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McCann reflects fondly on his time with Braves

Yanks backstop has 'nothing but positive memories' of playing in Atlanta

ATLANTA -- When Howie McCann received two tickets for the first regular-season game played at Turner Field, he flipped a coin to determine which of his two teenage sons would accompany him.

Sixteen years later, Chipper Jones and Andruw Jones are the only two men who have played more games at Turner Field than the kid whose first entry into the stadium came courtesy of winning that coin flip.

"That is just surreal," Brian McCann said when informed of that fact. "I grew up a big Braves fan. To be able to say I played the first half of my career in Atlanta and to be mentioned in the same breath as those guys, I really don't have the words for it. This is where I grew up and this is home for me."

While Atlanta will continue to serve as his home and the place where he spent the first nine seasons of his Major League career, McCann now looks forward to beginning the newest chapter of his life -- with the Yankees, who lured him to New York with a five-year, $85 million contract.

But as McCann prepares to become part of a history enriched by Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and Mickey Mantle, he carries nothing but fond memories away from the opportunity he had to spend the early part of his career playing alongside some of the Braves legends he idolized while growing up 30 minutes north of downtown Atlanta.

"I got to play for Bobby Cox," McCann said. "I got to be teammates with Chipper Jones, Tim Hudson, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz. I don't know if it gets much better than that, being from Atlanta."

McCann's storybook journey with the Braves began when he was selected in the second round of the 2002 First-Year Player Draft. Three years later, he came to the Major Leagues as a baby-faced, 21-year-old catcher and made an immediate impact. He singled off Oakland's Dan Haren in his first at-bat and then hit the decisive go-ahead home run while catching Smoltz's complete-game victory the following afternoon.

"I will never forget my first game," McCann said. "I'll never forget that feeling of walking out to the bullpen, having my buddies, who were in college at the time, yelling at me. That is probably a feeling I'll never forget."

McCann created a wealth of memories, as he earned All-Star selections during each of his first six full seasons and collected five Silver Slugger Awards while with the Braves.

Many Braves fans will always remember what he did against Roger Clemens in Game 2 of the 2005 National League Division Series. In his first postseason at-bat, the rookie catcher electrified Turner Field when he sent a decisive three-run home run over the right-field wall.

During a workout at Minute Maid Park the following day, McCann said, "I still have to pinch myself and make sure it's really me."

There were many instances over the past nine seasons when McCann had reason to wonder if he was dreaming. During the first month of his career, he drew regular praise from Smoltz. A decade earlier, he had been thrilled with the simple fact that Smoltz had taken a picture with him.

While Smoltz and Glavine helped him learn how to call games and guide pitchers through certain situations, McCann credits Chipper Jones for helping him find early offensive success at the big league level.

But McCann's compliments extend beyond the players and coaches he met in Atlanta. As he reminisced earlier this week, he credited the guidance provided by his Minor League managers -- Brian Snitker, Randy Ingle and Rocket Wheeler.

"I feel very fortunate that Atlanta was the team that drafted me," McCann said. "I met some very important people along the way who turned me into the player I am today. I wouldn't have wanted to come up in any other organization than the Atlanta Braves."

McCann entered this past season with the realization that it would likely be his last in Atlanta. It had become evident that an American League club that could use him as both a catcher and designated hitter would likely trump any offer the Braves would have been comfortable making to a backstop who will turn 30 in February.

Still, McCann says he never truly felt distracted by the future opportunities that awaited him once he entered the free-agent market.

"It was hard to think about just because of how good we were," McCann said. "There were bigger things on our menu than what was happening to me. We had a legit shot to win a World Series. We had a great team. To be honest with you, it didn't hit me until that last game in [Los Angeles]. That was the first time it really hit me hard, and I realized there is a really good chance that was the last game I played for Atlanta."

When McCann donned his Yankees jersey for the first time during a news conference on Thursday afternoon, he said, "To say this is one of the best days of my life would be an understatement."

While McCann is understandably excited about this next opportunity, he leaves Atlanta knowing that he has already experienced some of the best years of his life.

"I've had time to reflect on the time I spent with the Braves," McCann said. "I take away nothing but positive memories. Everything was very positive about my experience. I feel very, very lucky to have been a part of that organization."

Mark Bowman is a reporter for

Atlanta Braves, Brian McCann