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Rookie Second Baseman Stands Out in Norwich

Jonathan McNicol
Pat Mackenzie playing second base for the Connecticut Tigers during a game in July.
The Tigers finished their season in Troy, New York, with a loss to the Tri-City Valley Cats.

You notice Pat Mackenzie on the field at Dodd Stadium in Norwich — not in the bottom of the first, as the Connecticut Tigers’ lead-off hitter. And maybe not in the top of the first, as their second baseman.

Before the game even starts, during the national anthem, his shaved-bald, hatless head catches your eye. Or maybe his mustache-free goatee does. But you do notice Pat Mackenzie, as the players line up and face the flag.

You notice him because he’s short.

He’s five feet, eight inches tall.

He says he’s 5'8½", but they won’t let him list the half inch on the roster. And on a baseball team, if you’re 5'8½", you are very simply very nearly always the shortest player on the field.

In the Tigers’ league, the short-season Class A New York-Penn League, there are 432 players. Exactly three of them are listed as shorter than Pat Mackenzie is.

“Yeah, I believe it,” Mackenzie said. “I’m short. So there’s no point in saying I’m 5'11" when they’re going to see me and be like, ‘[He’s] short.’ ”

Credit Jonathan McNicol / WNPR
Mackenzie wore number 54 this season in Norwich.

The Class A short season starts in mid-June, just after the college baseball season ends, and just after Major League Baseball’s amateur draft. It’s a league for all the new guys. New guys like the Tigers’ second-round pick,  the Texas Christian University pitcher Tyler Alexander, who reportedly signed for $1 million.

Or there’s guys like Cam Gibson, the son of Tigers and Dodgers great Kirk Gibson. Cam Gibson was drafted in the fifth round and signed for a reported $320,000.

Credit Jonathan McNicol / WNPR
Mackenzie warming up before a game in July.

And then there’s Pat Mackenzie. The Tigers picked him in the 28th round — 850th overall — the latest pick to play in Norwich. His signing bonus? $1,500.

“I was pretty surprised. I didn’t really know if it was going to happen or not,” Mackenzie said. “And 28th round, it was kind of a long waiting time. I don’t think I’ve ever been the best player, the most talented player, on a team since maybe middle school.”

Steve Jaksa, Mackenzie’s baseball coach at Central Michigan University, thinks that as a player whose strengths are less tangible, Mackenzie will have to work harder to get noticed on the way up through the minors.

Credit Jonathan McNicol / WNPR
Mackenzie at the bat.

“You’re not going to look at him and say that he has a lot of above-average tools. But he’s an above average player. It’s really funny how that works sometimes,” Jaksa said. “Pat knows he’s going to be a guy that when you’re taken in the 28th round, you’re going to have to go out there, prove yourself every step of the way. He’s going to have to prove that he belongs.”

“At each level you go up, the talent gets better and not only that, but just the little details of the game, people are better at [them],” Mackenzie said. “Definitely the pitching. Guys just have better stuff. And even on defense, guys hit the ball harder and guys run faster, so, even just those little plays that maybe in college you got a slow runner, you’re able to make it in the hole, you’ve got to be able to pick it up a little bit when you’ve got the fast guys up.

“And so the game speeds up.”

Credit Jonathan McNicol / WNPR
Mackenzie leads off third on a ball in the dirt during a game in August.

And that’s the point of minor league ball at this level, to learn to slow the game down. These guys play 76 games in 81 days, give or take. It’s a crash course in pro baseball.

And you can see Mackenzie’s education play out on the field. He’s made some errors at second. He’s been caught stealing a few times. But as a hitter, his batting average has been above .300 almost every day of the season, and his on-base percentage has been gaudy at times, nosing up above .430 and .440.

Credit Jonathan McNicol / WNPR
Mike Rabelo manages the Connecticut Tigers.

“He’s had a good year, with as much baseball as he’s been playing. He’s gotten better at handling the bat. Really good eye at the plate since day one. Defensively, [he] has some things to work on, but he’s improved as well on the defensive side,” CT Tigers manager Mike Rabelo told me. “He’s done a good job. Not only what shows up in the stats, but just getting accustomed to playing every day, hitting in the top of the lineup, and getting acclimated to professional baseball. So, yeah, he’s had a good year.”

“I definitely feel like I showed that I can play,” Mackenzie said. “I know I’ve gotten better playing here than I was, say, back in June or May when I was playing in college. I became a better baseball player now than I was then. And where that takes me? I don’t know. ”

Credit Jonathan McNicol / WNPR
Mackenzie manning second base.

Three months ago, Pat Mackenzie was a guy living in Grand Rapids, who’d just graduated from Central Michigan University. And he was starting to think about looking for a job in physical therapy.

And then the Detroit Tigers drafted him. And now he just ended his first season in Norwich first on the team in on-base percentage and second in batting average. He’s third in the whole Detroit Tigers organization in on-base percentage. First on that list? Ten-time Major League All-Star Miguel Cabrera.

Not too shabby for the 850th pick in the draft. Not too shabby for the fourth-shortest guy in the New York-Penn League.

Credit Jonathan McNicol / WNPR
Mackenzie talks to a fan before a game.

Though, I should let Mackenzie say, he’s not really convinced he actually is the fourth-shortest guy in the league:

“I’m gonna put that out there — there’s guys out there that are probably the same height as me and they just add two inches on their roster,” Mackenzie said. “ ’Cause then I’ll stand next to guys at second base and I’m like, ‘I’m taller than you. You’re not that height. You’re not 5'10".’ ”

And so last night, the Tigers finished their season up in Troy, N.Y., with a loss to the Tri-City Valley Cats, 6–1. Today, Pat Mackenzie flies back to Grand Rapids, where he’ll start that search for a physical therapy job.

But only on a temporary basis. After all, spring training starts in just five short months.

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