Five seasons in the minor leagues have brought Brett McKinney to this place, the Triple-A Indianapolis Indians’ dugout, into a conversation about possibly fulfilling a dream.
It could happen today. Perhaps next month. Or maybe never.
That’s how the system works. Keep plugging away and one day you might pick up your phone and major league baseball will be on the other end of the line.
“You work your whole life to get somewhere and now you’re a phone call away, you’re an injury away, you’re somebody having a bad night away,” said McKinney, a 2009 Badin High School graduate. “It’s crazy. Every night you walk into the clubhouse just thinking it could possibly be your time to go up.”
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2015: Double-A in Altoona, Pa.
This is his first year at the Triple-A level, and the right-handed pitcher is doing well. Well enough that an invitation to The Show seems like it may very well be on the horizon.
It sounds good, and it is good. But McKinney isn’t spending his days looking at his phone and nervously waiting for the Pittsburgh Pirates, the organization’s flagship team, to call.
“I know I have to focus on what I’ve got to do here,” he said, “so when that day comes I’m ready and there’s nothing I’ve got to look back on and say I wish I would’ve done.”
Opening some eyes
It’s a warm Saturday evening at Victory Field in downtown Indianapolis, and McKinney hasn’t pitched in a couple days.
The Columbus Clippers are here for an International League affair. Clay Holmes is the starting pitcher for the Indians.
McKinney’s last outing wasn’t great. He threw one inning and served up a three-run homer to Toledo’s Tyler Collins on June 6, elevating his earned run average from 2.45 to 3.38.
Four days later, McKinney is eager to pitch again.
Holmes is getting rocked and can’t make it out of the first inning. McKinney is used to being a middle- to late-inning reliever, but the first inning? It’s not exactly something you prepare yourself for.
So be it. McKinney comes to the hill and throws 3.1 scoreless innings on a night when four other Indians pitchers combine to give up 13 hits in an 8-4 defeat.
“That’s one of those situations where you’re ready, but you’re not ready,” McKinney said. “But you just do what you’ve got to do and try to get as many people out as you can and try to save the rest of the bullpen.
“This is the type of stuff I’m going to have to do consistently, and if I get to the big leagues, it’s the type of stuff I might have to do for a little bit until I prove myself otherwise and earn a role. I did it a little last year and kind of struggled with it. To do it now and have a little success doing it, I think it’s opening some eyes.”
That’s really what it’s all about when you’re a minor league player. Opening some eyes, turning some heads, making people believe you have what it takes to succeed at the game’s highest level.
McKinney, who spent all of last season and part of the 2015 campaign with the Double-A Altoona (Pa.) Curve, is 2-1 with a 3.00 ERA in 19 appearances. He’s got 25 strikeouts and 11 walks in 30 innings.
Indianapolis pitching coach Stan Kyles likes what he’s seeing from McKinney.
“His best asset is he’s so versatile as a pitcher,” Kyles said. “He’s our Swiss Army knife. You can put him in any situation and he can do it effectively.”
McKinney is dedicated to being a reliever, though the Indians needed him to start a game May 19. He was happy to do it, allowing one run in four innings in a 7-1 win over Toledo.
“It was pretty cool,” McKinney said. “I didn’t want to go through pro ball and and say I never started a game, so now I’ve done it. But I think relieving is the best chance that I’ll have to not only get to the big leagues, but to have a pretty good career in the big leagues.”
The mound repertoire
McKinney has always been a hard thrower. He’s consistently 93 to 95 on the radar gun with his fastball.
He said he’s essentially throwing three different fastballs and a curveball while opting to scrap the changeup.
His go-to pitch is the cutter, or a cut fastball. McKinney said in simple terms, it’s a pitch that at the last second will break toward a pitcher’s glove side. For him, that means away from righties and into lefties.
“So I’m getting a lot of weak contacts,” McKinney said. “I’m getting in on a lot of lefties off the handle, and I’m getting a lot of righties off the end of the bat. That’s helped tremendously because it’s saving me from having guys fouling fastballs off and then I’ve got to try to strike them out. I’ve done a lot better job of getting people out early in counts.”
Kyles talks constantly about pitching down in the strike zone. Strikeouts are nice, but if you can get routine outs with less pitches, clearly that’s a more efficient path to follow.
“I wouldn’t be surprised to see this guy pitching in the big leagues because he’s that good and he’s willing to work at it,” Kyles said. “Obviously his stuff plays, but when you get to this level, the mentality is the most important thing. He’s showing that he’s made of the right stuff.”
McKinney is listed at 6-foot-2 and 225 pounds. His weight was important to him in the offseason, so he took a head-on approach to it.
When spring training started in 2016, he was around 250. When spring training started this year, he was about 25 pounds lighter.
“That’s probably the lightest I’ve been since my sophomore or junior year in high school,” McKinney said. “I was always kind of afraid to do it because I didn’t know what would happen. I’ve always been kind of a bigger guy.
“But it was something I wanted to try. I started working out at the Playground (near) Ross, and I changed the way I ate. I ate what I needed, what I knew was good for me and what would help my body recover and have energy. But I quit eating for the joy of it, which I had done in the past a lot.”
The weight loss has added to his stamina this year. His velocity is more consistent. “I was tired of being 92, 93 when I knew 95, 96 was in the tank,” McKinney said.
Making it to Triple-A wasn’t a given this year, but a strong spring training led to his promotion to Indianapolis.
“I honestly feel like I earned a spot,” McKinney said. “It was probably the first time where I feel like I actually went in, fought for a spot and won it. It wasn’t just kind of handed to me because that was the next step.”
Chasing a dream
Brion Treadway was a Badin assistant coach when McKinney and the Rams finished as Division III state runners-up in 2008 and 2009.
Treadway, now Badin’s head coach, knows a few things about life in the minors. He pitched four seasons (2000, 2002, 2003, 2004) in the San Francisco Giants organization and got as high as Double-A.
“My story was a lot different,” Treadway said. “I think Brett’s been able to stay healthy, and he’s always had the physical tools. There’s never been a doubt in my mind that Brett McKinney would pitch in the big leagues. He’s always had that ‘it’ factor. Even when he was a pudgy freshman that didn’t know what working hard meant, he still had it.
“Brett possesses the mental toughness that you’ve got to have to play in professional baseball. In high school, some of his teammates may not have embraced that aspect of his game. He was not afraid to call people out at any time, and high school kids don’t always know how to take that. But I think he’s always had the respect of his teammates.”
The minor leagues can be a grind physically and mentally. It’s a succeed-or-disappear business with no shortcuts.
“To say it’s a grind, yes,” Treadway said. “But a grind sounds like a negative spin. Brett’s playing the game and chasing a dream and having a real possibility to achieve it, and I think that’s all you could ever ask for.”
Treadway said one of the hardest parts of pro baseball is that you’re competing against your teammates for roster spots, playing time and, ultimately, money.
The quickest ways to the major leagues? Injuries and the parent club struggling.
As much as he wants to get to the next level, McKinney said it would be bad form to root for injuries or Pittsburgh defeats. The Pirates are currently in last place in the National League Central Division.
“A lot of those guys up there right now are friends of mine,” McKinney said. “I never wish bad on anybody. Honestly, yes, that is the quickest way to get there. But at the same time, it’s also that whole something given to you vs. something earned.
“If I sit here and root for somebody to have a bad night or get hurt, then in the long run, I might make it to the big leagues. But did I earn it or did I just happen to get there because I was the next guy up?”
If McKinney does become a major leaguer, his first game will have at least one of his former coaches in attendance.
“Yes. One hundred percent,” Treadway said. “I don’t care where it is. I’ll be there.”
Life in the minors
McKinney is enjoying his time in Indianapolis, where the Indians draw an average of nearly 8,000 fans.
His in-season home is about 15 minutes south of downtown in Southport. He shares a two-bedroom apartment with his wife Ashley and Indians pitcher Tyler Eppler and his wife Marissa.
McKinney is still three classes short of getting his sports industry degree from Ohio State University, but he vows that task will get done.
He got drafted by Pittsburgh in the 19th round of the 2013 amateur draft. It was one of those life-altering days.
“I didn’t know if it was going to happen,” McKinney said. “I didn’t talk to a lot of people. I didn’t have an agent. I was just hoping and praying that somebody would give me a shot.
“My brother Chad and I were going to move a mattress from his house. He came to pick me up at my parents’ house while the draft was going on. We went up the block and turned around and were coming back down, and I got a text message from a buddy at school that said, ‘Congratulations. I told you it was going to be a good day.’
“I yelled at Chad to stop the truck and my mom and dad came running out of the front door of the house screaming that I got drafted by the Pirates. Some family and friends came over, and we had a little bit of a party. By the time we had all hugged and mom was crying and I was crying, my phone rang and it was the scout that was with the Pirates from the area. He was calling to tell me I got drafted and that I had to be in Florida to sign in two days.
“I flew out Monday morning to Florida and signed, and I flew Tuesday morning to Jamestown, N.Y., to start short-season professional baseball. The rest is a bunch of little footnotes to get to where we’re at now.”
McKinney was the 569th player chosen in that draft. He’s confident that he will make it to the major leagues.
“If I didn’t think so, I wouldn’t be doing it,” McKinney said. “The hardest part about professional baseball is for the first four or five levels, it feels like it’s forever away. Then you get into Double-A and it’s like, ‘OK, it’s getting closer.’ Now you’re in Triple-A and it’s right there.
“It’s surreal that I’m here, a small-town kid from nowhere that has found himself this close to being on the biggest stage in the world playing against the best baseball players in the world. I’m playing a game for a living at 26 years old, and I’m a phone call away from being in the big leagues.
“I don’t have a timeline. I don’t know when. I don’t know how. I don’t know with who. But it is going to happen.”