James McCann doesn't remember how old he was, but he remembers it clearly. The day he and his dad went to a park with a baseball. Pick a spot on a chain link fence, his dad told him. Now, hit that two-inch intertwined diamond, and that spot only. Again. And again.
"You better be able to hit this spot or you're not gonna be able to play at the next level," McCann remembers his father saying.
The chain link fence was soon surpassed by the brick wall in the yard behind McCann's house. The target became a single brick on the wall, where McCann dedicated himself to being able to hit his target with precision. If it wasn't within a couple of baseballs of that target, it wasn't good enough. Start over. Do it again. It became a way of life, a mentality ingrained in McCann's mind from an early age.
"I remember as a kid, every night, going out there and just throwing to that brick," McCann said. "I'd choose that one brick and I'd constantly throw, throw, throw, throw. I did the thing with the brick in the backyard on my own, but as early as I can remember, as soon as I was able to play catch, catch the ball and throw the ball, that was one of the first things (my dad) taught me."
It was an ability that McCann became proud of, a badge of honor he owes to his father. Fast forward to 2008, when McCann was drafted in the 31st round by the Chicago White Sox. He did not sign, choosing instead to attend the University of Arkansas, where he sharpened his education and his baseball skills. It paid off.
Two years of higher education and a semifinalist for the Johnny Bench Award later, McCann earned a spot on the United States national team for the 2011 Baseball World Cup and the 2011 Pan American Games, where he won the silver medal. This time the Detroit Tigers drafted McCann in the second round, 76th overall, their first selection of that draft, and the first of four catchers. And this time, McCann signed.
McCann, now 24, wasn't well known in the minors until last year. Even then, he was known for his accurate defense that came equipped with a cannon -- or a McCannon as has become the preferred reference regarding his arm. McCann's ability at the plate was the surprise between the two. Not just because he was viewed as a defense-first player, but because he was a catcher on top of it all.
McCann made his MLB debut for the Tigers on Sept. 1, 2014, as one of several minor leaguers called up for the final month of the regular season amid the American League Central pennant race. Fans hoped McCann would quickly become a fixture behind the plate, replacing Bryan Holaday despite no major league experience. The Tigers had other plans, taking a long-term approach rather than a quick fix.
Of his nine appearances that month, McCann made two starts, getting three hits in 12 plate appearances. There were mistakes behind the plate. The lack of major league experience and nerves showed. And McCann wasn't comfortable. That changed this spring. The difference between being thrown into the fire without having grown with the team throughout the season, to being that permanent fixture from the start, made a huge difference for McCann.
"It's a lot more relaxing to know that each and every guy has my back," McCann said. "It's not like I'm here and -- yeah I'm a rookie and I'm trying to prove myself and prove my worth, but at the same time every guy here knows what I can do and understands where I'm coming from.
"Last year, no one knew me from Adam other than who I was from spring training. Just being able to know that those guys have my back in every situation, it makes it a lot more relaxing."
When starter Alex Avila became sidelined with an injury to his left knee, McCann was immediately given the responsibility of fulfilling that role full-time -- both behind and at the plate. He took to the adjustment well, and in doing so gave the Tigers something they hadn't had with a bat in the No. 2 spot for some time. Offense.
So far this season McCann is batting .286/.324/.419 with six doubles, 11 RBI, and two home runs. But the current results didn't come the easy way. Much like McCann's first home run -- an inside the parker -- he had to work hard for it. Waiting two years may not have been the easy route, but anything worth doing well is worth the extra time and effort.
Avila will be back at some point this season, but the opportunity to start more often has increased McCann's comfort level at the plate and allowed him to adjust to opposing pitchers. For a player in his first full season at the major league level, there will come a point where opposing pitchers will begin to adjust to McCann. Whether McCann can counter that will be the test. His work behind the plate, however, should only continue to improve.
In spring training during a catcher's competition that McCann won, his accuracy was noticeable. McCann has quickly been recognized as a premier defensive player this season, and his 47 percent caught stealing rate far surpasses the league average of 33 percent. Defensively, he still has much to learn. But for a player who has spent less than five months with the Tigers' pitching staff, he's done well.
The precision McCann worked on with his dad, has translated to the majors well. McCann no longer aims for the diamond on the fence, but for the far-improved Tigers infield gloves instead. The lesson remains the same. Always hit your spot and work hard. And with the Tigers, McCann has done just that.