By Jonathan Hodgson
Brian McRae knows Bo.
Well, sort of.
The Kansas City Royals called McRae up to the major leagues in August of 1990 in a move that corresponded with Bo Jackson landing on the disabled list.
Jackson famously starred as a power-hitting outfielder with the Royals and later the Chicago White Sox and California Angels, and in the off-season was a dominant NFL running back for four years (1987-90) with the Los Angeles Raiders.
“(Jackson) was on the disabled list and I was at double-A in Memphis,” McRae recalled. “They called me up to Kansas City and said I’d probably be up for two weeks or so while Bo was rehabbing his injury and then I’d go back to the minor leagues.”
McRae never went back.
Jackson’s trip to the disabled list prompted the beginning of a 10-year major league career for McRae from 1990 through 1999. He starred for five years with the Royals (1990-94), parts of three with the Chicago Cubs (1995-97) and also had stops with the New York Mets, Colorado Rockies and Toronto Blue Jays between 1997 and 1999.
McRae was in Victoria recently for the HarbourCats Hot Stove event, his first public appearance since signing a two-year deal in late August to become the next head coach of the Victoria HarbourCats of the West Coast League.
He joined fellow major league alum Gregg Zaun and right-handed pitcher Nick Pivetta, a Philadelphia Phillies prospect, Victoria native and former HarbourCat at the event which was sold out by Island baseball, HarbourCats and Blue Jays fans alike.
McRae inherits a program and market that has been on a near-meteoric rise. The HarbourCats won 40 games in 2016, an all-time West Coast League record, have increased their win total in each of their four seasons since their inauguration in 2013, and played before an average crowd of 2,239 fans per game last year, also a WCL record and good for ninth in North America among summer-collegiate clubs.
The only thing missing is playoff success. Despite the 40-win campaign, the HarbourCats were swept in the first round of the WCL playoffs in 2016 by a playoff-savvy Bellingham Bells program who were en route to their second league championship series in three seasons, having claimed the title in 2014.
High expectations suit McRae just fine, but he says that the approach for his players will stay simple.
“I am looking to help the team continue the momentum they have built up to this point, “ said McRae. “Respect the game, play hard, respect your teammates, and respect your opponents. If they do those things, the wins and losses will take care of themselves.”
“Our players will enjoy being in Victoria and will embrace what has happened here before them,” McRae continues. “They will appreciate the fact that we have the best crowds in the league, a good facility and great owners and sponsors. Their top priority as players is to play the game to the best of their ability.”
You would be hard pressed to find a situation in the game of baseball that would rattle the cage of the former first round draft pick from Bradenton, FL who now lives in Kansas City, MO.
Taken 17th overall by the Royals in 1985 out of Manatee High School in Florida, McRae signed and played professionally for 15 seasons including 1,354 games over ten major league seasons.
His final 31 games came as a member of the Toronto Blue Jays at the end of the 1999 season, so you could say the HarbourCats are bringing him back north of the border.
McRae will come to Victoria next summer from the University of Missouri where he is in his first year as a student manager for Tigers baseball team.
As a student manager, he is responsible for details such as stat keeping and field setup in addition to assisting with outfield, hitting and base running instruction.
Coach McRae comes with plenty of book smarts to accompany his baseball acumen.
Fulfilling student manager requirements, he is enrolled 12 credit hours at the University of Missouri, and is taking an additional 12 credit hours at Park University.
Brian’s course load at Missouri includes classes in Spanish, history, and psychology while taking courses in sociology, psychology and marketing at Park as he works towards a degree in psychology with a minor in sociology.
McRae was an assistant coach at Park (NAIA) before joining Missouri under Steve Bieser who was named head coach in the summer.
Bieser and McRae were both members of the Mets organization when Brian was traded to New York in 1997, however that move coincided with Bieser being sent down to triple-A, so the two did not have the opportunity to play together.
Still, they certainly knew of each other.
McRae talks about working with Bieser, who was named the new head coach of the Missouri baseball team in June.
“I saw (Steve) a little bit this past summer while coaching my summer teams,” says McRae. “I placed a phone call to Steve around the fourth of July asking if there was a need (at Missouri) after he was hired.”
As players, McRae was the established veteran who amassed more than 5,000 at bats with 103 home runs and 196 stolen bases over ten years, while Bieser played in 94 games over two seasons.
As coaches however, the tables are turned slightly with McRae taking notes from Bieser, a former 32nd round pick by the Philadelphia Phillies who went on to a 13-year professional playing career.
McRae is eager to learn.
“Steve is the one who has been a head coach at the collegiate level,” said McRae. “I’ve only been an assistant, so it’s nice to be able to take this year to learn from someone who has been in the same position that I have.”
After hanging up his cleats following the 1999, McRae turned to broadcasting, spending two seasons as a baseball analyst at ESPN on Baseball Tonight in 2000-2001. He followed that with seven seasons as an analyst for MLB Radio and MLB.com through 2008.
In 2008, McRae returned to a hands-on role in the game, joining the Kansas City Sluggers baseball program as general manager, operations director and part time coach.
The Sluggers program has two divisions (ages 12-15 and 16-20) both devoted to helping prepare young players to play at the next level whether that be high school or college.
Five graduates of the Sluggers program have reached the majors headlined by Albert Pujols, one of baseball’s all-time greats.
McRae spent a year as an assistant coach with the United States Junior National Team in 2010. McRae was in charge of hitting and outfield while also coaching first base as the best
US-born prospects posted a 19-2 record in preparation for the 18U World Championship.
The Americans went 7-1 at the 18U World Junior Championship which was held at Port Arthur Stadium in Thunder Bay, ON.
Members of that team included 2011 Cleveland first round pick and now star shortstop Francisco Lindor as well as future major league pitchers Michael Lorenzen (Reds) and Lance McCullers (Astros).
Coach McRae parlayed his national team experience into the first head-coaching job of his career with the Morehead City Marlins of the summer-collegiate Coastal Plain League in 2012.
Having played ten years in the major leagues, McRae played with a long list of heavyweight names, many of whom have found a ‘second life’ in the majors following their playing days.
Hall of Fame third baseman George Brett was a teammate of McRae throughout Brian’s time with the Royals. Brett has found success in his post-playing career as an owner and executive of Brett Sports & Entertainment, which owns and operates several minor league sports franchises.
Brett Sports owned the WCL’s Bellingham Bells until they were sold to current owner and operator, Eddie Poplawski in 2010.
Multiple former teammates of McRae’s (Orel Hershiser, Kirk Gibson, Al Leiter, Mark Gubicza, Dan Plesac, Mark Grace) have all gone on to successful broadcasting careers in the major leagues.
Still more (Ryne Sandberg, Scott Servais, Bob Melvin, Robin Ventura) have stayed in the game and made it back to the majors, after simply walking to the end of the dugout to become managers.
If McRae chose, his name could very likely be on both of those lists (His time at ESPN and MLB puts him on the broadcasting list), but that is not the path that he prefers at this time.
McRae’s passion is to mold and mentor the next generation of baseball talent.
“Baseball needs people like myself to come back and teach the next generation, to grow the game and make the game better,” said McRae. “Working at the major league level with all the travel involved didn’t appeal to me. Working with college-aged players best suits what I want to do.”
“The biggest thing I can do for baseball, a game that has given me so much, is to teach the younger players the right way to go about their business,” he continues. “They are going to be our future coaches and our future educators.”
Brian is familiar with the city of Victoria, having visited on a handful of occasions as an instructor for the Blue Jays Honda Super Camps. The Super Camps see Blue Jays alumni stage instructional camps for youth players across Canada. The series has made annual stops at Royal Athletic Park for the past four years.
McRae says that the opportunity to re-enter summer-collegiate baseball in the B.C. capital was too good to pass up.
“The WCL is a very good league,” said McRae. “I wanted to get back into summer-collegiate baseball with players who have aspirations to play at the next level and in an environment that is exciting and fun and makes you want to get up to go to work every day,” he said.
As evidence of the WCL’s continued development and reputation as one of the top summer-collegiate leagues in existence today, McRae joins a growing list of former major league players coaching in the league.
Former major league pitchers Alan Embree and Bob Wells combine for 25 years of experience in the bigs. They also account for seven years in the WCL, with Embree serving on the Bend Elks coaching staff for four years, and Wells holding the Yakima Valley Pippins pitching coach post for three.
McRae has seen all sides of baseball, from playing to coaching to broadcasting at every level. He says that HarbourCats players will receive a well-rounded experience and will be strong ambassadors for the HarbourCats and the game of baseball.
“There are many players who may come to Victoria never having been to Canada before who will realize just how beautiful this part of Canada and Vancouver Island is,” said McRae. “Just by being here, players are impacting their host families, the children in their host families, and you will also see us doing things in the community, so there are a lot of things in a short period of time that we can do to grow the game and make our young men better,” he explains.
Brian McRae spent a large share of his career in blue, be-it Royals’ blue in Kansas City, Cubbies’ pinstripes in Chicago, and with Canada’s major league team, the Blue Jays.
HarbourCats’ blue and white should be a perfect fit on McRae’s iconic number 56 uniform coming to the dugout of Royal Athletic Park in June.
ABOUT THE WEST COAST LEAGUE
The West Coast League is the premier summer collegiate baseball league west of the Mississippi. The 13-year-old, 11-team, professionally operated wood-bat league located in the beautiful Pacific Northwest features pro prospects from major conferences across the nation and an unparalleled history out west of great fan and player experiences in addition to the best summer weather in North America. In 2016, 88 players with WCL experience were selected in the MLB June draft, and more than 230 WCL alums appeared in affiliated professional baseball including 28 in the major leagues, such as 2015 home-run leader Chris Davis (Baltimore), 2015 NL Rookie of the Year runner-up Matt Duffy (Tampa Bay) and rising star pitchers Matt Andriese (Tampa Bay), Matt Boyd (Detroit) and James Paxton (Seattle). Overall member attendance was 379,611 this past season.