McKinney loads up for next level

By Jeff Birchfield
STAR Staff
jbirchfield@starhq.com

   First, Garth McKinney starred in high school for the Happy Valley Warriors. Then, college ball at Walters State proved to be no obstacle. McKinney's starts a new journey this week. He tries rising through the ranks of professional baseball in the Detroit Tiger organization.
   This past season at Walters State, McKinney ranked amongst the national leaders in home runs (15) and RBIs (67). He also sported an amazing .473 batting average.
   "Preseason, we got a new batting cage and lights on the field," said McKinney. "Stuart Ritchie and I put in a lot of extra hours hitting. The effort put in showed for the whole team. We put in the hard work and it paid off."
   Along the way, McKinney helped the Senators achieve a No. 2 national ranking. They shattered the school's single season record for victories with 51, breaking the old mark by seven wins.
   "I don't think you will ever see another record like that," said McKinney. "Our pitching was unbelievable this year and you can't take anything away from the coaches.
   "They did a great job recruiting and got the talent in there. They're laid back and they really didn't put pressure on us. They're always so positive. When we needed extra work, they were glad to stay.
   "Coach (Ken) Campbell, coach Joey Seavers and coach Adam Cross are all excellent. Coach Cross is a great hitting instructor. He worked with the Braves for several years and he helped me quite a bit with my swing."
   The dream season came to an end early for McKinney, who suffered a broken wrist. Even without their offensive leader, Walters State fell just one game shy of the Junior College World Series.
   "You can't say that we had one player that was everything for us," said Garth. "Everyone was seeing the ball well and hitting well. The pitchers kept the runs low every game. I tried to do my part and keep everyone's spirits up.
   "But, it was hard to set on the sidelines and watch. I was seeing the ball real well (before the injury). You had everyone supporting me. I felt like I grew from that experience. It gave me patience for the failures I'm going to have later on."
   McKinney points to working with Coach Cross as a highlight in his collegiate career.
   "Thanks to Coach Cross, I think I've improved on everything," said McKinney. "I felt so much more comfortable in the field and at the plate. I trust my mechanics and am more consistent now. If I have a bad bat or do something bad in the field, I give it a quick thought and go on to the next at-bat or the next play.
   "I need to improve on my arm strength throwing from the outfield. My arm strength has to pick up a lot. I feel I need to keep working on everything. I try not to ever be satisfied, but I try not to put too much pressure on myself."
   In the Tiger organization, McKinney will join former Happy Valley teammate Ross Garland. Garland has played catcher in both Lakeland, Fla. and in Oneonta, New York. When asked about advice Garland has passed on, McKinney replied: "He said that no matter what happens, you can't think negative. You just have to take it one step at a time.
   "You can't think too much about the future or the success you've have in the past. You just have got to get better. Ross has been a good friend. He talked to the coaches at Walters State and I'm sure he talked to the Tiger scouts as well."
   At Walters State, McKinney was only a couple of hours from home in Morristown. Now in the minor leagues, he must adjust to being sent anywhere in the country the Tiger scouts and coaches so desire.
   "I don't think it will be too much of a shock," said McKinney. "I think I can adjust pretty well. I probably need to pick up on my Spanish. But, I try to make friends with everybody.
   "I'm going to try not to have too many stressful things outside of baseball. The Tiger organization has told me they're ready to do everything they can to help me out and find my way around. They're even paying for school, if I would get released. I hope the experience away from home will help me in what I want to do after baseball."
   Putting on a professional uniform is a dream of anyone, who has ever played the game. "I've played t-ball, basketball, soccer and golf," said McKinney. "I had never thought about it as a career. I just loved playing sports. This is something else.
   "It's going to be fun. I'm looking forward to competing for a spot on the team. I don't consider myself a major leaguer yet. I hope I can make my way up to the majors, but just playing pro ball is a dream come true. That's been my goal.
   "I appreciate all the support and congratulations my family and friends have given me. My family has done everything for me, so I can do this and be happy. Any coach I've ever had has guided me in the right direction. I want them to know how much I appreciate all they've done for me to make it here."