McGehee credits dad's work on, in cage

McGehee credits dad's work on, in cage

MILWAUKEE -- Mike McGehee is a plumber by trade, but it was a backyard construction project that propelled his boy to the big leagues.

At least that's what Casey McGehee figures today. He's made it big with the Brewers because of his calm demeanor and his knack for hitting the ball to the opposite field, a couple of traits he picked up in the batting cage his dad built in the family's Santa Cruz, Calif., backyard.

"I went to school with a girl a couple of houses down," Casey McGehee said. "She told me, 'I'll never be late to school, because all I hear in the morning is, Clank! Clank! Clank!'"

It paid off. McGehee, plucked off waivers by the Brewers from the rival Cubs in October 2008, won an Opening Day roster spot with Milwaukee in Spring Training in '09, won the everyday third-base job in June and led Major League rookies with 66 RBIs.

Now he's a case study in avoiding the sophomore slump, a surprise National League RBI leader for parts of the first two months of the season. He traces his success to all of those hours with dad in the backyard batting cage.

"I was probably 9 when he bought a pitching machine and built the cage," Casey McGehee said. "We spent a lot of time out there."

His older sister was actually the family's star athlete, and Casey, three years younger, picked up the game by tagging along to tee-ball. By the time Casey was old enough, his dad was his coach, and they remained paired into Casey's teens.

By the time he was in high school, that work had become serious. Dad and son would be out in the batting cage by 7 a.m. for some swings before school. On nights and weekends, Casey and his teammates would gather in the backyard for extra work.

Given the investment of money and sweat that went into the cage, it is not surprising that Mike McGehee encouraged his son to use it. But he never forced.

"When it became clear that this was something I wanted to do, he definitely made sure I knew I would have to work at it," Casey said. "He said, 'If this is what you're going to do, do it the right way.'"

Sometimes their sessions got heated.

"I would get frustrated if it wasn't going the way I wanted it to," Casey said. "I would get frustrated and try to hit the ball harder and harder and harder, and get worse and worse and worse.

"He's let me get frustrated, and then he would stop me and try to calm me down. There were a few times we got into arguments out there. But he would encourage me to step back, take a deep breath and hit the ball the other way. That's where that developed."

The trick still works today. When McGehee found himself in slumps in the Minor Leagues, he'd think back to dad telling him to hit the netting down the right side of the batting cage.

"I try to see myself hitting a line drive over the second baseman's head," McGehee said. "That comes from my dad."

Those line drives have become his calling card. Through his game-winning hit against the Cubs last week, only 11 of McGehee's 37 hits at Miller Park were truly pulled to left field. Seven were singles to center field -- including that game-winning two-run single on June 8 -- and nine were opposite-field hits to right.

That "hit it where it's pitched" approach is the main reason, McGehee figures, that he has been able to avoid the second-year slump that strikes so many hitters.

But dad's lessons off the field were just as impactful. As a kid, Casey said, he was a terribly sore loser. That kind of attitude doesn't cut it in a 162-game big league season.

"I still am a bit of a sore loser, but I think I've grown out of it a little bit," he said. "I give my dad some of the credit for that."

Mike and Casey still speak on the telephone at least once a week, and Mike makes at least one visit to Milwaukee. They also spend time together during the Brewers' trips to California.

Casey finds himself thinking a lot these days about his childhood trips into Oakland and San Francisco to see big league games.

"We didn't go often, but it was maybe a couple of times a year," he said. "He would always ask me, 'Can you picture yourself playing here some day?' And I always shrugged. It seemed like a long way off."

Flash-forward to last April, when McGehee rode a stellar Spring Training to his first big league Opening Day roster spot. The Brewers opened the year at San Francisco's AT&T Park, and Mike McGehee was in the stands.

"That was really neat for me," McGehee said. "I remember the first day I ever sat in [what was then called] Pac Bell Park when it opened with my dad, and here I was again. I wasn't in the starting lineup, but it was still a special moment. We've talked about it, and I know it was a neat moment for my dad, too."

Adam McCalvy is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.