Winter Work/Play in the Ozarks, Part I

Zack Cox and James McCann know they can get their work done in Fayetteville -- with plenty of good hunting to provide rest and relaxation for the down time. Here's the first part of a two-part series.

Editor's Note: This is the first in a two-part series on former Arkansas baseball standouts Zack Cox and James McCann. Look for a segment on their love of duck hunting on Wednesday.

Todd Butler got a call a few weeks back from a friend in top management in pro baseball. There was a promising young professional who had signed right out of high school who needed workout partners. Would he grease the way for him to spend some time with former Arkansas players Zack Cox and James McCann, both spending their winter working out in Fayetteville?

"That tells you about these two, how they work and their commitment to the game," said Butler, UA hitting coach and recruiting coordinator. "He wanted his player to just be around Zack and James. He couldn't think of anyone anywhere that would be better for his player."

Whether that came to pass was still in the air as this was written. It doesn't matter. The point is well taken.

"These guys are different," Butler said. "They don't let anything get in their way. They know where they are headed."

Most would agree that it's to the big leagues. Cox was the No. 1 pick of the St. Louis Cardinals two years ago. He signed late and got a few weeks with the instructional league. He started the 2011 season at Class A and was an early season promotion to Class AA Springfield in the Texas Leauge. He had what some would call a spectacular first full season in pro ball.

McCann, who roomed with Cox at Arkansas, was the top pick of the Detroit Tigers last summer. He had a few weeks of instructional ball, a few weeks in Class A, then a month with the USA National team at the Pan Am Games in Mexico.

If you listened to Cox, his 2011 season left something to be desired. Never mind that he batted .380 in 27 games in July and .333 in 28 games in August. There were struggles, too. He pointed to the .180 in 27 games in June after his callup to Double-A and then there was .180 in his last 10 games.

"That last part left a bitter taste in my mouth," Cox said. "I had done above average the previous two months or so and I didn't close it out for a great year.

"There were some high spots, but there definitely were too may low spots when you look back. I know you are never going to hit 1.000, but I know I could have done better."

The slow stretch at the end wasn't actually as bad as it looked on paper. Sometimes the batting average doesn't tell the whole story.

"I think if you look at the last series in Little Rock it doesn't look too good as far as the average, but I was actually swinging the bat pretty well," Cox said. "There is such a thing as hard outs. They have someone there to write a report for every game. I know what mine said, ‘Line outs and hard outs.' There was some bad luck in there where the at bats were all right but it just didn't happen."

Cox didn't sound flustered by anything in his 2011 season. But he realizes there are things to improve. He made 24 errors at third base. He's worked this winter with Logan Forsythe, a third baseman with the San Diego Padres.

"I had to change some things this season," Cox said. "I got better in my fundamentals. I had to change my pre-swing routine at third base. I did get a better jump on the ball as the season went along. Logan has worked with me on that, too. We've taken a lot of ground balls together."

Cox hasn't changed anything in his swing.

"Really, I am not doing anything different," he said. "I just look for a good pitch and try to drive it up the middle. I'm doing my same drills, same routines and working on the same stuff. I don't try to do too much other than to drive it hard. Nobody has a magic wand or a secret approach. Stick to hard work and repetition.

"It's a lot of the same stuff I did with Coach Butler. We are still very close and have a great relationship. He demanded a lot from me and really pushed me. That's one of the reasons I'm back here to train."

Cox said his approach to work hasn't changed. The goal has been the same since he was exposed to baseball by his father.

"My dream starting at age 4 was to play in the big leagues," Cox said. "My whole life has been the same.

"The key now is to stay focused on the light at the end of the tunnel. I still see it. I get up every day to work because I still see it. I think I'm going to get there."

Next year?

"I don't know," he said. "I would think the next step is to try to get to Triple-A. I think that would be the goal this year. I'm just going to spring training to do the best I can each day, continue to work on my weaknesses."

Things changed in the St. Louis organization following the World Series title. Mike Matheny replaced Tony LaRussa as manager.

"I know him," Cox said. "I had some contact with him in our minor league system. He was a roving coach. I definitely know him and think a lot of him."

McCann won't bet against Cox making it. In fact, he expects it to happen sooner rather than later.

"What makes him so good is that he's got the desire to be the best," McCann said of Cox. "And he doesn't like to get beat. He's very competitive."

McCann laughs about another of his friend's good traits.

"He doesn't think he has much talent so his goal is to out work you. But he has a lot more talent than most and he doesn't waste any of it."

McCann might not be the most talented Razorback, either. But he was one of the smartest. He made one B during his three years at Arkansas and was named the SEC's baseball scholar athlete last season. He was drafted by the Tigers for his smarts, arm and a solid bat. He was good enough behind the plate that UA coaches often let him call the game, a rarity in the college game for catchers of late.

One of the things he had to learn this summer is the differences in the pro game and how the college game was played.

"It's definitely different," he said. "There is a difference between how you pitch to an aluminum bat and a wood bat. And it is a different level of intensity. If you over exert yourself, you won't last through the year. You have to learn how to play at a top level and still conserve your energy while you do it.

"I had to learn what was expected at the pro level. You have to learn the system and what they want from you on a daily basis."

As they say, it can be a grind and a business. But he saw one brief glimpse of something fun within the business. During a minor league game in Michigan, McCann was the "butt" of a joke set up by the Famous Chicken.

"It was a circus show is about the best way I can describe it," McCann said. "We were trying to do our job and then we had that. I really didn't know how to react."

What happened was that the Famous Chicken had six baby chickens, all little girls. On their way around the diamond, the Famous Chicken instructed each of his baby chickens to pat McCann on the butt as he took warmup tosses in his catcher's squat.

"One of the little girls wouldn't do it," McCann said. "It wasn't planned. She just wouldn't. So he made her go back around and pointed at my butt until she did it. Finally, he grabbed her hand and patted my butt with it.

"There were about 8,000 in the park and it just went crazy. I guess it was pretty funny. And the best part of it was that it wasn't planned. It just happened."

James McCann (above) said best friend Zack Cox is motivated to be the best.

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