Former Atlanta Braves catcher Brian McCann, now with the New York Yankees, lines out during the third inning on Sunday. (Reuters)
TAMPA, Fla. — If it weren’t for the clean shave and the pinstripes, for just a few minutes there Sunday afternoon, it almost looked like Brian McCann had never left the Braves.
The seven-time National League All-Star catcher, who signed a five-year $85 million with the Yankees as a free agent in December, held court with his former teammates while the Braves took batting practice.
“Let it eat,” McCann exclaimed, as he greeted Jason Heyward, who is sporting a full beard this spring. “You going to keep it all year?”
McCann swapped familiar-looking hugs with teammates and friends Freddie Freeman, Dan Uggla and Justin and B.J. Upton. Even bullpen coach Eddie Perez got in on the conversation from the mound between batting practice pitches, shouting: “You shave today?”
While Yankees star Derek Jeter and much of the Yankees roster was in Panama, playing an exhibition series against the Marlins in honor of retired closer Mariano Rivera, McCann stayed behind so he could catch Japanese sensation Masahiro Tanaka.
That also meant he could enjoy some quality time with old friends.
“Today was special for me just because I got to see the guys I played with for a long, long time,” McCann said after the Yankees 7-4 win. “…I’ve got lifelong friends that I’ll be talking to when I’m 70 years old.”
McCann made a point to shake hands and chat a while with Braves general manager Frank Wren and manager Fredi Gonzalez as well.
“The whole experience today was surreal,” McCann said. “I’ve got a lot of friendships over there, and I came in as an 18-year-old kid and turned into a man in that organization. They taught me how to play the game of baseball, and I’ll be forever in debt to them. I loved my time there.”
Sunday gave McCann a chance to dig in against Julio Teheran, a pitcher he caught and helped develop for the last year and a half. Teheran got McCann to swing and miss a couple of sliders and then struck him out on a 95 mph fastball away in his first at-bat.
“He’s turning into an ace,” McCann said. “To face him and to see his ball explode out of his hand, it gives you a different look. He’s just going to keep getting better and better. The sky is the limit for him.”
With two runners on and nobody out in the first inning, Teheran escaped the jam by striking out three former Braves Mark Teixeira, McCann and Kelly Johnson. But McCann was the only one he knew well personally.
“It was a little emotional,” said Teheran, who said he didn’t make eye contact with McCann until his next at-bat. “I tried to strike him out, so I did.”
McCann exacted a little revenge in the third inning, lining a ball just past Teheran before shortstop Andrelton Simmons snared it. “He almost got my face,” Teheran said afterward, smiling.
“I cheated on a fastball,” said McCann, who knows Teheran’s patterns as well as anybody. “I kind of figured he was going to throw that.”
McCann got a chance for a playful tussle with Simmons at second base in his third and final at-bat after he doubled off the right field wall off Atahualpa Severino to drive in two runs.
The Braves will see McCann again on Wednesday in Lake Buena Vista. He might not normally make that trip as a veteran, but he’ll be catching Ivan Nova that day. McCann has been catching more in spring training than he typically would to get to know his new pitching staff.
“It’s been everything I could have ever dreamed of,” he said of his experience so far with the Yankees. “…I understand there’s a business side of everything. I’m thankful to be in the spot I’m in, great organization, great people, and not everybody gets to play in one spot their whole career.”