Guardians’ Triston McKenzie arrived as MLB star and mentor — Andscape

CLEVELAND — Triston McKenzie visited the clubhouse in August after a gem of an outing, diving deep into a game for the Cleveland Guardians, and found an encrypted message from a Guardians staffer on his cellphone.

He returned the text and the staff member fleshed out the details.

One of the teenagers at Valley View Boys’ Leadership Academy, an all-male public school where McKenzie gives some of his free time, was in the intensive care unit. The 13-year-old boy had been shot four times in the chest and two times in the arm, and a seventh bullet grazed his head. His attacker also kicked him in the head.

No one knew if the boy would live or die. Or why he was shot.

“It was a very heartbreaking story,” said McKenzie, whose masterful pitching in Game 2 of the American League Wild Card Series (six innings pitched, eight strikeouts, two hits allowed) helped Cleveland to sweep the Tampa Bay Rays and advance to face the York New Yankees in the AL Division Series. “I was just trying to find a way to get in touch with him – to talk to his family, to let them know that I was here and that even though it affected them, it affected me a lot too.”

The shooting affected the whole school. Many West Side school students are almost immune to violence, as it’s an all-too-common aspect of their life in a city with a murder rate like Cleveland.

Danger often confronts black and Hispanic boys here, and Valley View has tried to protect them from it.

“We let them know what it means to be each other’s brother,” manager William Davis said. “That’s what we teach in our gender-specific school. We teach them what responsibility means and know what it means to make mistakes.

Davis was behind the adage that it takes a village to raise a child, and his village can use a few good men to help out.

Count McKenzie among those willing to do so.

Triston McKenzie, 25, was one of MLB’s best pitchers this season.

Jason Miller/Getty Images

Earlier this month, McKenzie, wearing an off-white sweater with a studious-looking bear stitched to the front, dropped by Valley View eighth-graders whom he, in a sense, adopted .

McKenzie is no longer foreign to them. He’s been hanging out with the boys since before the coronavirus pandemic. He is also no longer a stranger to MLB fans. In his second full season, he finished in the top 10 in MLB in strikeouts (190), ERA (2.96), and innings pitched (191.1).

On this recent visit to Valley View, he brought a guest: Guardians teammate Steven Kwan.

McKenzie and Kwan, who wore a T-shirt with the words “Love More” on the front, are not much older than teenagers. But the ballplayers lived life in a way that few, if any, of these boys have — or, in some cases, ever will.

Seemingly comfortable during their visit, McKenzie and Kwan laughed, they chatted, they cheered on the boys. McKenzie, nominated in 2022 for the Roberto Clemente Award, which recognizes character, philanthropy and community service, learned how to make such visits work, for him and for the boys.

He connected with eighth graders, Davis said.

As part of her duties as head of player engagement and family relations for the Guardians, Megan Ganser introduced McKenzie to Valley View.

“We were far apart at the time, and I thought he would be open to getting involved from his hometown or from where he lives,” Ganser said. “I asked him and he said yes.”

Her appearances and words resonated with the boys, a class of about 20 black and Hispanic students on the doorstep of high school. They saw McKenzie as a real live major leaguer who looked like them, spoke like them, had once walked in their shoes and had, as Ganser says, found success.

Triston McKenzie has been visiting students at Valley View Boys’ Leadership Academy in Cleveland for nearly three years.

George Kubas/Diamond Images via Getty Images

McKenzie spent nearly three years visiting Valley View. However, he seemed reluctant to call himself a “mentor”, a title that was a little too formal for his taste.

Due to coronavirus restrictions, his visits began on the Zoom platform. He said he was just a nameless face to the boys he met.

Triston who? they wondered. We don’t really know who he is.

The boys didn’t follow MLB, so they didn’t acknowledge McKenzie’s fame. Maybe they didn’t care. All they knew when he started showing up in person was that a 6-foot-5, 165-pound stranger with a wide, toothy smile was on their campus. His name did not arouse much passion.

McKenzie was just a regular guy.

But that sentiment swung in a different direction once they saw McKenzie continue to show up. He showed them that he cared about them.

“I gained their trust,” he says. “I kinda understand how to talk to them.”

He called what he does on his visits sharing his bounty.

“That’s how my parents raised me,” McKenzie said, sitting in the home team dugout at Progressive Field. “I have a younger brother, and when we get something, we split it 50-50.

“It’s one of the characteristics of where I come from and how I was taught.”

During his lectures, he often highlighted his own aspirations. He talked to the boys about choices – and how to make smart choices out of them.

His message comes from experience.

Triston McKenzie said of being a mentor: “I think once I got drafted I felt like I was in a better position to give back to people than when I was at their place.”

Patrick Smith/Getty Images

In her late teens, McKenzie had a choice to make. As a senior at Royal Palm Beach Community High School in Florida, he held a scholarship to Vanderbilt University, one of the top college baseball programs in the NCAA, and planned to go there to play. baseball and go to medical school. diploma.

He aspired to be a doctor – his friends nicknamed him “Dr. Sticks.”

But then came the 2015 draft. The Cleveland organization, in love with a right-hander who threw hard and had a repeatable delivery, used the 42nd overall pick in the MLB draft on McKenzie.

Now, did McKenzie still want to attend Vanderbilt? He was at the metaphorical fork in the road; he had two splendid options. He could only choose one though. His choice fell on baseball – the $2.3 million the franchise offered him proved to be a lucrative incentive.

“I think once I got drafted, I felt like I was in a better position to give back to people than when I was in their shoes,” he said.

And give back to McKenzie.

After reaching the major leagues in 2020, but before he began visiting students at Valley View, he struck up a relationship with Boys and Girls Clubs in Northeast Ohio, where he pointed out to teenagers that he had choices for one simple reason: he put as much work into his studies as he did into his athletics.

Mentoring means caring for them, and caring can mean circumstances that shake a mentor’s foundation. The shooting of the 13-year-old, a straight student about to start high school, put McKenzie to the test.

He passed it.

Although he was not allowed to visit the teenager, who survived his gunshot wounds, McKenzie sent items to intensive care for him to enjoy, including a Guardians jersey.

The teenager, whose shooting was still under investigation, proudly displayed McKenzie’s gifts.

“His reaction,” Ganser said of the boy, “was priceless.”

Davis said his students welcome McKenzie’s visits to Valley View and look forward to them.

“We can use positive men, who are willing to instill the values ​​they receive from their fathers, mothers, grandmothers and grandfathers about what it takes to be successful,” said Davis. “I would like a mentor to teach our children about stumbles, trials and tribulations.”

McKenzie couldn’t escape the word “mentor”. He needed to define a term for what he was doing, and the mentor seemed as fitting as any.

“I just try to talk to the kids about everyday things, let them know I’m here, talk to them as a mentor and not someone who looks like a power figure,” he said. . “I am one of them.

“I think they felt more comfortable.”

Judge B. Hill grew up and still lives in Cleveland. He practiced journalism for over 25 years before settling into teaching at Ohio University. He left on May 15, 2019 to write and globetrot. He does both.

Neal T. Doss