Tigers' McCann deals with playing in pain

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News
James McCann

Detroit – Rarely do they talk about injuries, the quiet variety that might not necessarily disable a big-league player but that become part of one’s daily life.

Professional athletes play with pain. And so you will not pry from Tigers catcher James McCann details about the right ankle he sprained in April and still feels in September.

“In 2014 when I got called up (expanded September rosters) I observed quite a bit,” McCann said, while shuffling gear in his locker before Tuesday evening’s game against the Indians at Comerica Park.

“And I watched Miggy (Miguel Cabrera, then dealing with a damaged ankle) play every game and into the playoffs and he told me: ‘If I can play at 50 percent, I will play at 50 percent, because I know millions of people would give anything to play this game.’”

McCann was asked Tuesday to explain, as candidly as possible, if his right ankle has been hurting more than he might have allowed during a second full big-league season that had seen him bat .220.

“That’s a tough question to answer,” he said, adding that he didn’t want to make excuses for a rugged second full year in the big leagues.

Henning: Pitching gives Tigers their last, best shot

But neither is deceit part of McCann’s profile. He hurt his ankle April 11 in a game against the Pirates at Comerica Park and was gone until May 3. If anything, the Tigers have wondered if McCann might have soldiered-up too early, with his zeal to play perhaps outweighing the need for more convalescence.

Trainers and doctors can make basic determinations on a player’s health in step with 21st-century medicine. Tests, examinations, monitoring – it’s a comprehensive process. But so much is up to the player. It is, to a large extent, a matter of an athlete feeling good enough to perform. McCann’s assurances after three weeks on the shelf were resolute. He was ready.

“I’m not going to go back and second-guess anything,” said McCann, whose ankle remained heavily taped until mid-season. “My goal was to come back as soon as I could catch a full nine innings.

“Was it bad timing to have hurt the ankle six games into the season coming off a great spring training (.348 in 17 games)? Of course. But sometimes you learn more from failure than from success.

“To get back to your original question,” McCann said, “(Justin) Verlander said it best: It’s tough enough to compete at the big-league level, let alone with an injury.”

Tigers manager Brad Ausmus said Tuesday that McCann “hasn’t mentioned the ankle to me.” But neither does Ausmus dispute that players and pain are regularly paired.

“To me,” Ausmus said, differentiating between discomfort and injury, “you’re doing the right thing by not complaining.”

McCann turned 26 in June and has put together a mixed bag of catching pluses and minuses in 2016. His defense has gotten better, but he is yet learning the delicate art of framing pitches. He has one of the best throwing arms in the big leagues and has hugely reduced the number of runners and attempted base-robbers.

But the bat. It has not come around. Not as anticipated after McCann batted .264 in 114 games as a rookie. His power can be impressive (12 home runs, including a mammoth, second-deck blast last week at Minnesota) but critics don’t care for his splits, which have seen him bat .198 against right-handers and .258 against left-handers.

McCann won’t say how his ankle has affected him. He mentions only that not until April had he ever been hurt playing baseball. Teammates have advised him to stay cool. Lingering aches and ills, they have told him, often don’t heal or subside until the offseason.

McCann insisted Tuesday no post-season surgery or treatments are necessary. The ankle will be fine. In time.

And so will his offense pick up.

“I’ve talked with several guys,” he said, mentioning Ausmus and third-base coach Dave Clark, “and they’ve all talked about this being a process.

“Even a guy like Ian Kinsler – no way the last two years he’s been anything close to the hitter he was his first two years in the big leagues. There’s just so much adjusting year to year. And the league adjusts to you. It’s such a learning experience – every day.

“Al Kaline told me something when I was in ‘A’ ball,” McCann said, speaking of the Tigers Hall of Famer, and consultant, who often counsels young hitters. “He said it would take 1,000 at-bats before you find out at any level what kind of hitter you’re gonna be.

“So much goes into learning about yourself as a hitter.”

It’s McCann’s way of saying: Wait at least until 2017 before drawing any conclusions about a catcher’s potential, especially on offense.

By then the ankle will be better. A hitter will be older and smarter. And a steadier weapon might have evolved at one of the more demanding job sites – behind the plate -- in all of professional sports.