Many little boys in St. Louis dream of playing in the big leagues for their beloved Cardinals. Perhaps some imagine their team winning the World Series and see themselves riding in the championship parade before thousands of cheering fans. Call it childish fantasy. For Cardinal pitcher Kyle McClellan, however, call it reality.
Since the St. Louis County native was drafted by the Cardinals in 2002, he rose quickly through the minors to become a versatile reliever. Last season, from both the starting rotation and bullpen, he contributed significantly to the success of the 2011 World Champions.
McClellan spoke with me by phone last week from spring training in Jupiter, Fla. As one might expect from a fierce competitor, his responses to my questions were energetic and to the point, delivered without hesitation like a series of fastballs. Our conversation focused largely on the integration of baseball and his Christian faith.
"My belief has really humbled me and allowed me to see a bigger picture," he said. "When you have a lot of people telling you how great you are, everybody pulling for you, 40,000 people watching, it's easy to get a big head. But in life, I'm not necessarily here to be a baseball player. I'm here to grow. Baseball is obviously what I get paid to do and we're called to do the best we can with the opportunities given to us."
The sad tale of fame and fortune contributing to the undoing of professional athletes is all too common. McClellan tells a different story.
"If not for being in baseball," he said, "I wouldn't be where I'm at spiritually. The guys I'm around have a big influence. We have a lot of believers on this team. Our chapels are full. We've got guys that come early in the morning before workouts to meet and talk about life and God. Learning people's struggles and strengths, hearing their stories and applying them to myself — you just pick up so many things throughout the year."
McClellan, who has a 9-month-old daughter, emphasizes his desire to be a good husband and father. He said he tries not to allow the stress of competition affect him at home. For a pitcher, after all, success can turn into crushing failure in the instant it takes an errant pitch to reach the plate. I asked how he copes with such ups and downs.
"It's about understanding that there's more important things than baseball," he said. "We talk all the time about having baseball be the center of what we do, but not being the center of who we are as a person."
Like a finesse pitcher painting the corners of the plate, McClellan effectively differentiates between the ruthless performance demands of major league baseball and the unconditional love of God. Curiously, he uses his dog to illustrate the point.
"When I come home, whether I give up a home run or strike out the side my dog doesn't care," he said. "She's just excited to see me. Christ doesn't care if I blew the game or not. He cares that I come home to be with him. 'If God is for us, who can be against us,'" he said, referring to Romans 8:31.
I asked if he prays to win.
"No," he said with a slight laugh. "Every time I run onto the field from the bullpen I pray for the lord to give me strength, concentration, and dedication to do the best of my ability," he said. "I think if I ask for those things I'm going to be successful. Successful in his eyes and our eyes are completely different ... I don't think he cares who wins or loses."
McClellan experienced a devastating disappointment just before last season's playoffs. After the Cardinals astounding run to overtake Atlanta for the National League wild card, manager Tony LaRussa informed him he was being left off the roster for the divisional playoff series. Ultimately he was dropped from the World Series roster as well. The press reported at the time a "testy" meeting in LaRussa's office.
"It did catch me by surprise," McClellan said. "I was led to believe I was going to be on the roster."
There was a lead-up to LaRussa's decision. After sporting a dominating .227 ERA as a reliever the previous season, McClellan began 2011 as a starter. He was sent back to the bullpen at the end of July when Edwin Jackson was acquired. Then, in August, he appeared in relief 11 times, allowing only one run. During that month he was called on to pitch more innings than any reliever in baseball. But by September he was struggling, plagued by shoulder fatigue.
I asked how he emotionally coped with the devastation of being left off the World Series roster.
He explains: "That's where the guys around me come into play. I was able to kind of get some of my feelings out there and have them there to encourage me. If you just go back to your hotel room by yourself there's a lot of things that run through your mind that are not necessarily the best for anybody.
"Personally it was tough, no denying that," he said. "But unselfishly you show up and be the best you can and cheer your teammates on and let them know you're there for them. That's what I did and it was just a great time. There're no complaints."
McClellan knows the hometown aspect of his dream-come-true career could evaporate, that he has no control over a possible trade. He says he tries to apply a popular clubhouse phrase, 'stay in your lane," highlighting the need to stay focused only on things you can control.
I asked how he feels going into the new season as a member of the defending World Champions.
"I feel good physically ... mentally," he said. "I think we're gonna have a good club. I think it's gonna be an exciting year."
With his rare and impressive blend of competitiveness, humility and loyalty, he's pretty much making a believer out of me.
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