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He ‘Ads’ up to a Pirate
Michael McKenry traces roots from Cedar Bluff Middle School hoops, FHS Baseball en route to MLB starting catcher in Pittsburgh


Making his mark among older kids in Little League Baseball, Michael McKenry's desire to overcome a lack of height was honed through success as a Cedar Bluff Middle School hoops player.

But his skills as a catcher started being perfected under head coach Tommy Pharr at Farragut High School, which led to All-American honors at Middle Tennessee State University.

It's culminated in Major League Baseball with his near perfect timing in Pittsburgh: traded from Class AAA Pawtucket (Boston Red Sox organization) to the Pirates in mid-June before being thrust into the starting catching role less than 48 hours later — hitless in just eight career MLB plate appearances.


“It was kind of a shock and a whirlwind,” said McKenry, still holding on as Pirates starting catcher (30 games through July 24, .253 batting average, 1 home run, 6 RBI, four caught-stealing putouts) for an organization seriously contending for a playoff spot for the first time since 1992.

“I'll never forget, after the first game, going through the line and high-fives, and how I felt like I had been on that team for a while,” McKenry said. “Just because of how they accepted me so fast.”

Expressing confidence that he was ready to handle Major League pitchers behind the plate, “I just like being a boss … I love taking control; I like the leadership qualities that a catcher has to have,” McKenry said.

Calling games for one of the better pitching staffs in the National League, “It's been very gratifying for me to be a part of this, these low-scoring games, so many shutouts that we've had,” he said.

McKenry, 26, gives much credit to Pharr, now head coach at Christian Academy of Knoxville.

“Coach Pharr started teaching us how to call the game and how to work the game and how to control everything,” he said. “And coach Pharr not only taught me how to be a better baseball player, he taught me how to be a better man. That was his No. 1 priority.”

McKenry remembers Pharr posting quotes in the clubhouse to help inspire the team. “Make us remember how fortunate we really are, like a story about a Special Olympics kid that overcame so many problems,” McKenry said.

“And he still does it at CAK. I spend a lot of time in the off-season with coach Pharr. … I do all my [off-season] hitting over at CAK” in the school's 7,000 square foot indoor workout facility.

“We talk about life a lot.”

Getting his first taste of MLB last fall as a Colorado Rockie, “I got to spend a lot of time with Todd Helton … he would always put his arm around me and try to help me any way he could,” McKenry said.

“My first [MLB] career start ever was the last game of the season last year, and I struck out four times,” McKenry added. “It was a tough, tough game, but it was a learning experience.”

Listed at 5-foot-10, 200 pounds by the Pirates, McKenry said he’s always battled the perception of being too small.

“Ever since I was a little kid, I was always told, 'You're not going to be able to do it,'” he said. “'You're not going to be able to play college baseball, you're not going to be able to play professional baseball. It puts a little fire underneath me, a little bit more drive.”

Pharr said about his MLB status, “With his height and everything, he was probably a long shot … I'm probably a little surprised just because of his size.”

However, Pharr added McKenry “is just a tremendous worker and great leader … probably the hardest worker of anybody that we had come through. He's the kind of guy that all the other guys followed. Had a great arm back there. … And he was such a good hitter.”

But Pharr said he learns from McKenry and Brett Carroll, former Bearden star with the Milwaukee Brewers who also hits at CAK in the off-season. “I just like to talk to them and learn from them. People have taught them different things and shown them different things,” he said.

“Mike and Brett are both just solid Christian men, and a lot of fun to be around.”

 

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