James McCann sat in the Arkansas dugout as the ninth inning unfolded Saturday night against LSU. He knew if he got a chance to hit, it might be something special.
"I'd never had a walk-off hit, much less a walk-off home run," McCann said. "But I knew when I started looking at the lineup card and counting, I'd have a chance for it. I was thinking to myself, 'You are going to be the winning run.' "
If ever he was going to hit one, the junior catcher wanted it to be Saturday night - just before he walked into the left field corner to speak to a group of high school students at Baum Stadium for FCA Game Day. McCann knew he was the scheduled lead speaker for the annual Fellowship of Christian Athletes event.
You guessed it. LSU reliever Kevin Berry served up one too many fat sliders in a six-pitch at bat. McCann hammered it far over the left field fence, well inside the foul pole. It was a three-run, walk-off blast that sent a record Baum crowd of 11,103 into orbit for a 4-3 Razorback victory over the Tigers.
"I knew I was going to give my testimony of my faith after the game," McCann said. "So as I sat in the dugout as the inning came together, I said a prayer that God's will would be done. I knew that to hit a home run in that situation would make my testimony even more powerful. To be able to hit it, then go down and try to be an influence to kids was important."
FCA campus leader Tyler McMahan shot down that theory. He said McCann's testimony is always powerful.
"He would be a strong speaker if he struck out the rest of his career," McMahan said. "He'd always stand up here and say, 'To God be the glory.' That's James."
McCann, junior catcher and team captain, did just that when he got his turn in front of the group of several hundred students and fans well after the game. They had to wait while he handled interview requests both on the radio and in the press box afterward.
Most didn't know they were waiting on McCann, the junior from Santa Barbara, Calif., who always signs autographs with a scripture and points to the sky when he hits home plate after home runs. He could be pointing to his "older brother." He said his "guardian angel" is already there "with my Lord and savior."
It's a story that has left teammates, coaches and support personnel around the Arkansas baseball team misty eyed many times. He stepped to the plate and delivered his message to the FCA group Saturday night.
"To God be the glory," McCann said. "First thing, let me tell you, I'm not supposed to be here tonight. The odds were against me ever making it here, much less hitting a walk-off home run. My parents weren't supposed to have me."
Jim and Carla McCann's first child, Timothy, was still born. Things started badly for Carla's next pregnancy just a few months later. A leak developed in the amniotic sac. Doctors encouraged an abortion almost immediately. That wasn't happening, so doctors prescribed total bed rest for the last six months of the difficult pregnancy.
"They told my parents that there was only a one in four chance that I would be normal," James told the students. "But they didn't want to abort the pregnancy. I'm telling you, I shouldn't be here.
"Really, I probably shouldn't be playing college baseball, either. I was too fat and everyone said I wasn't good enough when I was in high school. But here I am. To God be the glory.
"Timothy's birth was June 20. My birthdate was June 13. I was actually due on June 20, but they decided to induce labor one week early. I don't remember the first time my mother told me about Timothy, but it's always been in my mind that he's in Heaven to be my guardian angel."
Kelly Moore, the baseball staff administrative assistant, has heard McCann's story several times.
"It will make you cry," she said. "But what makes it special is the way James conducts himself. The people around our program know James and see the way he is every day. He's amazing.
"I was taking a little league team on a tour of our stadium before the game Friday. It was three hours before the game and it was the LSU game. The players were supposed to be on the field so I took them to the club house. Here comes James back to get something. When he saw the kids, he wanted to get them baseballs and then autographed all of them. That's him. He does stuff like that and doesn't want anyone to know."
Teammates left the celebration after the game to listen to McCann and Kyle Atkins, another member of the baseball team active in the FCA chapter, speak to the high school players.
"He's our team leader," starting pitcher Brandon Moore said of McCann. "He is our example of how to do things. He does everything he can to be there for us. He's a great player."
Collin Kuhn said, "You see the way he plays. You saw him point to Heaven when he crossed the plate tonight. He's a great example for all of us. It's the way he plays the game and prepares, too. He's going to be there every day for extra work in the batting cages. I knew he was going to speak tonight to the group. Wow. What a story to hit that home run."
McCann is glad he finally did something right. He'd left a lot of runners on base of late and was hitting below .200 in SEC games before the LSU series. He has three hits on the weekend. Of course, the big one was his fifth homer of the season, tied for the team lead. His walk-up song before at bats is by Kutless, a contemporary Christian rock band. It's entitled "Strong Tower". McCann hadn't been that for the Hogs of late.
"I told him before this weekend that it was time for him to deliver," batting coach Todd Butler said. "I challenged him pretty good. He's supposed to be our leader and he hadn't done much in league play. If we are going to do something, I told him it had to be him. I told him he's a three-year guy and he wasn't getting it done."
McCann agreed with his coach.
"I hadn't," he said. "It was getting frustrating. I knew it was time for me to help the team. I'm supposed to show the young guys the way. We don't have a lot of experience but I've been around. Coach Butler was right. He challenged me and what a way to step up to the challenge."
Berry, the LSU closer, had been superb in his last two outings. He earned his second save last weekend against Ole Miss, then got the victory in relief on Tuesday against Tulane, a big rivalry game for the Tigers. He was 2-0 with a 0.59 earned run average before McCann handed him the loss.
"We knew the book on him was that he was going to go with all breaking stuff with runners on base," McCann said. "He threw me six straight sliders. The first one was a ball. Then I chased one in the dirt. The others were right there for me to hit."
McCann was out front on one, a liner that hooked foul quickly but had home run distance.
"That was a pretty good pitch to hit and I was early," McCann said. "The chances are that you aren't going to get another one that good, but then the next couple were right there, too. He was leaving them up.
"I was just thinking, if the pitches started out straight at me, they were probably going to be in the middle of the plate and I could get at them. That's where they were, right at me, then breaking to the middle of the plate. The one I got I knew was out. I knew I got it all and it was going to be fair."
Arkansas head coach Dave Van Horn said it was clear early in the at-bat that McCann was on Berry's pitches. Even with the wind blowing hard across the field from right and in a little, Van Horn said it wasn't a blast he worried about going foul.
"When you hit them that hard, they straighten out," Van Horn said. "I'm in the third base box and I didn't have to go to the line to know it was staying fair. He hit it way out."
Oh, that was just the start. McCann hit another home run near the place that ball sailed out of the park. He was loud and clear as he stood on that foul line in the left field corner.
McCann told of growing up in the Catholic church. He said his parents taught him "to build a relationship with Jesus Christ very early. I still go to the Catholic church and some might think my religion is baseball. It's not. My relationship is with my Lord and savior, Jesus Christ."
Atkins followed McCann in front of the FCA group. He said he was supposed to be a football player where his amazing speed served him well. He had several football offers and nothing for baseball. But he prayed for guidance in making his college choice. Eight hours later Butler phoned him with a baseball offer. He said he grew up a Razorback fan and had an easy choice.
"I knew then that my mission was to come here and witness to teammates, lead them to the Lord," Atkins said. "There are two here tonight that I prayed with and they are Christians now. You think hitting a game winning home run by James, or maybe my stolen base in the ninth is what it's all about in front of 11,000 fans. It's not. It's getting a chance to witness is what makes it all worthwhile."
McMahan is thankful for McCann and Atkins. He sees wonderful things happening on campus in a surging FCA ministry.
"Man, James is something," McMahan said. "I know there were a lot of people beside the high school students down here when James talked. I think a lot of fans just followed him down there to get his autograph. He'll sign everything, too. I've seen him do that every place he speaks. Like James said, 'To God be the glory.' "
McCann's family was there from California on Saturday night. And it was a large group. His maternal grandparents and three uncles have joined his mother for the weekend trip, along with his high school coach. He might have gotten a little extra power earlier in the weekend when his grandmother cooked her famous chili at his apartment.
"That's my favorite meal," McCann said. "I was going to cook for them, but they haven't let me yet."
It all fits together for a weekend McCann will never forget.
"I don't know how you could," he said. "How would anyone believe it all? You could tell your kids about it and I'm not sure they would believe you. I'll remember it for the rest of my life. I have to admit it's something you dream about -- hitting one like that in front of a crowd like this. To do it against LSU, a big rivalry team was pretty much my dream. It's the kind of dream you have the first time you pick up a bat. We hadn't won an SEC series and LSU had scored three in its half of the ninth."
Yes, some will just remember it as the first SEC series win for the Razorbacks. They've climbed to 5-6 in league play and sent the Tigers to a 3-8 SEC start.
"I think what you have to know is that we've had a little luck this weekend," McCann said. "You'd have to say that LSU has had some hard luck, too. Things have fallen for us. I just hope they get out of town before their luck changes."
Luck? Odds? Do you reallly believe in any of that after hearing James McCann's story?
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