published Thursday, February 24th, 2011

McCann takes charge of Braves

KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- Having finished up yet another mundane drill, the Atlanta Braves begin making their way toward an adjacent field for the next phase of their spring training workout.

Brian McCann leads the way.

That's just what Fredi Gonzalez wants to see.

"This is going to be his team sooner rather than later," the new manager of the Braves said, relaxing afterward in the dugout. "You're kind of starting to see that. It's coming naturally. It's been a natural progression from when he was a puppy here. Now, he's become a voice on the team."

Gonzalez was the Braves' third-base coach back in 2005, the year McCann came up to the Braves at age 21. Even though catching is a position that morphs naturally into a leadership role, the youngster deferred to his older teammates and even to his close friend, Jeff Francoeur, who came up that same year and had a sensational rookie season.

Francoeur is long gone, while McCann might just be the most important guy on a team that made the playoffs last year and feels it has the talent to go even further this season.

His playing credentials are beyond reproach. He's a five-time All-Star and a four-time winner of the Silver Slugger award as the top-hitting catcher in the National League. He a player who's made great strides defensively, so much so that Gonzalez -- a former catcher -- challenged him to go win his first Gold Glove.

But McCann's value on the field, as important as that is, only tells part of the story. He's the bridge in the clubhouse from older players such as Chipper Jones, Tim Hudson and Derek Lowe -- all in their mid-to-upper 30s -- to younger teammates like Jason Heyward, Freddie Freeman and Craig Kimbrel, barely out of their teenage years.

Having just turned 27 this week, McCann should still have his best years in front of him, even taking into account a catcher's shorter shelf life. He's already grasped what it means to take charge, from on the field to behind closed doors.

"I feel more comfortable speaking my opinion if there's a situation that comes up," McCann said. "You can't just walk in and do it. You have be ready for it."

He's certainly learned to take charge behind the plate.

"You give him a game plan, and he'll follow the game plan," Gonzalez said. "When he sees the game plan is not working or a pitcher can't do what the game plan is, he'll change it and go someplace else. He not afraid to make those type of adjustments. That's experience. That's coming into your own."

This might be as good as McCann has ever felt physically.

First of all, he reported to spring training noticeably trimmer at 220 pounds -- about 15 pounds lighter than a year ago. He credited a healthier diet and hopes it will keep him stronger and more fit throughout the long, grueling season.

"Last year, with a month to go in the season, I was physically exhausted. I think it was more or less the diet I had. I wasn't conscious of what I was putting in my body," McCann said. "I'm making the nutrition side of it a priority."

More important, he's finally over two years of nagging eye problems, which began in the first game of the 2009 season.

"My left eye felt blurry," he recalled. "I just thought it was the nerves of opening day and all that stuff. But it just never got any better. I tried to play the first three weeks with it, but it was just too hard."

McCann played the rest of the season with glasses, a difficult adjustment to make anytime, but especially in the middle of games. After surgery on his eye that winter, he came back last year and still didn't feel like his vision was 100 percent. He had problems with dryness. He even had to put the glasses back on for a few weeks.

Not surprisingly, McCann's average slipped to a career-low .269, though he still had 21 homers and 77 RBIs.

"I just had a lot of things going on that took away from me performing on the field," he said. "I'm ready to go now. Everything is good with my eyes."

McCann feels he's just entering his prime, even though this will be his sixth full season in Atlanta. He's already one of the top catchers in baseball, but doesn't take anything for granted."

"I want to maximize everything I have," he said. "Look at Joe Mauer and what he's able to do. You've got [NL rookie of the year] Buster Posey coming up. There's a lot of great catchers in this league. I want to stay right there with 'em. When you start getting complacent in this game, that's when it passes you by."

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