LOUISVILLE, KENTUCKY – It is Saturday morning of maybe the biggest three days of Brendan McKay’s young life. In one hour, he’ll try to pitch Louisville past Kentucky, and into the College World Series. On Monday, he’ll be one of the first names called in the baseball draft.
What must the parents be feeling at such a moment? Here come Bruce and Kim McKay up the aisle. Let’s ask them.
“A little nervous, a little excited, a lot of emotions,” says the father.
“A little sad, because everything’s coming to a close here,” says the mother.
A bunch of McKay No. 38 jerseys are being worn in the stands, but not by them. “Sometimes, just to be a little bit undercover, under the radar,” Bruce says. They seem just another couple of Cardinals fans at the ballgame on a sunny day.
Out in the parking lot is the 2009 Saturn Outlook, the one with 178,000 miles on it that has made the 13-hour roundtrip here from their home in Pennsylvania so many times.
“Most of those miles were going to watch him play ball,” Bruce says. “We bought it his last year of travel baseball, and then it was high school after that, and then here.”Their son is a megastar in the universe of college baseball. National player of the year. Unique in his two-way ability to both hit a baseball and throw it. High on everyone’s draft projections. An A-list luminary in the sport.
But not to his mother. “It’s sort of surreal, how everybody else looks at him. But to us, he’s still just our Brendan.”
And not to his father, who still sees the little boy pleading for another game of catch.
“There’s a big yard across from the street. Our yard isn’t big enough really. We’d go over there when he was little and I’d pitch to him, and then he started hitting it into the trees so we had to give that up. We’d go out to the field and I’d throw 75, a hundred balls, batting practice a couple of nights a week. `Can we go out to the fields and hit. Can we go out to the fields and hit?’ So that’s what we’d do. He’d hit them all, we’d go pick them up and do it all over again.”
Louisville's win over Kentucky on Saturday, the second in as many days, will be Brendan McKay’s final college home game. So it is a day for memories.
Such as when he was maybe 10, a kid with a Michael Jordan jersey on his wall at home. And the day the parents found him, according to his father, “sitting there glued to the TV, watching the Little League World Series, or maybe it was the College World Series. We knew then that he lives baseball.’”
Or when he was 12, and his travel league coach predicted he was Division I material. His father’s response back then: Well, let’s wait and see. “Now to this day,” Bruce says, “every time I see (the coach), he’ll say `I told you.’”Or when Brendan made his high school varsity debut as a freshman. On his first at-bat, he drove in two runs with a single. In his first pitching appearance, he struck out the side on nine pitches.
He has been making headlines ever since, and Bruce and Kim and have been climbing into that Saturn.
The road has led to this very weekend.
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“I get nervous. The whole inside of me shakes sometimes,” Kim says. Not so much Bruce. Another player’s father once asked him how he could just sit there during a game and eat sunflower seeds and not be a wreck. “There’s nothing I can do for him,” Bruce answered. “Except cheer him on.”
Monday, a major league franchise will declare for the right to pay their son a fortune. The parents say they don’t have a favorite.
“You just have to trust and put it in God’s hands,” says the father.
“I don’t think we can get too glued on one team because the way the industry is, he could be somewhere else in a couple of years,” says the mother.
Whichever team and whatever the contract, Bruce will still be a contractor, Kim a bank teller. No change in their lives at all?
“Probably not,” Bruce says. “Still got to work.”
But first, he has one last chance to chase the College World Series his mother says has been a dream his whole life.
“Today’s the most important of them all right now,” the father says.
“One day at a time,” the mother nods.
Three hours later, their son walks off to the mound to a standing ovation from the crowd, slapping gloves with his teammates as he is relieved in the seventh inning with a 4-2 lead.
Here's the scene as Brendan McKay exits the Patterson Stadium mound for the final time in his brilliant career. Cards up 4-2, 2 on in 7th. pic.twitter.com/I3hse2f7yz— Aaron Fitt (@aaronfitt) June 10, 2017
“Too many emotions to think of,” he says later of that moment. “It was such a great feeling to know you had a lot of success, you’ve been to a lot of great places and a lot of dark places on that field.”
This day has not been easy. He strikes out nine, but has to grind his way past several threats. “He would bend,” Kentucky coach Nick Mingione says. “But he would not break.”
McKay later described what he summoned in those tight spots; how “you go to a different place. You become almost a different person in that situation.”
It ends 6-2. The Bluegrass super regional is over in the minimum two games, and the Cardinals have led for 17 of the 18 innings. There is a dogpile of black uniforms near the pitcher’s mound, but McKay avoids it under orders, this not being the weekend for a fluke injury beneath a half-ton of teammates. “I was told I wasn’t allowed to get in there,” he says. “I had to refrain myself from jumping in.”
Later, he sits in a stadium meeting room with some of his teammates, wearing caps with the words “Omaha Bound.” On the walls are three enormous photos of the College World Series in 2007, ’13 and 14, with the Louisville team on the field.
“We sit in here for every team meeting,” McKay says. “You want to put your own picture up there. Going on three years now I’ve looked at that picture a lot (nods one way), and that picture a lot (nods another way), and you want to get there. You do whatever it takes, you push your body to its limits every year pushing toward that goal.”
And now that they’re finally there?
“It means everything.”
Somewhere outside, a mother and father understand. The McKays are going to Omaha. But first, there’ll be a draft party Monday night. What a weekend.