For Former All-Star Catcher, Meeting His Hero Was a Professional Blessing

It’s an oft-repeated adage, “Never meet your heroes, they’ll only disappoint.” It’s meant to temper expectations and prevent the inevitable letdown of idol worship. But for Atlanta native and seven-time All-Star catcher Brian McCann, that cynical warning couldn’t have been more wrong. His childhood hero, Braves pitching great John Smoltz, didn’t just meet McCann’s expectations — he exceeded them.

Even as a starstruck 12-year-old meeting and having his picture taken with the future Hall of Fame pitcher, McCann could never fathom that less than a decade later, he’d be Smoltz’s personal catcher and playing an integral role in Smoltz’s final playoff run with the Braves.

“The day he was going to catch me the first time that season, somebody put a picture of us together from when he was a 12-year-old kid,” Smoltz reminisced. “And now he’s going to be my catcher, so it was pretty cool.”

That improbable reality hit home for McCann in October of 2005 when, as a fresh-faced 21-year-old rookie, he found himself as the battery mate of his idol for Game 2 of the National League Divisional Series against the Houston Astros.

“I’m 21 years old, and I’m catching my idol,” McCann recalled. “I grew up in Atlanta. And it’s my first Major League playoff game, facing Roger Clemens and the Astros.”

As the duo made their way to the dugout after pre-game warmups, the wily veteran seized the opportunity to take his protégé under his wing.

“We’re walking in from the bullpen, and he looks at me, and Smoltz goes, ‘Hey kid, we’re going to start (Craig) Biggio off with three-straight sliders; we’re going to strike him out. He’s going to swing at all three of them, and we’re going to set the tone and win the game.'”

The audacious prediction and flawless execution that followed — Smoltz striking out Astros Hall of Famer Craig Biggio on three-straight sliders — left McCann awestruck.

“I had no idea even what day it was at that point,” the rookie admitted. “For him to say that and execute it, that’s when I knew this game was on a whole other level and that I needed to get better.”

Not only did Smoltz live up to McCann’s expectations, he became a mentor, instantly raising McCann’s game.

“Brian had a three-run homer off Roger Clemens,” Smoltz beamed with pride. “That’s why we won the game.” In talking about the first-inning strategy, Smoltz said: “I’ve never done that with anybody because you don’t think about the games, but I wanted him to know what we were going to do because I faced Biggio a hundred times, and it becomes a cat and mouse game, which he learned and led a lot of pitching staffs after that. I learned from a lot of people and tried to pass it on.”

He continued, “Brian gave me energy because I was now on the downside of my career. I was getting older, and he was coming up,” Smoltz explained. “We got a chance to play together for a little bit, and I broke him in, and he ended up with seven All-Star selections, an All-Star Game MVP, six silver sluggers, and a World Series championship. So it worked out.”

It was the start of a storybook transition and the continuation of the Braves molding young McCann into one of the game’s elite catchers over the coming years. Smoltz remained in Atlanta for three more seasons (through 2008) and went 33-19 with a 3.27 ERA. McCann was a Brave through the 2013 season and averaged 20 HR while hitting .277 overall. After winning the World Series in 2017 with the Astros, McCann finished his career back in Atlanta — hitting 12 HR in 85 games in ’19 before hanging up his spikes.