You've likely already seen the news that Mike McKenry will miss the rest of the 2013 season with a torn meniscus. It came across yesterday afternoon right at the trade deadline, and frankly, it's not huge news for the Pirates. McKenry's a pretty prototypical back-up catcher, and Tony Sanchez is ready to replace him and spend some time apprenticing under Russell Martin.
Still, I don't want McKenry's injury to go completely unmentioned. McKenry came to the Pirates during The Year of the Eight Catchers. After Ryan Doumit, Chris Snyder, and Jason Jaramillo all got hurt, the Pirates had to do something to prevent Dusty Brown, Wyatt Toregas, and Eric Fryer from playing every day. The "something" the Pirates decided on was picking up McKenry from the Red Sox — presumably because Clint Hurdle was at least peripherally familiar with him from his time in the Rockies' system — for cash.
McKenry famously found out that he'd been traded to and would be starting for the Pirates while he was in a supermarket in Pawtucket. He was traded to the Bucs on June 12th and started for them on June 13th. He gave a giddy interview about the trade and how happy he was to have a chance to start before that game, and it immediately became hard to dislike the guy. McKenry didn't have a great year for the Pirates in 2011, but he had a pretty good June, where he hit .306/.346/.444 while the Pirates heated up and positioned themselves for contention for the first time in any summer since The Freak Show. No one's going to forget his three-run, game winning homer off of Carlos Marmol anytime soon. It's hard to imagine a more ridiculous circumstance; McKenry, a 26-year old rookie with zero career home runs who'd been traded twice for nothing of consequence in six months, facing off against Marmol, who hadn't yet become a punchline and was one of baseball's best closers in 2010 and early 2011, with the score tied, two runners on base and two outs in the bottom of the eighth inning. It seemed like there was only one way that could end, and that one way wasn't McKenry's first career homer.
Last year, McKenry somehow hit 12 home runs in 275 plate appearances and became something of a folk hero while Rod Barajas struggled his way through a terrible season as the team's nominal starter. This year, McKenry single-handedly dragged the Pirates to a five-run comeback against the Reds on April 14th with seventh and eighth-inning home runs. He only got 18 hits in his next 37 games dragged across three months, then he got four hits and drove in two runs against the Marlins, injured his knee, somehow finished the game on said hobbled knee, and now will miss the rest of the season.
This probably reads like McKenry's Pirate eulogy, but it's not quite time for that yet. If McKenry doesn't qualify for arbitration as a super-two this winter (he's on the cusp, I think), he has an option left and will most likely spend next year shuttling between Indianapolis and Pittsburgh as depth for Martin and Sanchez. Then, the Pirates will non-tender him and someone else will sign him and he'll do the same shuttle for a few more years with a few more organizations. As someone that watches plenty of Triple-A baseball, I can tell you that backup catchers rarely go away, they lurk on the periphery of baseball and pop up again when you least expect them to.
No, this isn't a eulogy because The Fort Is Not Dead. It's an appreciation, before McKenry starts the inevitable slide into backup catcher obscurity. For parts of three seasons, Mike McKenry wasn't just a part-time catcher. Mike McKenry was The Fort, a ridiculously likeable guy who never forget that he needed a phone call in a supermarket to become a Major League player, whose every hit caused a Twitter explosion no matter how few and far between they were. I'm happy for Tony Sanchez, whose been through his own difficulties and who has earned this opportunity, but I'm a little sad that McKenry endured the two terrible collapses and will be injured for what increasingly looks like the Pirates' breakthrough. Baseball isn't fair, though, and that's why it's fun to root for the Mike McKenrys when they get their chances and make the most of them.