Rodney McCray (THE TOPPS COMPANY)

Rodney McCray

This article was written by Mark Simon

Rodney McCray (THE TOPPS COMPANY)Rodney McCray is known as “Crash” for the time he made his mark and then some on an outfield wall in the minor leagues. But though his major-league time was brief and he totaled only three hits at the top level, McCray left a positive impression on the game and baseball did likewise to him.

McCray was born in Detroit on September 13, 1963. His father, James, was a theatrical actor. When James divorced his wife, Velma, he took their only child, Rodney, with him when work beckoned in New York, Seattle, and Los Angeles (where among other things, he said his dad lost out on the role of George Jefferson to Sherman Hemsley).

Rodney learned baseball at an early age. He remembered going to see Willie Mays for the Mets and Thurman Munson play for the Yankees. He also recalled playing a Little League game in the new Seattle Kingdome. Living in Los Angeles allowed him to play baseball year-round.

“I was always quick and fast,” McCray said.1 “I was explosive, with a lot of drive and determination. I was one of those stocky bulldog guys, quick and fast, but wasn’t scared of contact.”

McCray’s father wanted his son to be exposed to all different types of backgrounds. So, rather than going to predominantly black Crenshaw High, which had future No. 1 draft pick Darryl Strawberry, McCray went instead to the racially diverse University High with his friend Damon Farmar (father of future NBA player Jordan Farmar). McCray’s father later sponsored a summer baseball team that had future major leaguers Strawberry, Eric Davis, Chris Brown, and his son on it.

While Strawberry, Davis, and Brown were known for their hitting, McCray specialized in baserunning and defense.

“If I laid a bunt down, you weren’t throwing me out unless it was back to the pitcher,” McCray said. “Once I got on first base, I was fearless. If I got first, I was taking second. If I was on second, I was taking third. I was almost unstoppable when I got on the bases.

“Defense was my game. I took pride in not giving up too many hits. I played shallow, like Torii Hunter or Gary Pettis. I was one of the pitcher’s best friends, I know that much.”

McCray was drafted not once or twice but four times, twice while at Santa Monica College and twice at West Los Angeles College. One time he didn’t sign because he broke both hands in separate injuries, one sliding to steal a base, the other when pitcher Randy Johnson (then with USC) hit him in the hand with a pitch. And he opted not to sign with the hometown Dodgers because he thought he would get buried on their outfield depth chart.

McCray finally signed with the Padres, who selected him in the ninth round of the 1984 January draft. It would be a long climb to the major leagues. McCray spent six seasons at different levels of Class-A.

“I was a good teammate,” McCray said. “If I was a jerk, I would have been out. Six years in A-ball is unheard of. That’s what you call perseverance.”

McCray played in the Northwest League, South Atlantic League, and California League before being selected by the White Sox in the minor league portion of the Rule V Draft in 1987.

“I liked his combination of OBP, centerfield defense, and that he had been able to utilize his exceptional speed and successfully steal bases,” said then-White Sox assistant GM Dan Evans.2

McCray got to see some of the game’s future stars at an early age. He was teammates with 17-year-old Roberto Alomar with Charleston and 21-year-old Frank Thomas with Sarasota in 1989.

“Roberto was the best second baseman ever to play,” McCray said. “It wasn’t Ryne Sandberg. It’s not Jeff Kent. All he would say was ‘Rodney, Rodney. I’ll take pitches. You can steal second. You can steal third. We’ll knock you in.’”

“I remember Frank coming to the Florida State League with two dozen big-league bats. I said ‘You might want to save those until you learn how to hit.’ He said ‘What are you talking about? I’m a .400 hitter.’ I said ‘You’re not a .400 hitter.’ He broke three bats in the first week and I said ‘I told you, dude.’”

McCray’s affability, speed, and defense were what kept him around.

“We trusted our player development people would help him improve, and they did,” Evans said. “We found out that he had an insatiable appetite to improve, combined with a great work ethic. His energy and enthusiasm were contagious.”

Though McCray patterned his game after Tim Raines and Rickey Henderson, he couldn’t replicate what they did at the plate. He hit .212 or worse in four of his first five minor league seasons, but made himself valuable by drawing walks in abundance (he had 108 in 123 games with Charleston in 1986). His time spent working counts in JUCO ball paid off. He also averaged 55 steals per year. McCray tried switch-hitting early in his career, but it didn’t take, so he remained a right-handed hitter the rest of his time in the pros.

McCray finally broke through in 1989, hitting .265 with a .410 on-base percentage for Sarasota. That earned him a promotion to Double-A Birmingham. Amazingly, after six years in A-ball, it took him only a month in Double-A to make the major leagues.

In late April 1990, White Sox outfielder Dave Gallagher injured his hamstring, which sidelined him for a month. Manager Jeff Torborg asked the front office to provide an outfielder from the minors who could play defense and run. McCray got the call, even though he was hitting below .200.3

“It was 11, 12 o’clock in the afternoon,” McCray said. “Ken Berry was our manager. Derek Lee was my roommate.4 We got a phone call in our apartment. He [Berry] said ‘What’s up, kid?’ And I said ‘Did we miss a workout?’ We had conditioning sometimes in the morning. He said, ‘Dave Gallagher went down, pulled a hamstring. They need someone who can go and play defense and steal bases. I told them you were the guy. You’ve got a 1 o’clock flight to go to the big leagues.’

“I didn’t believe him. I thought it was an April Fools’ joke. All my stuff was in the cleaners. Derek gave me three or four red polo shirts and I flew to Chicago.”

On April 30, McCray made his major-league debut in an extra-inning win against the Rangers. He showed off his defensive skills and his batting eye. McCray made a running catch of Ruben Sierra’s bid for a go-ahead hit in the 12th inning, punctuating it with the thought of “Yeah, I’m in the (bleeping) big leagues.”5 In the bottom of the inning he worked a walk in a seven-pitch at-bat against Rangers closer Jeff Russell.

“I was so nervous,” he said. “My right leg was shaking.”

McCray didn’t record a hit in his debut season but appeared in 32 games as a pinch-runner or defensive replacement. He likes to say he was Dave Roberts before Dave Roberts, referring to the 2004 Red Sox postseason hero. McCray’s White Sox didn’t make the playoffs, but he went 6-for-6 in stolen base attempts and scored eight runs as a bench player.

McCray started the 1991 season in Triple-A. The play for which he is most known happened in a Triple-A game between Vancouver and Portland at Portland Civic Stadium on May 27, 1991.

Portland’s Chip Hale hit a fly ball to right center that McCray, playing right field, tracked. He thought he was going to make the catch because the wind was blowing in and he figured the ball would hang up long enough to be caught. But it kept carrying and McCray kept running, hearing no warning from his center fielder that the wall was near. In trying to make the catch, he ran through the yellow Flav-R-Pac sign on the fence. He took a chunk of the plywood wall out as he fell on the other side.

“Knock on wood, it didn’t hurt,” McCray said, and it should be noted that the fence was put back in place and survived the collision as well.6 “I’m 5-9, 5-10, so I missed the pole (holding up the sign) that was horizontal (a few inches above him). I bruised my throwing arm. I sat on my back for a minute or two. I was more upset because I landed on a tarp of water. My whole backside was soaking wet. It was not a comfortable feeling.”7

McCray stayed in the game and finished the inning (Hale ended up with a triple), then left the game after the inning ended. What he didn’t know was that a KOIN-TV cameraperson, Gary Beck, was there shooting the game. Beck got the play on tape.8 Though McCray’s collision netted only a one-paragraph mention in the Vancouver newspapers the next day, it didn’t take long before Beck’s footage was seen worldwide. McCray also had a nickname –“Crash” — that he would use to introduce himself long after his playing career ended.9

McCray became a national celebrity, doing dozens of interviews about the play. It would be commemorated with a bobblehead in 2006. The Best Damn Sports Show named it the No. 1 Devastating Hit of All Time. He was honored by Super Dave Osborne, the comedy daredevil.10 But becoming globally famous had its drawbacks.

“After that I lost my focus, doing interviews at every ballpark,” McCray said “It was out of control for a couple of weeks. Every time I went to a new park someone wanted the story. I tried to accommodate everybody, got away from my program.”

McCray did get recalled again by the White Sox late that season and got his first hit, a swinging bunt versus Twins closer Steve Bedrosian that September 30. He’d get another hit on October 5 against the Mariners, an infield single in the ninth inning of a blowout loss.

McCray became a free agent after the season and was picked up by the Mets, who had just named former White Sox manager Torborg as their skipper.

“Jeff Torborg was a professional down-to-earth nice guy, a player’s manager,” McCray said. “He would get his point across. He wasn’t a screamer. He was a positive, low-key guy. He thought he could use me because they use pinch-runners in the NL a lot.”

McCray was with the Mets for a good part of the 1992 season’s first six weeks. He got to pick a uniform number for the first time as a major-leaguer and went with 13 because he was born on a Friday the 13th.

His third and final major-league hit came on May 8, 1992, against the Dodgers. After entering as a pinch-runner in the eighth inning, he got to bat with the bases loaded and one out in the bottom of the ninth. McCray says that Torborg wanted to pinch-hit for him with Dwight Gooden, but Gooden was not in the dugout. Then, Torborg told McCray (whom he called “McAdoo” rather than “Crash,” according to McCray) to bunt.

“I told Howard Johnson, I’m not bunting,” McCray said, noticing how shallow his friends Strawberry and Davis (both then with the Dodgers) were playing in the outfield. “No respect. I ended up getting a line drive hit to win the game. Howard Johnson ran out and got the ball for me.”

McCray appeared in only two more major league games. The Mets released him on June 8.11. He played one more season split between Monterrey of the Mexican League and Thunder Bay (Ontario) of the independent Northern League, the latter as a player-coach. He returned as a replacement player in spring training in 1995 but his time ended after a few spring training games. His final MLB line was 3-for-14 with nine stolen bases in 10 attempts (the only catcher to throw him out was Iván Rodríguez). He played in 67 games but never started one.

After retirement, McCray became a minor league coach and baserunning/outfield coordinator. He worked in four different organizations, starting with the Expos and Royals and then moving on to longer stints with the Reds and Dodgers. Among those he taught were Vladimir Guerrero, Carlos Beltran, Deion Sanders, and Dee Gordon.12

“(With baserunning) I’m big on getting an aggressive lead, reading pitchers, teaching first-step crossover. I could read pitchers from the dugout. With right-handers you look at the lower half of the body to see if they had quick feet or slow feet. If they had slow feet, you took a bigger lead.

“My big thing (with outfield) is teaching guys how to go back on the ball,” McCray said. “Everybody can catch the ball coming forward. I worked on angles, teaching guys to throw.”

In 2013, McCray’s former Mets teammate, Anthony Young, asked if McCray would come to Houston to help run some travel baseball teams and do some personalized instruction for players. The move allowed McCray, by then divorced, to be closer to his daughter, L’Oreal, who was attending college in Houston. McCray has immersed himself in travel baseball as a coach ever since.

“I’m a fun high-energy guy, but I’m going to make sure you get it right,” McCray said, describing himself as a coach. “You’ve gotta be real with kids. I speak my mind. I do a lot of things with passion and heart.”

McCray’s son Grant has followed in his father’s footsteps. He was a third-round pick of the Giants in the 2019 MLB Draft and had a .379 on-base percentage with 17 steals in his first pro season in the Arizona League.

“He can run and he plays exceptional defense,” McCray said. “He has all the tools. He grew up around the game. He knows what it’s like. He’s not overwhelmed.”

McCray also annually works at Mets Fantasy Camp, where he’s a popular coach among attendees. His only hit as a Met is still a point of pride.

“I led the league in hitting that year,” he said with a laugh. “One-for-one.”

McCray’s four children (including two other daughters, Sydney and Madison) are his proudest accomplishment. He wants his kids to go after their goals full force, as he did.

“I tell my kids, ‘You have two butt cheeks, use them,’” McCray said. “We go at things hard.”

That’s true for McCray whether it’s one fly ball or the hope of a major league career.

 

 

Acknowledgments

This biography was reviewed by Donna Halper and Rory Costello and fact-checked by Evan Katz.

 

Sources

Interviews done by the author with Rodney McCray in 2007 and 2020.

Correspondence with former baseball executive Dan Evans in 2020.

 

Notes

1 All quotes from McCray are from an interview done by the author on May 21, 2020. Information from a previous interview between the author and McCray in 2007 was used as background.

2 Interview with Dan Evans via Twitter direct messaging, June 2020

3 I was not able to confirm his exact batting average at the time. One source said .170, another said .180.

4 This is Derek Lee, who had 33 at-bats for the 1993 White Sox, not Derrek Lee, who played 15 MLB seasons from 1997 to 2011.

5 Curt Rallo, “McCray ‘Catches’ On With Sox” South Bend Tribune, May 1, 1990, C1

6 Jayson Stark, “An Outfielder Who Stopped At Nothing — Even Walls” Philadelphia Inquirer, June 4, 1991, 3-D.

7 Gordon Edes, “For McCray, It’s A Whole New Wall Game,” South Florida Sun Sentinel, March 5, 1992: 4C.

8 Tim Hagerty, “The Famous Video Of The Outfielder Running Through A Wall Almost Never Happened.” https://www.sportingnews.com/us/mlb/news/the-famous-video-of-the-outfielder-running-through-a-wall-almost-never-happened/1440xffdss9de1j1euv173pl5s, October 19, 2014.

9 McCray believes the nickname was given to him by his former Triple-A teammate, catcher Matt Stark. He uses it when introducing himself to players and at Mets Fantasy Camp.

10 An episode guide to “The Super Dave Osborne Show” can be found at https://www.thetvdb.com/series/the-super-dave-osborne-show/allseasons/official

11 McCray achieved an unusual distinction, recording a walk-off hit in his final at-bat in the major leagues. Others to do that include Don Gile (1962 Red Sox), Bryan LaHair (2012 Cubs), and Ramon Santiago (2014 Pirates).

12 In a taped comment provided by the Seattle Mariners, Gordon said that McCray aided in his basestealing success. He also verified that Rodney introduced himself as “Crash.”

Full Name

Rodney Duncan McCray

Born

September 13, 1963 at Detroit, MI (USA)

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