Home runs, honors highlight McKinney's season with 'Caps

Garth McKinney takes a big cut at the plate.

  2004 will be a season in the minor leagues former Happy Valley standout Garth McKinney won't soon forget.
  Playing for the West Michigan Whitecaps, a Grand Rapids-based farm club of the Detroit Tigers, McKinney broke the team's home run record and was named the Midwest League's Player of the Week in July.
  However, the son of Gary and Dianna McKinney did have some struggles. He led the team with 175 strikeouts. Late in the season, teammate Kelly Hunt passed him on the squad in homers after McKinney spent 19 games on the disabled list.
  "Last year was a lot of peaks and valleys," said the 22 year-old, who belted 19 roundtrippers on the season. "I went through a hot stretch and then a cold stretch that killed my average.
  "The positive side was I had a lot of home runs and showed some power. That gives me a chance to move up, work on that average."
  For the record, McKinney did average a not-too-shabby .228 at the plate. One stretch in May, he hit home runs on four consecutive days. Surprising for a player of his size (6-3, 210 lbs.), he also ranked third on the team in stolen bases.
  The West Michigan team as a whole had a roller coaster season until late, when they caught fire and won the Midwest League title.
  "The team couldn't win two games in a row, then in August we turned it on and it carried over to the playoffs," said McKinney. "We ended up winning the championship."
  Taken in the 29th round of the 2001 draft, McKinney has moved up nicely in the minor league ranks. It is not surprising to those in Carter County, who saw how improved each year at Happy Valley.
  "I'm really happy with the way I have progressed," said McKinney. "I played well my junior and senior years in high school. I made the adjustment to outfield my freshman year at Walters State. Getting hurt at the end of my sophomore year set me back a little bit.
  "I'm happy with the changes Detroit has made getting coaches, who have helped make a better player. I always think about the positive things, the things I need to work on, not to dwell on the negative things."
  When he comes home old friend Ross Garland is one of the first persons Garth looks up. Both former HV players at one time were in the Tiger minor league system.
  "We still hang out a lot," said McKinney. "We talk about the guys we know in the organization and how they are doing. It's fun to get together, to have someone who knows what you are going through.
  "I got looked at by Walters State because they were looking at him. I try to talk to him as much as I can."
  They sometimes relive the days of playing for the Warriors. One day in particular is special to Garth, when HV showed they could compete with the toughest baseball program in the area.
  "The best memory at Happy Valley had to be beating Unicoi County my sophomore year," McKinney remembered. "I was the pitcher that game and it showed everyone on our team they weren't unbeatable to us."
  He still keeps up with what is going on back home and is pleased to see Warrior athletic teams flourish.
  "It's good to see the sports program at Happy Valley do so well," said McKinney. "Coach (Greg) Hyder is getting to work with kids he's been losing in years past to football and basketball at other schools.
  "The only thing in high school is that you don't have a lot of time to get better when you play multiple sports. You have to rely on natural ability. I hope I can work with the team as well. I need to hit too."
  When he moved to college, McKinney really began to catch the eye of professional scouts. He was a key player in a national powerhouse team at Walters State Community College.
  "We were fourth in the country my freshman year and second my sophomore year," McKinney recalled about his days in Morristown. "I still keep in touch with those guys.
  "I had a blast at Walters State. We only lost 14 ballgames the whole time I was there and won the Tennessee state junior college championship."
  The power that became his trademark in college has suited him well at the next level. Out of 94 hits in 2004, 35 were good for extra bases.
  Improving the other part of his game is all about practice.
  "Working on defense, the main thing is repetition," said McKinney. "We take as many ground balls as the infielders do. I've gotten a lot better with that. Our outfield instructor Gene Roof played in Johnson City when he was in the minor leagues and it's fun to talk to him."
  Asked about specific drills he does as an outfielder, McKinney explained. "Throwing the ball far, we do the long toss, band work with the rubber bands. Basically, do a lot of the drills pitchers do. Throwing long is the only way you can build up."
   When he watches a major league game on television McKinney does his best to still enjoy it, but will admit he takes notice of different batting techniques.
  "You're always watching load ups, swings," said McKinney. "The side views are much better than the front views for that.
  "I just try to relax and enjoy when I'm watching a game, don't get too mentally focused on that. As a hitter you have to do what's comfortable for you. Few guys will have different stances."
  The main thing McKinney notices about players at the major league level is how polished they appear at the plate.
  "What is so impressive with major league guys, it looks like they are hitting home runs so easily," said McKinney. "They are so smooth with their swings."
  McKinney has aspirations to be there one day himself. For now, he has found life in the minors particularly in the Great Lakes Region to be very pleasant.
  "Definitely West Michigan has the best atmosphere of anywhere I've played," said McKinney. "The fans were great. We had a lot of fans who were always there. Dayton, Ohio, was a nice place to play as they had all this high-tech stuff at their stadium.
  "The goal is still to one day be in Detroit. I know the work ethic, how hard it is to get to that level. You have to put it all on the line."
  Although he's talented enough to do what most athletes only dream of, playing a sport professionally, McKinney stays humble about his position.
  "Every day I'm thankful to be in the situation I'm at," said McKinney. "I wouldn't change it. I didn't grow up going to a lot of camps.
  "Once more talent comes through our area, we'll be able to get more instructional classes, where kids can better learn how to play. But, I feel extremely lucky to do what I'm doing."
  Even though baseball is taking him to many parts of the country, McKinney wants the people back home to know how much their thoughts mean to him.
  "I just appreciate everyone who supports me," said McKinney. "When I go to a basketball game at Happy Valley, everybody always comes up to me and asks how I'm doing.
  "It's nice to know you have that kind of support not only from your family, but your friends and all the people in the Happy Valley community."