates prospects for 2020 were Mitch Keller, Ke’Bryan Hayes, and Blake Cederlind. The interesting pick for me was Hayes and not because I don’t believe in him, I genuinely do. The reason for me was the comparison he used in Nolan Arenado. I love that comparison, and, as McKenry said, Nolan was told he would never have a good bat, and you start to see the resemblance right away. Now, Arenado is hitting consistently around .300 and right around 40 homers a year. So, maybe good things to come from young Ke’Bryan soon.
Now we get to the meat of the conversation…. literally! Growing up in Tennessee, I wanted to know where I could get some delicious food once this quarantine is over. He mentioned you have to look around because some of the holes in the walls offer some of the best food you will ever eat. This was extremely fun and a neat experience to have with The Fort, and I can’t wait to hear more of his insight and knowledge when this season does eventually get underway. He will be a great addition to the full-time announce team for the Pittsburgh Pirates.