Post columnist Steve Serby caught up with new Mets catcher James McCann for some spring training Q&A.
Q: Who was your boyhood idol?
A: Kobe Bryant. I grew up in Southern California, and I watched whatever sport was on TV. Baseball’s always been my favorite sport, but it’s just something about watching Kobe Bryant mature into the player and the man that he did, and watching just his drive, and the Mamba mentality — he didn’t just beat you, he wanted to steal your heart and soul in the process. … That’s kind of how I operate when calling the games, I don’t just want to get you out, I want you feeling really down when I get you out, because I want you to feel like you don’t have a shot next time coming to the plate. That’s kind of that mentality of, “I’m not just gonna beat you, I want to embarrass you” type mentality.
Q: How do you do that as a catcher?
A: We’re not just here to get you out, we’re here to put in your mind that every time you have to face is, you’re in for a long series, you’re in for a long game … making opponents feel like they’re beat before they step in the box. You have guys like a [Jacob] deGrom or [Marcus] Stroman or [Carlos] Carrasco, guys like that, it makes it a little easier ’cause guys already fear having to step in the box off of guys that. There’s battles to be won before a series, before a game, and if you can have that type of mentality, we’re in for a dogfight, or we’re in for a huge battle today, that’s kind of the mentality that I want to bring, that teams know when they come to play the Mets, it’s gonna be a battle.
Q: The new owner, Steve Cohen, expects a World Series in possibly as soon as three years. Is that realistic?
A: I think it’s more than realistic. I think we have some unbelievable talent in our locker room. I’ve said this several times already: Other than the talent, the thing that makes this group so special is just how quality the individuals are in that clubhouse. Guys truly do care about their own crafts, but they also care about each other. When you put talent and guys that get along in the same room, that’s how you develop good team chemistry, and when you have talent and good team chemistry, you can go a long way. … The direction that he is taking this team, I think he’s the right man for the job.
Q: What drove you as a boy, and what drives you now?
A: As a boy, my love and passion for the game. From as long as I can remember, I identified that I wanted to play Major League Baseball. I cold-turkey stopped drinking any type of soda in the sixth grade because I wanted to play in the major leagues. And what drives me now is I want to be great. I want to win a World Series. And I want to make my family proud. I’ve got two little boys that have grown up. They’re 3 years old and they love baseball. They sit there and watch games on TV. I want to make them proud. I want them to one day be able to say how much they enjoyed watching me play, and hopefully instill in them a desire to play a game that I love so much.
Q: What makes Jacob deGrom, Jacob deGrom?
A: His stuff is the first separator. He’s one of a kind when it comes to stuff. But what takes him to the next level, his greatness, is how intentional he is with everything that he does. He’s very, very detail-oriented, and he knows exactly how his mechanics are supposed to work, he knows exactly how things are supposed to feel, and he knows when something is not right, and he’s able to make the adjustment very quickly.
Q: How similar is he to Justin Verlander?
A: They’re very similar, they have a lot of different quirks that are very similar. I’d say that the biggest difference between him is on their start day, you would never know it’s [deGrom’s] day to pitch — he’s joking, he’s having a good time, he’s laughing, he’ll talk to everyone. Whereas Verlander, on his start day, only wants to talk to the catcher and the pitching coach and whatever trainer was working on him that day.
Q: How would you characterize deGrom’s mentality on the mound?
A: He’s gonna prove to you that he’s better than you. He’s keyed up there to compete and prove that he has better stuff than you do as a hitter, and he’s gonna do everything he can to prove that.
Q: How about Marcus Stroman’s mound mentality?
A: Stroman is very different from Jake in a sense that Stroman’s very creative. He’s almost like an artist out there how he’s trying to disrupt your timing, and mix and match this pitch versus that pitch. They’re similar in a sense that Stro’s very knowledgeable of who he is as a pitcher, just like Jake is knowledgeable on who he is as a pitcher.
Q: And Edwin Diaz?
A: He’s coming right at ya’. He’s saying, “Here it is. Hit it. Let me see what you got.” He’s not afraid of anybody.
Q: What is James McCann’s on-field mentality?
A: My mentality’s pretty much been the same since Day 1: I’m gonna prove you wrong. Tell me I can’t do something, I’m gonna do it. I’m gonna do everything I can. I’ll outwork you, I’ll outthink you, I’ll do whatever I have to do to beat you.
Q: Where does that come from?
A: It’s probably something that’s a little bit innate, I think I was just kind of born with that competitive drive, but it’s something that I’ve learned to harness over the years and use to my advantage. I’ve never really been “the guy.” In high school, I was in somebody’s shadows, in college there were better-ranked prospects. It’s kind of the mentality of putting the blinders on and being that blue-collar, hard worker that keeps his mouth shut and then lets everything play out the way it’s supposed to.
Q: What area behind the plate do you think you need to improve?
A: I think just continue to improve my framing. I’m of the mindset that I want to improve every part of my game. And then obviously, throwing runners out and blocking and all the other stuff I constantly work on as well. If I can continue to improve a little bit every year, then we’re in a good spot.
Q: You must pride yourself on your ability to throw runners out.
A: I don’t know if there’s anything I enjoy more in the game than throwing a runner out.
Q: What’s more fun, that or a walk-off home run?
A: (Laugh) Walk-off home runs are pretty cool, so I don’t know that I would say throwing a runner out over a walk-off homer. But if we’re just competing just any old solo home run versus throwing a runner out, I like throwing runners out because there’s just something about stopping a guy from stealing a guy that I love.
Q: What makes a good game-caller?
A: The most important part is understanding the situation, understanding the game, but trusting your eyes. I think that we play in a day and age now where everything is very computer-based and very analytical. And I think all that information is great, and I pay attention to all of it and I know all of it. But the end of the day, all that is is a foundation and a baseline. That’s what you take into a game, and then once you get into the game you have to trust what your eyes are telling you. You can’t be a robot, you have to use your eyes to make decisions.
Q: What impresses you about Pete Alonso?
A: Seeing his work ethic, seeing his routine in the cage and how he goes about hitting and getting himself ready for a game, it is very impressive. Just seeing how he hits, and damage that he can do to all parts of the field — he’s a special hitter.
Q: Is he a guy that could hit 50 home runs?
A: Hell, yeah. He can beat you at any time, any pitcher, at any ballpark. Everyone’s talking about the baseballs being changed and is it gonna affect home runs, and this and that, and Pete has a pretty simple answer — that when he hits a ball good, it doesn’t matter what ball it is, it’s gonna go a good way,
Q: What makes Francisco Lindor unique?
A: I’ve had the pleasure of playing against him — I don’t know pleasure’s the right word — but playing against him the last six years in the AL Central, he’s all-around the best shortstop in the game because, in my opinion, how smart he is. He’s obviously a great hitter, he’s obviously a great defender. He’s got all the tools, but what takes him to another level is how smart he is. He thinks with the game, he picks up on things that other guys don’t pick up on.
Q: How would James McCann look in blue hair?
A: I don’t think I could pull that look off (laugh). I’ll leave that to Lindor.
Q: What have you observed about Jeff McNeil as a hitter?
A: He’s a special hitter in a sense of how well he controls the bat. His bat-to-ball ability is part of what makes him one of the best in the game.
Q: Can he win a batting title?
A: I think he can. I think the big thing for Jeff is something that we all go through as young players, is understanding who you are as a hitter, who you are as a player. I think he’s done a good job of it so far, but I think especially if he continues to mature [on] who he is as a hitter, he’s a guy that’s gonna be able to contend for a batting title year in, year out.
Q: How would you assess the Mets’ lineup?
A: It’s pretty deep. I don’t think there’s any break in our lineup. You look all the way up and down the lineup, any guy can get you at any time. Guys kind of feed off each other. And then you look at the guys that are projected to be role players off the bench … really like the way our team is lining up.
Q: Was it awkward in any way meeting up with Dellin Betances after he beaned you a couple of years ago?
A: (Chuckle) No. After that, he sent over a message apologizing. There was a message waiting for me with one of the clubhouse people after that game. It wasn’t on purpose. If he’s trying to hit me, he wasn’t trying to hit me in the head. It was just a ball that got away from him, and that’s part of the game. Everyone came out OK from it. There was never any hard feelings or anything like that. That was never an issue, but we’ve laughed about it since.
Q: Describe Dom Smith as a teammate.
A: Phenomenal teammate. He’s always smiling, he’s always joking, he’s always lifting other guys up.
Q: What has been your best conversation at home plate?
A: I had a really good one [last week] with Alex Avila. We’re already predicting the best matchups of the season. It was gonna be Stroman versus [Juan] Soto, with the Nationals. See who can shimmy the most, who can shake the most and who can walk out the most.
Q: If you could catch any pitcher in MLB history, who would it be?
A: Several names pop into my head. … I don’t know when he retired, but I don’t think I ever saw him pitch, Nolan Ryan. And then one guy that I do remember watching pitch would be Pedro Martinez.
Q: If you could pick the brain of any catcher in MLB history, who would it be?
A: The name that comes to my mind right away is Johnny Bench.
Q: What is your favorite 2019 All-Star Game memory?
A: It would have to be sitting on the field watching the Home Run Derby and holding my two boys [Christian and Kane]. They were too young to remember it, but they were involved, they were high-fiving Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and hanging out with other big leaguers. … To me, that’s a memory that I’ll never forget, just seeing how much joy they were having being on a baseball field around the best players in the game, that was a lot of fun to see.
Q: What is your best college baseball memory at Arkansas?
A: The first one would be playing in the  College World Series. And then the second one would be a walk-off home run against LSU my junior year.
Q: Your best MLB moment?
A: It would have to be my debut [in 2014]. There’s just something about that dream finally being fulfilled and putting on the big league uniform and walking down that tunnel into the dugout for the first time for your major league game. That’s a special memory that I’ll never forget.
Q: What was the most frustrating part of your 2018 season?
A: I guess the word to use is, searching. When things aren’t going right, you’re constantly searching for what that fix may be. Sometimes you find it sooner than later, and other times it takes you a while, and in 2018, it pretty much took me until the next offseason to make the adjustment. But I’m a big believer that things happen for a reason. I am who I am because of the struggle that I went through that year.
Q: What were your emotions when the Tigers non-tendered you?
A: It’s not how you draw it up. It upset me, but it also kind of lit a fire in me. Just another thing to add to the list. I was gonna prove somebody else wrong. It’s been that way my whole career.
Q: What would be your message to Mets fans who preferred J.T. Realmuto at catcher?
A: I can’t control what other people think. I guess that’s just another person to add to the list of people I was gonna prove wrong.
Q: How cool is it catching a no-hitter by Lucas Giolito last August?
A: That’s one of my favorite things that’s ever happened. It’s everything coming together perfectly. The raw emotion when that last out is made … it’s pretty neat.
Q: Three dinner guests?
A: Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan, Babe Ruth.
Q: Favorite movie?
Q: Favorite actors?
A: Mark Wahlberg and Denzel Washington.
Q: Favorite actress?
A: Jennifer Aniston.
Q: Favorite singer/entertainer?
A: Luke Bryan.
Q: Favorite meal?
A: A ribeye steak, mashed potatoes and brussels sprouts with sweet tea.
Q: Would managing appeal to you one day?
A: It would. I really enjoy the cat-and-mouse nature, the chess nature of baseball when it comes to calling a game and managing a pitching staff and that type of thing. I really do think that one of my strengths is being able to handle different personalities, and get to know and create a good relationship with each other. I think that’s why catchers are such good managers because their whole career they’ve had to have relationships with other hitters, other position players as well as pitchers. You come across all sorts of different types of personalities and you find a way to manage all of them.
A: No, I really don’t. I try to stay away from that because I just think that if you get stuck on something and then it doesn’t happen, you’re already beat. But if I had to say one thing: I cannot put on a clean uniform before a game without showering.
A: I really enjoy hunting and fishing. I’m a big bow hunter. And then, beyond that, it’s family time. Spending time with my wife and my two boys.
Q: Personal goals?
A: I don’t typically state personal goals. My personal goal that I would state would be to help lead the Mets to a playoff berth and then the World Series.
Q: No one has higher expectations of you than you, so what are you expecting of yourself?
A: First and foremost, it’s giving everything I have day in and day out. The expectation for me, regardless of what the results are — whether it’s 0-for-4, 4-for-4 — every day I’m gonna be the same guy. And then being a leader in the clubhouse, and being a leader for that pitching staff, because I know that for our team, the importance of who I am as a catcher and calling a game and managing that pitching staff is more important than anything else. Obviously, offense is important too, but the expectation of being who I am day in and day out and not allowing any type of outside force to change who I am, that’s the biggest thing.
Q: Do you believe this is a World Series championship team?
A: I think we can, I really do. I think this is a very special group of guys.