Mike Mastovich: Former Pirates catcher, newest Mill Rats owner envisions baseball growth throughout the region

Mar. 12—The Johnstown Mill Rats hit a figurative home run with the addition of former Pittsburgh Pirates catcher Michael McKenry and his wife Jaclyn to the Prospect League franchise's ownership group.

Friday's announcement potentially could have a far-reaching impact on Johns-town-area baseball, extending even beyond McKenry's role with college-level, wooden-bat league Mill Rats.

McKenry's ties to the city extend to 2004, when he played for the Washington, D.C., franchise in the AAABA Tournament.

In December 2012, he joined former teammates Starling Marte and Jose Tabata at The Johnstown Galleria as part of the Pittsburgh Pirates Caravan.

'Hub for baseball'

McKenry has participated in the Mill Rats Faith Night promotions at Sargent's Stadium at the Point during the past three seasons.

A likable and outgoing personality who is a part of the Pirates television team on SportsNet Pittsburgh, Mc- Kenry hopes to help elevate the sport in the region from the youth to college levels, including the Mill Rats, Pitt-Johns-town and the AAABA Tournament.

"The biggest things for me and the wife is where we fit in, and to do what we can," said McKenry, who played seven years in the majors, including three seasons with the Pirates from 2011-13. "Early on, how can we wrap this community together and grow baseball — not only for the Mill Rats but for programs like Pitt-Johns-town? We want to try to make baseball what it should be in Johnstown.

"The rich history has proven you can do a lot of cool things.

"We want to make Johnstown a hub for baseball from the youth level all the way up. We both want to be involved in the community. We think this is a good place to start."

A few minutes speaking with McKenry reveals just how enthusiastic the former player known as "The Fort" is about the subject.

"There are a lot of past memories I've had from Johnstown," McKenry said. "It kind of pulled at the heart strings."

'For the community'

He is jumping right in. Mc- Kenry planned to visit Johnstown Wednesday to meet with Rick Roberts, the owner of ERA Sports and Flood City Elite baseball programs.

McKenry said he will attend the City of Johnstown council meeting later that night.

The Mill Rats and the city have been discussing a new lease. The team originally signed a three-year deal in 2021.

"The people that are already involved in the Mill Rats ownership, I can't tell you how incredible those people are, what their vision is and what they want to do for the community," McKenry said. "None of them had to do this."

Local ownership officially took over the team in November following months of uncertainly.

"The goal is not just to come to games, but to be involved," McKenry said. "I'm going to try to get some other people to help coach and to come and evaluate. We'll see what we can do. Year 1, get a bunch of things done. Faith Night again. Other neat events. If I can't be there, my wife is going to come down often, too. We're already doing some things that are different out of the gate."

McKenry also discussed his memories of the AAABA Tournament and how he hopes to work with organizers to help maintain a tradition approaching 80 years in Johnstown.

'Help the AAABA'

His Bethesda Big Train team from Washington, D.C., had an uncharacteristic 0-2 record in the 2004 tournament, but those losses included a 5-4 setback to perennial power Baltimore on Day 1 and a 2-1 loss to another tournament mainstay, New Orleans, on Day 2.

Baltimore, New Orleans and Washington were part of what was known as the AAABA Tournament Big Four with Detroit during the event's so-called glory days.

"I remember being really excited about the tournament," said McKenry, a Knoxville native who played collegiately at Middle Tennessee State University and signed with the Washington, D.C., franchise.

"We had a really good team," he said. "Some of the guys couldn't come because of age or couldn't come for other reasons. We went in with our hands tied."

Even though his first stay in Johnstown only lasted a couple days, McKenry had a positive experience.

"We stayed at Pitt-Johns-town in the dorm," McKenry recalled. "It was the first time I truly was away from my home. I was in college, but this time I was nine hours away from my house. It was a great learning experience. That's what I like about summer baseball."

Helping the Mill Rats grow while also potentially lending a hand to the AAABA Tournament would be the type of double play McKenry would like to complete.

"I'll forever remember that tournament," McKenry said. "I hope that me and the Johnstown group can find a way to really bolster and help the AAABA get back to where it was. The town loves it. I loved it. I hope to be a part of that and help that grow as well."

Pirates fans might recall McKenry's role in one of the more controversial plays in recent franchise history.

Home plate umpire Jerry Meals ruled that McKenry failed to tag Atlanta Braves baserunner Julio Lugo in the bottom of the 19th inning, allowing Lugo to score the game-winning run, 4-3, on July 27, 2011.

Replays showed McKenry tagged Lugo, a AAABA Hall of Fame member who played on the Brooklyn franchise. Major League Baseball admitted Meals blew the call.

Upon his 2018 induction into the AAABA Hall of Fame, Lugo, who died in 2021, joked that he indeed was safe.

"It was a crazy play — probably the reason we have replay," McKenry said.

The mention of Lugo's name prompted McKenry to discuss another tradition he'd like to see revived in Johnstown.

"That's one of the things I'd want to bring back, the AAABA Hall of Fame," McKenry said of a 26-year tradition that ended when COVID-19 canceled the 2020 tournament. "It's really neat that guys like Julio Lugo came back and got inducted.

"It's incredible the names of people that played in that event or independent ball there."

McKenry brings a long checklist of worthy projects involving the Mill Rats and the region's baseball scene.

Here's hoping those figurative home runs keep coming for The Fort.

Mike Mastovich is a sports reporter and columnist for The Tribune-Democrat.