The big announcement from last week that set the Victoria sports scene buzzing, was that the HarbourCats had ended their relationship with Head Coach Graig Merritt – that’s WCL Coach of the Year Graig Merritt – and have brought in 10-year MLB veteran Brian McRae for the 2017 and 2018 seasons. Rumors started to fly instantly on the reasons why the change was made – was Merritt not the right fit? Was the team disappointed with the playoff loss? Was it a personality conflict between ownership and coaching staff?
Much has been said and written on the reasoning behind the move, with a few common themes emerging:
- There were NO issues at all with what Graig Merritt did for the team and the city, his time here earned him nothing but respect for what he accomplished with the team.
- The WCL is a developmental league for both players and coaches, and this is not a firing but a “moving on” for a coach to a new opportunity.
- It was likely Merritt would get offers from other organizations/leagues/programs and could be pulled away before the 2017 season begins, leaving the HarbourCats with a hole to fill.
- There’s nothing left for Merritt to do here next year. 2016 would be a tough season to surpass, and unless he pilots a 45+ win season with a championship, anything else would look like a failure…Get out on top!
I can see the reasoning in all of those, yet I can also see that it’s outside standard practice to get rid of a guy who a week before was named the best in the league at what he does. Like anything else though, this is a business, and the long-term sustainability of the team is focus number one at the office over on Vancouver Street. In the end, Graig Merritt will be just fine without the HarbourCats – his baseball IQ, winning attitude, and now proven track record make him instantly valuable all across baseball. I personally can’t wait to see where Graig hangs his hat next year, he’ll be successful wherever it is…
But enough about what has happened, let’s look to the future. Brian McRae is the man running the show now, as he becomes the fourth head coach in HarbourCat history. I had the opportunity to speak with Brian about coming to Victoria next summer, and learn a little more about the experience and desire he’ll bring with him…
Of course plenty has been written about Brian McRae around here in the past few days – his 10 year MLB career with teams like the Royals, Cubs, and Blue Jays, and about his years broadcasting for the likes of WGN, MLB, and ESPN. His resume also includes a couple coaching stints in collegiate and summer league baseball. Outside of baseball, we know Brian devotes much of his time to charities like Big Brothers and Big Sisters, Cystic Fibrosis, and cancer research. He’s currently running a non-profit program called the Kansas City Sluggers baseball, which provides youth aged 14-18 from the Kansas City area the opportunity to play baseball in situations where they can be seen by college recruiters and scouts, and helps these young men gain the experience and focus needed to become collegiate ball players.
What you may not know about Brian McRae, is that this week he is actually back in school taking classes at Missouri University, enabling him to become “Student manager” for the Mizzou Tigers baseball program. Don’t let the title fool you – McRae will spend the college year coaching the Tigers alongside head coach Steve Bieser, not refilling the Gatorade bucket and washing uniforms! It will be a unique experience for the 48 year old, as he never attended college as a student in his youth. McRae had planned to attend the University of Kansas to play both baseball and football (and was offered a football scholarship to do it), but when the Royals selected him in the first round of the 1985 draft, he jumped at the opportunity to play pro baseball instead. His best years in the show were interrupted by the strike of 1994 (ask any Expos fan you know about that horrible year in baseball) when he was among league leaders in singles and stolen bases. The following year, after being traded to the Cubs, he finished fourth in hits in the National league.
While it might seem like McRae’s addition to the HarbourCats seems a bit out of the blue and unexpected, it’s actually been in the works for some time. Back in 2014 when Bob Miller was removed as coach, then GM Jim Swanson had contacted McRae about the job. At that time though, with his father going through some health issues, McRae removed his name from the short list thinking it would be unfair to Victoria if he had to later pull out for family reasons. Now two years later, McRae is once again jumping at the chance to spend the summer in Victoria.
Not what you would expect from someone who’s done what Brian has in the game, and his reasons for signing on with the HarbourCats point to his love of the game more than anything else. “I enjoy Summer ball. I thought the experience I had in 2012 with Morehead City [of the Central Plain’s league] was the greatest thing ever. No classes to worry about and you just get to work with the kids full time. They come to learn the game, and play as much baseball as they can”.For McRae, it’s not all about teaching others, it’s about learning for himself as well. “I love that these kids come from all over, and you get to see what they are being taught at their schools. You get a good feel for what’s going on across the country at the collegiate level, and I think it makes you a better coach, a more well-rounded coach”.
And what kind of coach does Brian expect we will see come June? We have seen the full spectrum ranging from the stoic indifference of Bob Miller, to the pure unbridled intensity of Graig Merritt. Where will Brian McRae fit in that vast spectrum? He says it’s all about balance. “I think I bring a different approach to getting your work done and being efficient at it. Learning how to conserve your energy for the time that you need it in order to play the game”.
That’s easily said, but it’s something that summer ball clubs – including Victoria – struggle with: the need to be on and win every game, with players who haven’t had down-time in many months. It’s certainly taken its toll on the HarbourCats over the years as witnessed by the early departures of talent we see near the end of each season. McRae says it’s all in how you manage from the first day. “Knowing the kids have just come off a spring season where they have all played a lot, and knowing that they need some down time to let their bodies and their minds heal so the focus can be on winning ball games. With the travel and the schedule, you have to know to back off a little bit. Know when to give them time off and when to get extra work in. I think I can bring a perspective of how to get your work done in a timely manner, and still have the energy left to go through a regular season in the WCL – and be fresh at the end”.
Knowing that these are key recruiting months for summer ball teams, McRae doesn’t get any of that downtime he speaks of himself. He’s been inserted directly into the team-building work going on for the HarbourCats 2017 team, and he’s bringing with him a host of new contacts and new avenues of recruiting. “I’ve got some players that I’ve identified over the past couple years that I would like to pursue, so I’ll be contacting them immediately and seeing how they fit with the roster that’s already in place [from returning players – the HarbourCats have almost a dozen commitments for next year already]. I’m heavily involved trying to get the best players we can in Victoria”. Brian’s contacts also reach outside the typical WCL player, reaching into the mid-west and south for some potential untapped talent. “With some of the contacts I have, there’s some kids I see that could compete in that league, and I think this will give them an opportunity to show what they can do up there for sure”.
Being here for the Blue Jays summer kids camp, and staying to watch a couple of games over the years, McRae has a good idea of what playing baseball in Victoria – and specifically at Royal Athletic Park – means to a roster. “Victoria plays more of a power game and a speed game, so the roster will be constructed with power pitching, and power hitting guys – because that’s what plays better in that ballpark”.What is clear when speaking with Brian, is that he’s a true fan of the game and that he understands what it takes to win, balanced with what it takes to grow a strong and successful ball player. His addition to the HarbourCats certainly puts notice to the rest of the West Coast League – this team isn’t satisfied with what they have achieved to date, this team is continuing to change the face of the game we see. For HarbourCats fans, this continued commitment to excellence should have us watching championship baseball for many years to come.