Brian McCann's hard work and attention to all facets of his game has paid off for the Georgia native, who's become one of the best catchers in the history of the Atlanta Braves.
"He was a very young guy, eager to learn, especially about handling the pitching staff," recalled Randy Ingle, who managed McCann in 2004 at Class A Advanced Myrtle Beach. "I'll never forget him coming in the dugout between innings and talking to [pitching coach] Bruce Del Canton and he would pick Bruce's brain about pitch selection."
McCann started at Duluth High School, where he was named to the 2002 USA Today ALL-USA Baseball Team during his senior year after hitting .460 with 28 RBIs and 12 home runs that season. After totaling 42 bombs over his four years, he was chosen by his favorite team in the second round of the Draft later that summer.
"The day I was drafted by the Braves," McCann told MLB.com, "was one of the happiest days of my life."
The Athens native signed in July and was assigned to the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League. He struggled there, hitting .220 with two homers in 29 games, but the Braves thought the left-handed hitter was ready for Class A South Atlantic League to begin the 2003 season.
"When I came to Spring Training, I remember telling (Minor League coordinator) Jim Beauchamp and (director of player development) Dayton Moore, 'I'm an outsider, but this kid's got some talent,'" recalled Rocket Wheeler, who went on to manage McCann in the Rome Braves' inaugural season.
McCann blossomed in Rome alongside teammate and childhood friend Jeff Francoeur, batting .290 with 12 homers and 71 RBIs while leading the R-Braves to a 78-61 regular-season record and the league championship.
"He had a good year that year," Wheeler said. "He knew what he wanted to do at the plate. Usually, you get a young kid coming up like that, they just want to hack. ... As an 18-year-old, he drew a leadoff walk in the game we won for the championship.
"We protected him a little that year, DH'd him a lot. We brought him along because he was a young 'un."
Even with his Major League success, McCann still cherishes his fond memories of that magical campaign.
"The fans in Rome and the city just kind of took us all in. ... We reminisce about that season. Winning a championship in the first season in a new stadium that just opened, it was surreal," he said at an R-Braves banquet in January of this year. "You can't write a better script than that."
Beyond the team's success, the 2003 season was fruitful on a personal level for McCann; he was named a South Atlantic League All-Star and pegged as the Atlanta organization's No. 8 prospect by Baseball America.
"As an 18-year-old, he was accurate with his throws, blocking balls and just working with the pitchers," Wheeler said. "Pitchers loved to throw to him. John Smoltz loved throwing to him because he's so quiet back there."
McCann continued to thrive the following season at Myrtle Beach, where he slugged 16 homers and finished second in the Carolina League with 51 extra-base hits. He moved up to No. 3 on the list of Braves' prospects.
"Brian used the whole field. For a young guy to use the whole field, that's pretty special," Ingle said. "He was a pure hitter. You could tell he was a very special player."
McCann wasted little time adjusting to the Southern League, homering in his first game with Double-A Mississippi. He hit .265 with six homers in 48 games with the M-Braves before being promoted to the Majors to replace injured veteran Eddie Perez.
Expected to stay with Atlanta for only a short time, McCann earned a permanent roster spot by batting .385 in June. Still only 21, he capped his season with two homers in the National League Division Series against the Houston Astros.
Now regarded as one of the Majors' best catchers, McCann is the first Braves backstop to make four All-Star teams since Joe Torre. And he's one of only 10 catchers in big league history to win multiple Silver Slugger Awards.
Minor League career breakdown
||2002: McCann played 29 games with the Gulf Coast League Braves after signing with Atlanta on July 11. He hit .220 with two homers and 11 RBIs in his first exposure to professional baseball.
||2003: McCann spent the entire season with the Class A Rome Braves of the South Atlantic League. He played in 115 games and rebounded from his poor GCL showing by batting .290 with 12 homers and 71 RBIs. He also earned a spot on the South Atlantic League All-Star team.
||2004: McCann continued to raise his profile in his only season with Class A Advanced Myrtle Beach. He smacked 16 homers and drove in 66 in 111 games, ranking fourth in the Carolina League with a .494 slugging percentage.|
||2005: McCann started the year at Double-A Mississippi and played only 48 games before being promoted to the Major Leagues, where he hit .278 with five homers in 59 games. He ended his rookie season by homering twice in the National League Division Series against Houston.