Kevin McCanna stood in the office of his manager Steve Montgomery and his pitching coach Bobby Post. It was towards the end of July of this year. He had heard the words but they were still sinking in. “The Arizona Diamondbacks are interested in signing you to a contract.” Kevin had hoped for a second chance to make it to the big leagues. Originally, he was drafted by the San Diego Padres in the 22nd round of the 2012 draft out of high school.
But, instead of signing the contract, Kevin chose to attend Rice University in nearby Houston. After three years of being an Owl, Kevin left a year early when he was drafted by the Houston Astros in the 13th round of the 2015 draft. Kevin signed on the dotted line and began his professional career.
That opportunity ended when Houston released Kevin in April of this year after spring training. During those two years, he went 7-7 from the mound with a 4.51 ERA over 135.2 innings. He did manage a respectable 116 strikeouts over that same time frame. But, it was not enough and Kevin found himself returning home hoping for another chance but not knowing if he would get one let alone where it would come from.
That second chance did not come from the Diamondbacks. It came from an independent team called the Sioux City Explorers and started on May 18th.
Call it fate or destiny, it pays in the end to be who you are throughout all of your struggles. Coaches saw Kevin’s hard work and dedication to the game. Coaches know that sometimes, the fate of a player’s career can be a numbers game or maybe that player just deserves a second chance.
One such coach was the pitching coach from the Astros organization: Mike Burns. Mike was a former pitcher who was drafted by the Houston organization in 2000. From 2005-2009, Mike pitched at the major league level for the Astros, Cincinnati Reds, Boston Red Sox and the Milwaukee Brewers. When Kevin was assigned to the Lancaster (CA) Jethawks in 2016, Mike Burns was his pitching coach. Like every player to have aspired to reach the majors, Mike knew that most players eventually deserve a second chance.
While Kevin was home working out to stay ready and pitching to keep his arm in shape, Mike called someone he knew: Steve Montgomery.
Steve had been named manager of the Sioux City Explorers in 2014, an independent team filled with players looking for either a way back or a first-time visit to the major leagues and their farm systems. Mike told Steve that he had just seen a young pitcher let go by the Astros who deserved another chance. While Steve pondered a short bit, Mike was on the phone with Kevin recommending the Midwest team and Steve Montgomery.
Kevin knew old friends and former teammates who had played for the Explorers and they all had good things to say about their coach. When Sioux City called and offered him a spot on their roster, Kevin knew it was the right thing to do.
An independent team like the X’s (Explorers) are filled with a cross-section of players. “It’s a collage of former MLB players all the way down to undrafted guys.” Says coach Steve Montgomery. One thing the players do have in common is their desire to make it to the next level. What makes the Explorers one of the better teams to achieve that goal is the mindset of the organization exemplified by their coach. “We do everything in our power to get you another shot.”
Kevin described it from his perspective. “I didn’t know anything about Indy ball before I got there. I was pleased at how talented (the guys were). Very solid. These are legit players (with) various reasons for them coming to Indy ball. Indy guys can be ex-major leaguers as well as AA and AAA. (They can range) from 21 years old to 32 and ready to retire.” Kevin summed up his afterthoughts. “I have the utmost respect for Indy ball. I was the youngest guy on the team for a while.”
Steve remembers Kevin McCanna’s stay in Sioux City well. Kevin arrived May 18th and stayed through July 26th. Steve saw many of the traits that Hops fans get to see today. “On the field, Kevin was a fierce competitor.” “(He) understood his role in the team’s success. He was mentally and physically prepared each time he took the ball.” All traits seen by the Hillsboro Hops coaching staff. But, what don’t the fans get to see? “Off the field, Kevin was soft spoken (with a) dry sense of humor. The ultimate professional.”
Kevin remembers the support he received while at Sioux City. He recalls Steve as a “great dude.” Kevin remembers one time when Steve, he and a few other players along with the clubhouse manager got together for a round of golf on an off day. Steve had asked him if he was a good golfer and Kevin responded, “I’m OK. I can compete a bit.” Steve must have wondered what competition Kevin had faced prior to that day as he did not see much competition from his new pitcher while on the links. Recently, Steve emailed me the following comment: “He thinks he is a good golfer. Not so much. LOL.”
But that story heard from both sides exemplifies Steve’s reputation as a “super-fun guy.” He “kept the mood light.” Kevin said. “(But) we were still there to win.” Kevin revealed the team’s nickname for their beloved manager as “Montgo” (the ‘T’ is silent) which is a shortening of his last name (MONtGOmery).
While there, Kevin made the most of his opportunity. In a little over two months, he started to feel the groove. Kevin went 5-0 with a 2.95 ERA. He struck out 52 batters in less than 40 innings. People started to notice outside of Sioux City.
Then one day, the Explorers get a phone call. The Arizona Diamondbacks are interested in signing Kevin McCanna to a contract. Steve knew Kevin was scheduled to start that day so he quickly called Kevin into his office. Kevin stood there hoping that his ears were ringing true – that the D-Backs wanted to sign him. It was “awesome” said Kevin remembering that afternoon in Steve’s office. “Two days later, I was on a flight to Hillsboro.”
Kevin was not only getting opportunity, he was also getting some minor doubts. The last game he pitched for the Explorers was against the St. Paul Saints. He pitched five innings. “(I) felt like every guy was a struggle. Not a single guy (where) I could take a break.”
Then Kevin remembered standing in the coach’s office with Steve and pitching coach Bobby Post after they got the call from Arizona. “(They told me to) go out there and do what I’m doing.” Kevin said. “I’ll never forget playing for those guys.” He added meaning Steve and Sioux City. It also gave him time to reflect on where he had come from to have come this far.
Kevin McCanna is from a baseball family. “Grandpa played in high school. Dad played for the University of Michigan.” It was considered the family sport. His two younger brothers also played baseball when they were younger but both now play Lacrosse very avidly. They are now both seniors though one is at the University of Michigan and the other remains in high school.
Originally born in Joliet, Illinois, Kevin and his family moved soon after to The Woodlands, Texas when he was just two years old. Later, he attended and graduated from The Woodlands High School, just a short trip north of Houston. That same high school saw former students Danny Amendola help win the Super Bowl with the New England Patriots and Paul Goldschmidt, current MVP candidate in the NL, lead Kevin’s current parent club, the Arizona Diamondbacks.
During his short stay in Hillsboro, Kevin has already succeeded. He was signed by the Diamondbacks on August third and assigned to the Hops on the same day. Three days later, on the 6th, Kevin was named NWL pitcher of the week for his performance on the fifth, his first appearance in a Hops uniform. In that home game against Vancouver, Kevin pitched 5.1 innings of hitless relief while striking out nine batters and earned the win.
The following week, Kevin was again named the NWL pitcher of the week for his game on the 10th, another home game, this time facing the Salem-Keizer Volcanoes. In that game, Kevin went six innings of scoreless relief allowing two hits on the night to earn his second win for the Hops. He struck out another five batters.
It wasn’t until August 25th when Kevin would allow the first earned run for his new club. Before that, Kevin pitched 22.1 consecutive innings without allowing an earned run. That spell was finally broken against Boise where he allowed one run in six innings for his fourth Hops win in less than three weeks.
In 22 short days, Kevin McCanna has already skyrocketed to fifth place on this season’s roster for most strikeouts with 34, all in 28 innings with a 0.34 ERA. Tyler Keele is the team leader with 64 strikeouts in 65.2 innings. While that is most likely unreachable for Kevin, it will not be unlikely to see him pass both Riley Smith and Connor Grey who have both been promoted to the Kane County Cougars and sit only one and seven strikeouts ahead respectively. It is possible Kevin could be sitting in third place behind only Keele and Kevin Ginkel (42) after his next outing.
When asked for his reasons for his immediate success, Kevin responded, “(My) body has felt good. Arm (has) felt good.“ He then added, “Tim (Susnara has done a) great job of calling the game. I don’t think I have shook off a call once during a game. We have a good vibe going and it is still going strong. Same with the others.” Kevin reflected a bit more before summing it up. “(We’ve) got a great team here. Great defense. (There) is a lot of help from teammates here.”
Kevin added some personal thoughts for himself and his routine. He wants to be more “consistent” and throw “more pitches for strikes.” His biggest goal is to go deeper into ball games, which he is succeeding at on Ron Tonkin Field. Usually paired up with Brian Shaffer, Kevin will come on in relief. It is not uncommon to see Kevin “go deep” by finishing the game without the aid of a closer.
The curve ball is his favorite pitch. Kevin has a “straight 12/6 curveball.” 12/6 is where the ball will drop straight down from a twelve o’clock position down to six o’clock.
While on the mound, Kevin has his share of chances to see his teammates play some exceptional defense. One particular time he recalled came during an off day where he watched from the dugout. Shortstop Camden Duzenack made an unbelieve grab of a line drive up the middle where his mitt’s webbing barely snared the sharp shot inches above the ground while his body was parallel to the horizontal surface. In my recap of that particular game, I noted the only thing missing was the red cape while he was flying through the air.
“That was amazing” Kevin said with a proud grin. “(Defense like that gets your) blood pumping – get’s (you) excited. (You can find that) “extra push.” Kevin paused for a moment while the scene replayed in his mind. ”(It) takes pressure off the pitcher to have guys behind you like that.”
When asked if he prefers to start or to close, his response was, “whatever gets me on the field.” He said with a big grin. It was obvious he loves the game and wants to enjoy every minute of it while he is here. He did admit though that he would love to start as he could see himself, “going (even) deeper into the games” and striking out batters.
But, Kevin wasn’t always a pitcher. He knew from the beginning that baseball was his sport but in high school, he considered himself “good, but nothing special. At first, “I was a catcher, played some second base and the outfield.” It wasn’t until high school that his pitching started to make him feel “in my junior and senior year, started thinking I could play at the next level. That was when I started improving as a player.”
For college, Kevin attended Rice for three years. That was when he focused on “straight pitching.”
Since the NWL plays a DH, I asked Kevin if the fans are missing anything not being able to watch him swing a bat? After shaking his head strongly with a smile, he finally admitted, “I don’t think the fans are missing much.” But, it is obvious that Kevin misses swinging the bat even though it has “been a long time since I swung a bat. I loved hitting… taking BP.”
I was able to pass on some kind words from his former coach and teammates. Several wished him nothing but the best or described him as a well-liked teammate. Judging by Kevin’s non-verbal reactions, it was easy to tell that this time in his life was a special one that he will never forget. His response back to them were “I miss them.” His advice to them was “keep playing hard.” Then, he admitted “I follow them every game. I wish them the best.”
Now that he is back in a major league farm system, he is giving his biggest effort. “I’m very happy to be here.” He said of the day he was assigned to the Hillsboro Hops on August 3rd, the same day he signed a contract with the Diamondback organization. “I feel blessed to have a second opportunity. A second chance.”
After seeing what the first month of this second chance brought to the Hops, Kevin is a poster boy for all second chances and an argument that everyone deserves one.
Future wishes: If he could accomplish something in life that has nothing to do with baseball, it would be to “graduate from Rice. I left after my junior year.” His major was “kinesiology. I thought it was interesting. It’s the study of how the body moves.” The science is intrinsic to medicine and sports trainers. Kevin’s personal interest comes from knowing how his body responds and moves to help him perform better.
Away from the baseball diamond: Kevin likes to immerse himself into movies. He figures Dark Knight to be the best. “Heath Ledger as the Joker…” Kevin said with no need to finish the sentence. He also loves “any baseball movie, especially Bull Durham.”
Kevin has fond memories of the outdoors. Baseball was not the only family activity for the McCanna family. His grandfather had a “place in northern Wisconsin” where the family could fish for Walleye, Crappie, Blue Gill.” Kevin could savor the taste of each species as he named them off one by one. The whole family went fishing.” He recalled.
Kevin really wants to catch a “Musky.” I had to ask him what that was even though I had extensively fished in the Pacific Northwest.
“It’s like a big pike.” He said. “I’ve never caught one.”
Shooting guns is another well-liked activity. “I’ve never killed but like to shoot.” He said referring to hunting.
Latest purchase: “A hammock.” Kevin said with a smile. “String it up between two trees…” Again, the sentence did not need to be finished. His smile finished it for him.
Favorite place to eat: “Chic-Fil-A. They have a really good sauce.”
His advice to young players: “Work hard. If baseball is something you really want to do, just go out and do it. Put work and time into your craft” and you will give yourself a chance.
Steve Montgomery’s contributions to this interview came through emails. Kevin McCanna was gracious enough to sit down with me for several minutes sharing his journey so far. I am grateful to both for their cooperation.
By Greg Stoker