Brian McCann reached the Big Leagues when he was 21 years old. He had played just two-plus seasons in the Minor Leagues and -- suddenly -- he was thrust into an Atlanta Braves uniform. The team had made the postseason 13 consecutive times, but when the catcher debuted on June 10, 2005, the club was 2.5 games back in the National League East.
McCann's Major League education was about to begin. His mentor? Future Hall of Famer John Smoltz, who would throw to McCann in the catcher's second-ever Big League game.
"It was something I'll never forget," said McCann, who, that day, caught a complete-game five-hitter from the All-Star pitcher. "He took me under his wing right away and taught me how to call a game, what to look for. He taught me how to be a pro."
See, everybody needs a mentor -- someone who has been there before and understands what it takes to have success. The mentors take what they know, they pass it on to the young guys coming up, and -- eventually -- the young guys become the ones with wisdom to dispense.
Throughout the season, Smoltz worked with McCann off the field, passing along the invaluable nuggets of wisdom he had gathered in his 16-plus years of Big League service to that point. And the two dominated on the field. McCann caught 18 of Smoltz's final 20 starts that season. In those 18 games, the Braves went 16-2 and Smoltz was 9-1. McCann played in 59 games, batting .278 with five home runs and 23 RBI. The Braves closed the gap they had faced in June and went on to win the NL East by two games.
It was a successful season all around. But something more important happened that year for the young catcher. Thanks to Smoltz (and Chipper Jones, whom McCann also credits with helping him mature), McCann had a foundation of knowledge upon which he would build a Major League career. Now in his 12th season in the Bigs, McCann is keeping the cycle going. He's taking those bricks of knowledge and giving them to others to start building their own foundations.
A good mentor can come in many forms and teach in many styles. But to be taken seriously, he's got to have some credentials to back up his lessons. McCann has nothing to worry about there.
From 2005, when McCann entered the league, through May 17, 2016, he led all catchers with 230 home runs -- 81 more than A.J. Pierzynski, who came in at No. 2. He also had the most RBI in that time span (847). He appeared in 1,311 games at catcher and 1,412 total. He won more than he lost.
Since he joined the Yankees in 2014, McCann has played in more than 300 games, collected more than 250 hits and over 50 home runs, and knocked in close to 200 runs. And that's to say nothing of the way he has adapted to the fluidity of the pitching staff.
The Yankees used 33 pitchers in both 2014 and 2015, and through mid-May, they had sent 19 men to the mound. That's a lot of guys who all have different repertoires, styles, strengths and weaknesses.
"He's one of the leaders of this team, especially because of the way he's able to handle the pitching staff," said reliever Dellin Betances. "That's a tremendous job to take on, and he's done a phenomenal job since he's been here."
From learning to use the heat provided by Nathan Eovaldi and Aroldis Chapman to helping CC Sabathia transform from a hard-throwing force on the mound to more of a finesse pitcher, McCann has handled it all with aplomb.
"After one outing or maybe two, he's able to realize what you want to do out there and work with your abilities," Eovaldi explained. "That's a reason a lot of guys have success with him."
His pitchers respect him, they listen to him, and they trust him. And that's something everyone notices.
"Every pitcher in this room loves him and adores him and follows him to the end of the world," said Austin Romine, McCann's backup and student this season. "He earned that by being the guy he is, by producing for his team."
But what's special about McCann is that the respect doesn't come from just those in the Yankees clubhouse. The appreciation comes from around the league.
"You can see it when people come up to the plate," Romine continued. "They show him respect; they say hi to him. And he earned that."
Part of the reason he earned that respect is because of the way he plays the game. People see the hours he puts in. They admire his work ethic and his hard-nosed, old-school style of play.
"I want to be respected by my peers, and I want to have that reputation as someone who shows up day in and day out," McCann said. "My teammates can look at me and know that I've done everything I've needed to do to prepare for that night. When it's all said and done and I'm done playing baseball, I want to be remembered as someone that gave it everything he had year in and year out."
So does that mean he doesn't want baseball to be fun? Should the fact that it's hard work take away some of the joys of playing the game? Of course not. In fact, when told that some derisively call him "The Fun Police" -- a nickname bestowed on him in Atlanta when he blocked Carlos Gomez's path to home plate after the slugger stared at a long home run he'd hit just a touch too long -- he was shocked.
"Come on!" he laughed. "Really? That's hilarious!"
It's hilarious because McCann says he knows that the game is changing, and he doesn't begrudge that. He has no problem with a bat flip or a fist pump. As long as opponents respect him and his teammates, party on, friends.
"He is a different person on the field," Romine said. "When the game is starting, he is locked in; he is focused. Off the field, he keeps it light and fun, and I think that's huge in anyone's development to see a guy who has so much success in the game still be able to keep it fun. But when it's time to work, you work. He wants to win no matter what."
So he's still going to put in those long hours. He's going to do the work to make sure his staff is supported. And he's going to make sure that those who come after him with the Yankees will do the same thing.
During Spring Training, McCann worked with all of the Yankees' catchers, among them Romine, Gary Sanchez and Kyle Higashioka. His goal was simple: let them know what it means to be a Big League catcher.
"I just gave them an idea of what it takes to play every day behind the plate," said McCann. "It's not an easy position, and you have to put the work and time in if you're going to reap the rewards of catching. You have 12 guys on the pitching staff that you need to know [inside and out], and that takes a lot of hard work and dedication."
Luckily, the young guys knew that this was an opportunity worth paying attention to.
"McCann is a veteran with a lot of knowledge," said Sanchez, who was sent to Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre once camp broke. "Whenever we had a chance to talk, I would really listen to what he had to say and try to learn something."
They talked about footwork; practiced making throws to second base. McCann's knowledge was there for the taking, and his kindness and openness made a huge impression.
"He's from Georgia, so the Southern hospitality really rings true through him," said Higashioka, a California native who began his season in Double-A Trenton. "He's been really good at taking the younger guys under his wing and helping us out with our drills, but also with the mental game, using all the experience he has."
The wide array of things McCann does well was also evident. Ask any of these young catchers to pick the one thing about McCann's game they would want to emulate, and each player gives a different answer.
Higashioka singled out McCann's arm strength. For Romine, it's that respect McCann has cultivated. For Sanchez, it's his mentor's ability to call a game.
McCann says it's gratifying that each of his mentees took something different from the way he goes about his work; he feels good that they were able to learn from him. He sees good things in the group, and in the coming years, he hopes to keep adding to their foundations. But just because Spring Training concluded doesn't mean McCann's job as teacher is over.
Although Sanchez and Higashioka were only able to spend an abbreviated amount of time with McCann, Romine has had the benefit of working as McCann's backup with the big club. And the experience, he says, has been invaluable.
"His baseball intellect is off-the-charts," said the 27-year-old. "He understands the game and is able to slow it down; it comes easy and natural to him. He's been in every situation you can be in, so I'm always picking his brain. I'm asking him questions, and that's the biggest thing. If I have a question, I can always ask him and he's receptive to it; he's open to it, and he wants to help because he wants the team to win."
So Romine and McCann talk. They talk about the pitchers and how to build trust. They discuss mechanics at the catching position and at the plate. McCann explains how to have success in the league. There's nothing that's off-limits.
Unfortunately, there's no one way to quantify if their relationship has made any difference. But for Romine, there's no doubt that McCann is aiding his development.
"It's hard to put into words how he helps because everything he does helps," Romine said. "Just watching him, seeing how he goes about his business, and seeing his interactions with each and every pitcher -- he has a different relationship with everybody, and he makes it personal with every guy. That's really something to see and to retain, and it's something that I want to use going forward to help the team, as well."
Of course, Romine has found ways to help the team for a few years now. He isn't exactly a kid. Drafted by the Yankees in 2007, Romine has been part of the organization for nearly a decade, and he made his Major League debut in 2011. However, this was the first year that Romine was on the Opening Day roster, and McCann couldn't have been more excited.
"Romine is a great catcher," McCann said. "I think he's gotten better and better each year, which shows me that he's working hard. Now, compared to back when I first saw him in 2014, he's a Big League catcher. We're lucky to have him."
McCann went on to compliment Romine on his intellect and his work ethic. He notices that Romine has been watching him, adjusting his play, building relationships with the pitchers. Romine, he said, is on the road to a successful career.
A successful career, for Romine, is being able to stick around at the Big League level.
"The biggest compliment a pitcher can give you is saying, 'I want to be on his team. I want to throw to him,'" said Romine, who has seen the Yankees pitchers say that to McCann on a daily basis. "That's something I would like to obtain one day."
That's starting to happen for the catcher.
Although the Yankees lost each of the first four contests he started, Romine's game-calling turned a corner on April 25, when he helped Eovaldi take a no-hitter into the seventh inning. Two starts later, the catcher again helped Eovaldi shine, bringing the right-hander through eight innings of two-run ball on the way to a Yankees win over the Red Sox.
"Romine does a great job, especially from the bench, because he's just watching the way McCann calls the game," Eovaldi said. "He talks to Brian in between innings. Then between his starts, Romine will catch the starters and see what's working for us individually. It's about adapting to what's working for your pitchers. It's worked for us."
"Nathan and I have a good relationship," Romine said. "It's not just me calling pitches and him throwing them; it's not him shaking all the time. We have a good rapport. Now that I've caught him a couple of times, I know how he likes to pitch. He likes to throw fast and he likes to work fast, so when I can slow him down, I've been able to get the best pitches out of him, and he's been pretty good. We have a solid game plan every time we go out, and it's been working."
So while Romine's Big League dreams are beginning to come true, he still sees room for improvement. What Romine wants is what McCann already has: a long and successful career. And McCann wants that for his student, too.
"We're a team within a team," McCann said of Romine. "There's a fraternity when it comes to catchers. Not many people want to put the gear on and go through that grind, and so the guys that do it, there's always a respect factor there."
So McCann will keep passing on those building blocks that he started accumulating all those years ago, and Romine and the other players McCann has mentored will keep them safe and pass them on to the next generation when it's their turn to become teachers.
But just because McCann's main role now is teacher instead of student, he knows it would be folly to simply coast on what he already knows.
"The minute you stop learning is the minute you stop getting better," he said. "This game is changing daily. It changes every year. You have to continue to make changes and strive to get better.
"I was one of the older players in Atlanta, and then I came over here and I'm seeing Derek Jeter and his routine, Carlos Beltran's routine, Ichiro Suzuki's routine, and I knew there were ways I could get better as a baseball player. You've got to watch how the great ones go about their craft and ask questions. If you truly want to be great, that's what you have to do."
So what started for McCann in 2005 continues in 2016 -- bricks are added to his foundation of knowledge every season; every day, every game. That's great news for the veteran, but even better for his pupils.
Whether their careers will evolve the way McCann's has is unclear, but no matter what, evolution never stops. The cycle will continue.