Then and Now: RC Q&A with Brian McRae

Brian McRae played for the Royals from 1990-1994, and overall, spent parts of ten seasons at the Major League level, including time with the Royals, Cubs, Mets, Rockies and Blue Jays. McRae, an outfielder and son of Royals Hall-of-Famer Hal McRae, is our latest guest in this edition of "Then & Now."

RC: Thanks for joining us, Brian. You obviously grew up around baseball with your father playing parts of 19 seasons in the Big Leagues. What is your earliest memory of watching your dad play?

BM: Probably when he was with the Reds in the early ‘70s, and getting to go to the ballpark and be around guys like Pete Rose, Johnny Bench and Joe Morgan. Those were good teams right there, and they took off and won the World Series right after he was traded to the Royals.

RC: How big of a Royals fan were you as a kid, and which former Royals took you under their wings most, as far as talking and teaching you the game of baseball?

BM: I was a Reds fan, because that's the first team my dad played on. It took me awhile to warm up to the Royals after he got traded, actually, and I just remember being around the Reds and that's who I liked as a little kid.

But I enjoyed going to the ballpark and hanging out and seeing George Brett, Frank White and Amos Otis, but I was still a Reds fan for a good while until the Royals started to win, probably around '76.

RC: At what age did you start switch hitting, and what made you decide to do that?

BM: I did it practicing when I was younger, like early teens probably, and it was a suggestion from my dad to try it and see if I liked it. He platooned in Cincinnati and thought that if I learned how to switch hit, I'd have a better chance of getting drafted higher and not have to worry about platooning.

RC: As you grew up, you were outstanding at both baseball and football, and nearly attended Kansas on a football scholarship. Which sport was your favorite as you grew up, and do you think you could have made a living off of football at some point had you chose to pursue it?

BM: Football was my favorite once I got to high school, although I didn't play any organized football until 9th grade. I liked football because it was different from what I'd ever done, and people expected me to be successful at baseball because my dad played. But in football, I could do my thing and I was seen more for what I could do and not what my dad did, or what was expected. I liked it, and while I probably wouldn't have gone any further than college, it was something different to do and I really got into it my junior and senior years of high school. I liked football more than baseball then but I knew if I was going to have any professional career, it wasn't going to be in football.

RC: Speaking of almost going to KU, as a senior at Blue Springs High in 1985, you were projected as a lower round draft pick in baseball and were all set to move to Lawrence before the Royals shocked the world and took you with the 17th pick of the draft. Did you know that was coming or were you surprised?

BM: I didn't know it was coming. The teams that had watched me play for the most part were the Angels and Yankees - the Royals didn't see me play a whole lot so I didn't think they'd draft me. I thought a lot of teams were convinced that I was going to go to college and play football, and didn't think they'd pay to much attention to drafting me in a high round.

RC: What do you remember about draft day?

BM: I was playing in a Legion Tournament in Omaha, Nebraska and I didn't stick around the phone or anything. I didn't pay attention, because I figured if I got picked, I got picked, but I wasn‘t going to sit at home and stress about it and had a tournament to play in.

RC: You spent 1985-1987 with Sarasota, Eugene and Fort Myers. What sticks out about those years and who were some of your teammates that we might remember?

BM: Kevin Koslofski was there, Kevin Appier, Tom Gordon, David Howard, Jeff Conine, Bob Hamelin. We all kind of moved up together, so we knew each other for four or five years, and most of us had been around each other.

I actually went to high school in the same area as David Howard, so we played against each other since we were high school kids and then Bradenton, where I grew up, allowed me to play against a lot of other guys I'd see later. In Tampa there was (Gary) Sheffield, Luis Gonzalez and Tino Martinez, so I got to play against all of those guys. That competition got me ready for pro ball and it was funny getting up to the majors later and seeing the same guys I'd played against in the mid-‘80s in the league ten years later.

RC: 1988 was a big year for you, as you got the call up to Double-A Memphis after spending the beginning of the year at Baseball City. What was the biggest difference you noticed between A-Ball and Double-A, and how exciting was it to move to Double-A after three years of A-Ball?

BM: It was exciting. I thought I had a good chance coming out of spring training to go to Double-A and got there after playing a month or so at Baseball City. The game was faster at Double-A, the pitchers were better, and there were more prospects – just guys that were closer to the Big Leagues. You had to make more adjustments there and I struggled at times, and the next Spring Training in 1989 is when I'd ultimately begin playing outfield after deciding in '88 that if I was going to make the Big Leagues, it'd probably be as an outfielder.

RC: You spent the entire 1989 season with Memphis while leading the league in at bats, but hit just .227. What did you learn that season and what do you remember most?

BM: Just learning how to play outfield for the first time. I concentrated more on my outfield play than offensively, and I think that was my main focus, just to try and learn the outfield and be better at that, and that was a big transition for me because I'd never played the outfield in any capacity, other than maybe a few innings here and there when I was in high school or legion ball.

RC: You began 1990 with Memphis, and hit .268 in 116 games with 10 HR and 64 RBI. Before we talk about your call up to Kansas City, do you feel like something "clicked" that year offensively, especially in the run producing department?

BM: I understood the league better, as far as what I could and couldn't do, and that made me come into my own a little better. My team was good too; we won the Southern League Championship that year, and I just started driving the ball and getting more extra base hits, and I felt that was the year that I learned and caught up with some of the competition.

RC: After an injury to Bo Jackson in 1990, the Royals tried Willie Wilson and Jim Eisenreich in center field, but neither excelled. As a result, you were called up on August 7th. What do you remember about the moment you got the call?

BM: I was in Huntsville, Alabama and it was about 5 or 6 AM, and Jeff Cox, my Manager, called and knocked on my door and told me to go pack my stuff up, that I was going up to Kansas City. I thought he was joking and I remember it was a whirlwind. I flew all over the place and got up to Kansas City that same night, and I was in the lineup after arriving at the ballpark shortly before game time, so I really didn't have a whole lot of time to get my thoughts together and all that, and that was probably a good thing. I jumped right in and we went from there.

RC: You made your debut against the White Sox that same night and had two hits and an RBI in your first game, including a triple in your first at bat against Alex Fernandez as you hit left handed. Walk us through that first at bat as you remember it.

BM: I faced Alex in the minor leagues and he's from Florida, so I watched him play at the University of Miami and he played at a community college near Bradenton. So, he was familiar to me and that was kind of nice. That was comfortable, and just getting that first at bat out of the way and getting a hit made me feel like I belonged, and the jitters and all that were gone. I'm glad I got in the lineup that day and didn't stick around a day or two before getting out there.

RC: The following day, you got a base hit in your first right handed against Greg Hibbard. When you look back, how special is it knowing you got base hits in both your first at bat both right and left handed?

BM: It's something that I didn't think much of until people started asking me about it later on. And I guess there's no record kept for that or what not, but if there was, you can say you're one of the only guys in baseball history to do that. And Hibbard was a teammate of mine in A-Ball, so it was kind of neat to get my first right handed hit off of someone I knew.

RC: You hit your first Big League home run off of Keith Comstock against Seattle on August 26th. Did you get the ball?

BM: I don't know if I got the ball or not, but I know I got my first hit ball and I have the bat. But as far as that first home run, I just remember I missed a bunt during that at bat. There were guys on 1st and 2nd, and I fouled off a bunt attempt, and I was able to redeem myself and hit a home run, but I was frustrated because I was a pretty good bunter and mad at myself for not getting the bunt down. But, I suppose it worked out all right.

RC: You finished the 1990 season in Kansas City with an average of .286 in 46 games. At that point, did you know you'd open the season with Kansas City in 1991, and did it seem possible at that time that you'd never spend time in the minor leagues again?

BM: I thought that I had a good enough two and a half months that I'd have a good shot at making the team the next year. I went and played winter ball in the Dominican Republic, because they told me if I went and did that it would give me a better chance the following spring training. So, I didn't have any hesitations of not going down there and played a lot more that winter and was kind of tired, but I think it meant a lot to the organization and winter ball helped me out a lot because that's real good competition down there.

RC: How big of a thrill was it playing with guys you'd grown up watching and hanging out with in George Brett, Frank White and Willie Wilson?

BM: It was great. Those were guys that I watched on all the good Royals teams and the dynasty that they had from '76 to '85, so it was a pleasure to play with those guys and learn from them. To have that many veterans around me when I first came up to the Big Leagues, I think helped me the rest of my career because a lot of guys come up nowadays and don't have anyone to learn from, and I had like six to ten guys that had been around for awhile, so that was a luxury.

RC: What was it like making your first Opening Day roster in 1991?

BM: Couldn't wait. Spring Training was long and I was ready to get it over with and just get on the Big League team for the fist time and start there, and see what I could do. That was one year that spring training took forever.

RC: After a tough beginning to the 1991 season, John Wathan was fired as Manager and your father was tabbed as Royals Manager on May 24th. What were your initial thoughts about playing for your dad?

BM: It was kind of cool for the family to be together; we'd been all over the place for awhile, so to have everybody in the same city, that was great. And it would have been a lot more difficult had I just got called up and dad was the manager, but I was kind of there for awhile and felt a little comfortable with the players on the team, so it wasn't a difficult transition for me.

RC: Did you ever worry or feel like any of your teammates thought you got special treatment?

BM: No, because I'd been there already, so I didn't worry about that. Like I said, I would have worried more if I would have come to the Big Leagues after he had been appointed Manager, but since I was already there, it wasn't any problem. And my teammates knew it wasn't an inappropriate situation or anything, and they made me feel comfortable. It wasn't anything that caused any problems.

RC: The year of 1991 saw you guys end up with a record of 82-80, and individually, you hit .261 with 8 HR, 64 RBI and 20 SB. You also had the longest hitting streak in the American League that year, going 22 games from July 20th to August 13th. Give us an idea of how tough it is to maintain something like that each day, and what do you remember about the day you lost the streak?

BM: I don't remember how it started or how it ended, actually. I just remember that to be going that good for almost a month is a tough thing to do, and I really wasn't as good of a hitter at that time as I was later in my career. So, it's kind of odd that I had that long of a streak that early and not when I got more accomplished. Just shows you there's a lot of luck in it, too.

RC: 1992 saw the team go 72-90 and individually, you hit just .223 with 4 HR, 52 RBI and 18 SB after a real slow start. When you look back, what did that year teach you, and do you remember it as disappointing or a learning experience?

BM: It was both, because I thought I'd build on what I did in 1991, and I and the team took a step back. I think we started off 1-15 or 1-16, something crazy like that, and it was a disappointing year all around, but that kind of got me to realize that things at the Big League level change all the time and you have to make adjustments. I also made a promise to myself to make sure what happened in 1992 didn't happen again.

RC: The Royals have struggled mightily the last few Aprils with hitting. As a guy who has been there and done that, is there any way to avoid it, especially for guys like Emil Brown who are notorious slow starters, or is that just the way it is?

BM: I tried everything, because I was usually a slow starter. I tried more at bats in spring training, tried to do more in the winter, all kind of things that I tried to do, and nothing really worked. I don't know how to answer that, some guys are just bad at the start but the team sticks with you when you're going bad and keeps running you out there, because for me, as the weather got warmer, I started doing better. Tough to find that right balance, I think.

As far as the Royals go, they have traditionally started slow out of the gate in April, and they've tried all different things to combat that, and it's a frustrating thing that it still happens. I don't think there's really one sure fire answer why it is the way it is. Not like you pick and choose when you struggle (Laughs).

RC: (Laughs) One interesting moment from that year (1992) was when you recorded an unassisted double play on August 23rd at Chicago, which was the first time that had been done by an outfielder since Bill North did it in 1974. What do you remember about that?

BM: I remember the runners were going, a hit-and-run or something, and it was kind of a looping liner that I came in for and I ran in, caught it, my momentum was taking me toward the infield, so instead of throwing to an infielder, I just ran it in myself. Kind of a Little League type of play.

RC: 1993 was a positive year for both you and the Royals, as the team improved to 84-78 and you hit .282 with 12 HR, 69 RBI and 23 SB. For the season, you hit .322 right handed and just .264 left handed, and over your career, hit 38 points higher from the right side. Did you ever consider dropping switch-hitting, and do you have any regrets about not doing so?

BM: No. I think I was around a career .300 hitter from the right side, but I had no power, and most of my power numbers and all the damage I did were from the left side. I was mostly a singles hitter from the right side. I think out of the 100 some odd homers I hit, probably 90 of them, or 80 of them were from the left side, so I wouldn't have been as much of a threat to do damage if I would have just hit right handed. Plus, I don't know if I would have been able to hit right handed pitching as well as I hit left handed pitching, either, from the right side.

RC: The most memorable moment of that year regarding you to most Royals fans is when you charged the Texas Rangers dugout on July 29th after being hit by a pitch. What happened there and what is the real story?

BM: The day before, I think a couple of guys had been hit on both sides, and I knew some of the clubhouse kids on the visiting side, and they said that Kevin Kennedy was saying that something is going to happen the next day and that somebody was going to get hit and go down. So, it was a situation in the game where I knew it was on purpose and it came from the manager. And Bob Patterson, who ended up being a teammate of mine in Chicago, was pitching, and I knew he did it on purpose but he was being told so, so instead of going after him, I went after the guy who ordered it. Of course, I didn't get to the dugout before they grabbed me, but I think I made my point. And back then, we were a team that opponents seemed to like and try to intimidate, and we were a better ball club than that and weren't going to let it happen.

RC: 1994 is one of the most exciting and disappointing years in Royals history, as the team was 64-51 and on the brink of making its first playoff appearance since 1985 when the baseball strike cut the season short. First of all, and take the Royal Blue glasses off, but do you think the team would have made the playoffs had the season been played out?

BM: I thought so because we had a wining record against the Indians and the White Sox, we pitched better, played better defense, so I thought we had a real legitimate shot. I think we were 4.0 games out, but if I remember right, we had won the season series against both of those ball clubs and we were peaking at the right time and playing well around the time of the strike. We had a long winning streak, and it seemed like everything was getting better for the club.

RC: What do you remember most about that season?

BM: Just that we started off slow, as usual, but as in '93, we got better as the season went on and were starting to play the best ball of the season in early August at the time of the strike.

RC: Following the 1994 season, you and your father both departed from the Royals, with Hal going to Cincinnati and you being traded to the Cubs for Derek Wallace and Geno Morones, two guys that played a combined eight games in the majors following that trade. Were you happy to be traded at that point and what were your feelings about leaving Kansas City?

BM: I think it was time to go because it looked like the organization was going in a different direction, and David Cone was traded the next day. They traded me and Cone for five players, and it looked like what we had built wasn't going to be there anymore. I enjoyed my time in Kansas City, but the National League treated me well and I loved playing in Chicago and playing the day games at Wrigley Field. For me, it was the best place they could have traded me.

RC: You hit .288 with 12 HR and 48 RBI for the Cubs in 1995, and the team went 73-71. What was it like playing under Jim Riggleman?

BM: It was good, it was a nice change. I liked the style of play and the pacing of the game in the NL a lot better. It suited me getting off of the astroturf, and that felt good. It was a challenge, getting out of KC where people around the league didn't know me as well, and trying to establish myself in the NL. ‘95 and ‘96, those two years with the Cubs were very exciting and I felt that I was turning into a better player, and from ‘93 to ‘96, I thought I had my best years. I just wish I could have had them all in KC but it didn't work out that way.

RC: In 1996 you hit .276 with 17 HR, 66 RBI and a career high 37 SB. As a team, the Cubs finished 76-86. What was it like playing with guys like Ryne Sandberg, Mark Grace and Sammy Sosa?

BM: It was fun. I played with George Brett who was a Hall of Famer, and guys that are maybe future ones, such as Mike Piazza with the Mets in addition to the guys you mentioned. So, it was neat just to watch how those guys went about their business and they were all such hard workers. That's what I noticed in Chicago, that Sosa, Sandberg and those guys were hard workers just like Brett and the guys that I played with in Kansas City.

RC: You've played at Yankee Stadium, Fenway Park, Kauffman Stadium and Wrigley Field. But does any place beat the atmosphere and excitement of Wrigley?

BM: Wrigley is one of a kind. There's nothing quite like it, nothing like playing day games all the time. It's an experience that I enjoyed, and I like day baseball. Day baseball suited me because I think I had better years and starts of years there, just for the fact that I was used to that from Spring Training and getting right into playing during the day, so that didn't bother me. Some guys don't like that, and as the season wears on, you get tired and beat down a bit, but I enjoyed day games.

RC: You played most of 1997 with the Cubs, but were traded along with Mel Rojas and Turk Wendell to the Mets for Lance Johnson on August 8th. What were your feelings when that went down and were you shocked?

BM: I wasn't shocked because the team was going to do something. We were struggling and I got to go to a team that was in the pennant race and to a major market in New York. I enjoyed that and that was a tough year, because we set a National League record for losses to start a season in Chicago, so that was kind of frustrating to be a part of that, but it ended up being good in that I went to New York only four games out of the wildcard. And my years in New York we were close to playoff teams, although the next year we missed it and it was ironic that the Cubs were the wildcard team instead of us.

RC: You spent 1998 with the Mets playing under Bobby Valentine, and hit .264 with a career high 21 HR and 79 RBI while the team just missed the playoffs and finished 88-74. What was Valentine like?

BM: He was different. Very smart baseball man that knew a lot and had a lot of radical ideas on things that he wanted to do and instill in his teams. But he was a good manager and we had a good team so that made it nice.

RC: 1999 would be your last year in the Big Leagues, and you started with the Mets before being traded to the Colorado Rockies on July 31st for Darryl Hamilton and Chuck McElroy. However, you played with Colorado for only 7 games before being dealt to the Toronto Blue Jays on August 9th. First of all, did you see the trade to Colorado coming?

BM: I didn't know what was going to happen around the trading deadline. We were in the pennant race, but we had a bunch of outfielders so playing time was sparse for everybody. And getting to Colorado was a weird situation. Jim Leyland was about to leave, and I don't know how that all came about. I went from a team in the pennant race in New York to a team out of it in Colorado, to the Blue Jays all in one year, so it ended up good at the end, but once I got to Toronto, all of our pitchers got hurt. We went from wild card leaders to six games out at the end of the season.

RC: Did the Rockies tell you that they were shopping you when you got there?

BM: I really didn't talk with to many people in the organization. So I didn't know what was going on there.

RC: What made you decide to "hang ‘em up" after you went to Spring Training with the Cardinals in 2000?

BM: It was just the way things worked out. The Cardinals traded for Jim Edmonds in the middle of Spring Training, and I got let go of shortly after. And at that point, it's hard to make another team that late with all the rosters set. I had some friends with ESPN that said when you get done playing, give us a call, and the opportunities that were presented to me playing wise just weren't places where I wanted to play. I had just had knee surgery, and I didn't want to play on turf, and Montreal and Minnesota were two teams talking to me that both have turf and weren't contenders at that time. I would have been a bench player, and might have played two or three more years, but it didn‘t seem like a thing I wanted to do, to go to a non-contending team and fill a role that I'd never had in being a part time player.

RC: How did you like working for ESPN?

BM: It was nice. I learned a lot, as far as the ins and outs of broadcasting. The two years there were fun, but a lot of back of forth between KC and Bristol, so that was difficult, but it was a lot of fun to work with them and it got my foot in the door, and now I'm better off for it because I can kind of see how things have evolved in broadcasting.

RC: Which teammates were you closest to during your times with the Royals, and which do you still keep in touch with today?

BM: David Howard, Mike MacFarlane, Jeff Montgomery, and I talk to Kevin Koslofski and Jeff Conine quite a bit; I'll see those guys every now and then when I go over to St. Louis to meet up with them.

RC: What are your favorite memories of Kansas City during your playing days, both on and off the field?

BM: Just playing at home, playing where I graduated high school, having my friends and family get to see me. It was also nice having good ball clubs, and feeling like we had something special and knowing you had a chance to win everyday when you went to the ballpark.

RC: What do you think about the current health of Royals franchise?

BM: I think with Dayton Moore at the helm, they're in a lot better shape than in a long time. I like where they are. I think they're going to get better and you're going to see a club that'll be able to contend in the Central.

RC: And we know you've done a lot with radio, television and volunteering since your playing days ended, but tell us all of the things Brian McRae has been doing since 1999 and what his days are like today?

BM: I do about 40 games on radio with the Royals. I work for mlb.com during spring training, All-Star game, etc. Also own some radio in Kansas City, and part owner of a couple of restaurants, which are 810 The Zone on the Plaza and one out here in Overland Park. That stuff pretty much keeps me busy.

RC: Thanks a lot for your time, Brian. Anything else you'd like to add?

BM: I think that's about it. Thank you very much for your time – I enjoyed this.

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