Hal McRae never carried the duffel bag full of bats in his car. He never was in charge of the stuffed canvas bases. He never made those million-and-one phone calls on a drizzly morning—"Yes, the game is still on"—to a list of names and numbers on a mimeographed sheet. He never presided over the awards dinner at the local Pizza Hut, handing out satin jackets and extra-cheese slices to the winners of the postseason tournament. Hal McRae never managed his son.
"I was busy," the new Kansas City Royals manager says. "I was playing baseball. I was on the road. I had games every night. How could I be involved with any of my son's teams? I didn't even have a chance to watch his games."
For 23 years, the demands of a professional baseball life were constant. How could McRae be a full-time dad? There were 162 games in a major league season, and there was spring training in March and eight trips to the playoffs and four to the World Series in the fall. What could he do? He was in Syracuse when the first son was born in Bradenton, Fla. When the second son arrived, McRae was with the Royals in Chicago. He did not see that son until six weeks had passed. McRae was at home for the birth of his daughter. She had the good sense to be born in the off-season.
June 16, 1991
There was an endless list of family events missed, of childhood milestones that came and went without him. The first words were missed. The first steps were missed. There were no visits to parent-teacher nights. There was little time for class plays or proms or American Legion thrillers. The job of raising the kids belonged mostly to McRae's wife, Johncyna. His job was to hit the slider, to ride with the pitch and spank it in the easiest direction. Five seasons in the minors. Three seasons in Cincinnati. Fifteen in K.C.
He saw the kids as much as he could, of course, and talked with them and listened to their problems, but he could not do more. Baseball paid the bills. Baseball was the every-day drain on his time and energy. There was an irony here, because after a while his older son, Brian, had become very good at this game. Hal did not know how good. He heard about Brian's abilities from his wife and from people in the game, but he could not see for himself. He did not know.
He has become the fourth manager in major league history to manage his son. When he took the Kansas City job on May 24 after John Wathan was fired, McRae joined Connie Mack, Yogi Berra and Cal Ripken Sr. in this small group. Brian is his regular centerfielder. Brian is his leadoff hitter. Brian is one of his team's RBI leaders. It is a bit of a revelation. Hal says he probably has seen Brian play more games since he became manager than he saw in the rest of his son's life.
"How many games is that?" he is asked.
The 45-year-old McRae checks his statistics sheet. On this day the total is 11.
"I grew up in this ballpark," says Brian McRae, 23, as he sits in the Royals Stadium dugout. "I know everything about this place. I've been everywhere. In all the tunnels, all the storage rooms. I've watched games from the last seats in the upper deck. I've been running around here since 1973."
Brian was five years old when he first ran across the outfield carpet where he now works for money. His father would bring him along to the games. He had a succession of undersized Royals uniforms, and he dressed at his father's locker. Brian's friends were the sons of other players on those good Royals teams of the '70s: Lee May Jr.; Jon Pattin, son of pitcher Marty Pattin; Barry Otis, son of center-fielder Amos Otis. Royals Stadium was their playground.
They would shag balls in the outfield. Sometimes there would be instructions from a coach or a game of catch with a famous name, but oftentimes there would not be. The kids invented their own fun.
"We played a lot of tape-ball games in the Royals bullpen," Brian says. "We made up our own rules. You'd get various hits for hitting different pieces of equipment stored in the bullpen. A double or something would go off a John Deere tractor. Nobody could hit the ball over the fence. We were just kids."
There was no great pressure on Brian to learn the game or to begin developing into a future star. In fact, there was a lack of pressure. His father didn't even let him play Little League until he was in the seventh grade.
"I just didn't feel comfortable with the Little League at that time," Hal says. "I'm not exactly sure why, but I know I didn't feel comfortable. I was worried about having a son and everyone having great expectations about him. My second son, Cullen, played Little League, and it was fine. But second sons are different. The first one, you worry about everything. You're just learning. The second son just grows up a lot easier."
The father's idea was that learning baseball should be a natural process. Just go out there and play. Have some fun and figure out things for yourself. If you're good, someone will come along when you're older and give you some help. That was how Hal had learned as a kid in Avon Park, Fla. His father, Willie James, had been a player and then a manager in the all-black leagues of central Florida, but Willie James never pushed the game on his sons. The push simply came from the environment. Everybody played. Avon Park was a baseball town.
There were sandlot games sometimes that involved only people named McRae. Willie James McRae had 10 kids, six of them boys. Willie's brother, who lived next door, had 11 kids. Everybody played baseball together. There was a team of mostly McRaes, the Avon Park Black Tigers, that traveled around the area, playing everywhere, going as far as Bradenton to play the Bradenton Nine Devils. It was Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars stuff—just red dirt and oral tradition. The basic game.
"I think you learn a lot more about the game—and about yourself—on the sand-lot," Hal says. "You get a lot more swings of the bat. You make your own rules. You solve your arguments. You find out who your leaders are. You don't need parents around. You do everything by yourself. It's dying out, sandlot baseball—maybe it's gone. But it's the best way to learn. I was happy my son had a chance to learn that way."
His son's chance came in Blue Springs, Mo., a Kansas City suburb. Behind the McRae house in the subdivision was an open prairie. Brian and his neighborhood friends borrowed family lawn mowers and cut out their own field. They could play whenever they wanted. What could be better? Brian could go to the big ballpark at night, run around the outfield with the other players' kids, then re-create the moments he saw in the big league park the next day in the prairie park. Sometimes there were only five kids on a side and other times there might be 11, but there always was baseball.
"That's how I became a switch-hitter," Brian says. "Leftfield was short because it ended at a mean lady's yard. When you hit the ball into her yard, she wouldn't give the ball back. I got so I could hit it into the yard pretty often, so I started hitting left-handed so we wouldn't lose the ball. Most of my friends started hitting lefthanded, in fact."
Organized ball began when he was 12. The family lived six months every year in the Blue Springs house and six months in the Bradenton house, so Brian was a student in two different school systems. His high school baseball was played in the spring in Florida. His Babe Ruth and American Legion baseball were played in Missouri. He had two sets of teammates, two sets of friends, two different reputations. In Missouri, he was the son of the All-Star designated hitter. In Florida, he was simply a shortstop with a quick bat and nice range.
His mother was the one who watched all of his games. Johncyna McRae watched more games than anyone. She watched her son's games in the afternoon and her husband's games at night. Or vice versa. If there was a conflict, she mostly followed her son.
"It's funny," Johncyna says. "I'd get real nervous at Brian's games. I'd really be hoping he'd do well. Hal, for some reason, I'd just say, 'No problem, he'll get a hit.' I guess I'd seen him do it so many times. It was a business. With Brian though, I always was nervous. I'm still nervous."
By the end of his junior year in high school, Brian was a prospect and the scouts were starting to call. At the end of his senior year, he was drafted by the Royals in the first round, the 17th player selected. He also had a football scholarship offer from Kansas—he was a wide receiver and defensive back at Blue Springs High—but was there really any choice? He was on the way, climbing through the minor leagues to get back to where he started. He was 17 years old.
"It mostly was weird, being picked by the Royals," he says. "I knew that some things were said, you know, 'They just picked him because of his dad,' and I wanted to prove them wrong."
"I was happy," Hal says. "I suppose any father is happy when his son comes into the same industry he's in. I thought he had a chance. The few games I'd seen—and I'd probably seen more football games than anything because my season would be done by then—I could see he was an athlete. I thought he had a chance."
The situation this year came as a surprise to both father and son. The father was a batting instructor for the Montreal Expos at the start of the season—so he still couldn't watch Brian play, because he was in a different league. The son had been handed the centerfield spot in the closing days of the Royals' drab 1990 season and kept it with a solid spring. When he had first arrived, Brian was asked if he wanted his father's old number, 11. No, he told them. But he would take 56, he said, because five plus six equals 11. That was close enough. That was as close as father and son needed to be.
But then the Royals sagged again and Wathan was fired and the Royals called. The father's first thoughts were about the son. "I didn't think for one minute about the joys of managing my son," says Hal. "I thought about all the pitfalls. I thought about him being uncomfortable. I thought about me not doing the right thing sometimes because of my son. It was a worry."
The son's first thoughts also were about about the son. "I thought about...it's kind of like having your mother as your teacher in school," says Brian. "I'm trying to become a big league ballplayer. I can't worry about my father. I have to play for myself. That's how this game is."
There was a long conversation between the two before the father took the job. There have not been many conversations since. The father decided the only way he could do the job was to handle his son as just another ballplayer, no better, no worse. The son decided he simply had to play, that there would be the requisite number of father-son stories in the newspapers, but they should be forgotten. He would simply play.
"It's like 1986, when they brought me to training camp and my father still was playing," Brian says. "There were a lot of stories then about bringing me up to play on the same team with him. No father and son ever had played together at the time. We would have been the first. History. I didn't want it. I was afraid they were going to rush me and I wasn't ready. We played in one game together that spring. Everyone was doing the stories. Well, that was nice, but it also was the first time I'd ever played in a major league game. That was what was important to me. I was happy they didn't bring me up."
The sense of joy in all this has been left mostly to the mother. Johncyna is delighted when the concession people and the security people at Royals Stadium tell her how they remember watching her son grow and how happy they are to see him in center-field now. She laughed over a television interview with George Brett, Brian's onetime baby-sitter, who revealed that he used to take Brian and Brett's little nephew to bars and sit them in the corner with Cokes. ("Brian," his mother said, "why didn't you ever tell me that?") She has relished the fact that at last she can watch husband and son at the same time in the same place.
For the past two weeks, though, Johncyna has been back in Bradenton handling the rituals of spring. Cullen, a second baseman, is graduating from Manatee High, and the McRaes' 13-year-old daughter, Leah, is finishing seventh grade. The Bradenton house has to be closed for the season, and the trip north has to be made again.
Johncyna visited Kansas City to watch the first few games of her husband's administration, and as she was leaving, she had only one piece of advice for her oldest son: "I told him, 'Brian, I want you to remember June 16th when it comes up, because that's Father's Day.' Do you know what he says to me? He says, 'Mom, every day now is Father's Day.' "
That is the situation.
Happy Father's Day. From Kansas City.