Thursday, February 29th, 2024
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Review Magazine

The Catch

Chas McCormick finished his postgame interviews and was the last player remaining on the expansive green grass of Citizens Bank Park. With his hands locked on top of his cap, McCormick exhaled and stared off into the emptiness of the stadium, relishing the silence that had been a fevered roar only a short time before. For the first time in a long time, his mind was clear. There were no thoughts of scouting reports and defensive alignments, no worries about arranging tickets for family and friends, and no more “tell us about the catch” questions. This … was release. With his Astros headed back to Houston one win away from a World Series Championship, this was peace.

In the days leading up to game three of the World Series, much of the media focus was on McCormick, the West Chester native and 2017 graduate of Millersville University, who was headed home to play on baseball’s grandest stage against a team he had rooted for as a kid.

“Just playing in Philadelphia for the first time, there was a lot going on,” said McCormick. “Even my parents, after the series, sitting down having dinner, said, ‘Thank God it is over.’”

Well before the World Series and even before his Major League call-up in 2020, McCormick had already become a legend at Millersville’s Cooper Park, just 78 miles to the west. He was the 2017 PSAC East Athlete of the Year and set the PSAC record for hits. And catches? Millersville fans had seen McCormick make brilliant catches as the team’s right fielder. He ran into the wall and saved a run in the eighth inning against Mercyhurst in the 2015 PSAC Semifinals (Millersville went on to win the championship). There was the 2016 Atlantic Regional when he saved the season and started a run to the Division II World Series with a diving catch in the bottom of the ninth against Seton Hill.

McCormick during his time at Millersville’s baseball program.

Those catches only exist in the memories of those who were there—the faithful few in the dugout, the stands and the press box who saw McCormick’s relentless hustle and uncanny knack for the clutch moment live. When McCormick scaled the wall in right-center field and robbed All-Star catcher J.T. Realmuto of extra bases in the bottom of the ninth of game five and preserved a 3-2 win for his Astros, he created an iconic moment in the history of baseball—a highlight that will be shown as long as the game of baseball is played. The photo of his silhouette imprinted in the warning track went viral. The catch and the game-five victory made McCormick, a former 21st-round draft pick from a Division II school in Pennsylvania, a household name and legend in Houston.

Playing in the World Series was a childhood dream come true. Still, playing in Philadelphia for the first time against the favorite team of his family, friends and former Millersville teammates only intensified the pressure on McCormick. He received lots of (probably) good-natured ribbing before, during and after the series, and all of that made the three games in Philadelphia a precarious amalgamation of feelings for McCormick, who was desperately trying to stay even-keeled enough to play winning baseball.

McCormick playing for the Marauders.

“Oh, man. I got a couple of good lucks, a couple ‘you are headed into the jungle,’” said McCormick. “It was a mix of ‘good luck, but we hope the Phillies win.’”

“Being in that position is tough,” said McCormick. “You have to look at the other players who have been in the ALCS six years in a row and in the World Series a couple of times. You see how they act. It’s very calm, cool, collected. Obviously, I’m playing in Philadelphia for the first time in a World Series. My emotions were even higher. It was a lot for my family, and a lot for my girlfriend. It was tough to stay in the middle ground. I was really looking forward to playing in Citizens Bank Park. I was super excited. The first time warming up before game three, seeing the Red October and the fans going crazy, thinking, ‘this is it.’ But I have to take it as another game. It’s the World Series in Philadelphia, but it’s another game. ‘You’ve been playing in the big leagues for a couple of years, but nothing’s changed; just keep playing your game.’ But obviously, there were a lot of mixed feelings and mixed emotions with friends and family. I wanted to enjoy every second of this. The last time the Phillies and Astros played in the World Series was 40 years ago, so this might never happen again.”

When McCormick made the catch, that was simply McCormick being McCormick. He’s a baseball player who plays pitch to pitch. He’s a baseball player for which no moment, no at-bat, no defensive play is too big, too pressure packed or too meaningful. It isn’t a coincidence that McCormick was a part of four straight PSAC East-winning teams, a PSAC Championship and an Atlantic Region Championship at Millersville. It isn’t luck that McCormick won a championship at every level of the minor leagues. He’s a baseball player—a winning baseball player. That game-five catch let McCormick forget about the week’s emotions in Philadelphia and let him be a baseball player just playing a game once again.

“After the game, the catch, they had me stay on the field for some interviews, and when I’m standing there, there are no fans in the stands, just a couple of Astros fans rooting me on. My family came down from the stands, so it was kind of hitting me all at once. It was full circle. My 12-year-old self would be upset with me making that catch, but I was just trying to soak it all in … I don’t think it was one of my hardest catches, but it was a big catch at the time, so that’s why I loved every second of it. I loved how quiet it was because that stadium had been rocking the past three days. There was no better feeling standing on that field in an empty stadium.”

“When he timed it up on the warning track, I thought, ‘he’s got it,’” said Millersville baseball coach Jon Shehan. “Honestly, I wasn’t surprised he caught it. He always has a sense of when the game is on the line and an understanding of when to sacrifice his body for the good of the team. We are used to him doing it because he’s done it so often.”

McCormick making the catch.

Shehan, now in his 16th season at Millersville, was in Houston, cheering from the stands in game one of the World Series when McCormick singled in his first at-bat. Right next to Shehan was Ryan McCormick, Chas’s older brother and a 2011 Millersville University alum. Shehan became Millersville’s head coach in Ryan’s freshman season of 2008. Over the next four years, the two took a program from 9-37 to two PSAC East titles and a Division II World Series appearance. Ryan, a slick-fielding second baseman, later helped guide his younger brother toward Millersville.

“I wasn’t recruited heavily, but I really wanted to play for Jon,” said Ryan. “I joked with Jon after his 100th win and said, ‘I’ve seen all 100 of them.’ Coming out of high school, Chas got more interest than I did, but I told him that as long as Jon was at Millersville, it would be a good opportunity for him. There was familiarity. He would be in an environment with a work ethic to strengthen and build his game. We weren’t even thinking about pro ball. It was ‘get your education and go play for a great program and have a chance to go back to the NCAA World Series.’”

Ryan’s advice proved correct as Chas played in four straight NCAA Regionals, reached the national championship series in 2016, hit .373 over his career and became the only Marauder named All-PSAC East First Team four times. What Ryan helped build and what Chas helped continue was an incomparable winning culture that sustains success. From Ryan’s first season to 2022, Millersville has been the best team in the PSAC East nine times and reached the NCAA Tournament 11 years in a row—a streak unmatched in the Atlantic Region.

As great a player as McCormick was—arguably the best in Millersville’s history—the team won before he arrived and has continued to win since his graduation. Sustaining success is the trait that separates good programs from great ones. For the last six years, McCormick has been a part of Major League Baseball’s standard bearer. Since McCormick was drafted in 2017, the Astros have reached the American League Championship Series every year, played in the World Series four times, and have won it twice. Both Ryan and Chas see similarities between Millersville baseball and the Houston Astros.

“It’s the winning culture,” said Chas. “When I left Millersville and got to the Astros organization, it felt very similar. With the coaches we had, the dedication, willing every day to help make the guys better. That’s what Shehan was always about. Every single day: ‘How can we get you better in any way, on or off the field?’”

“It’s comparable,” said Ryan. “The two things are relationships and development. You see what the Millersville alumni base has become. It’s a family. If you are around the Astros as much as I’ve been in the six years since Chas was drafted, the same things fit. It’s relationships in that organization. The number of guys that Chas played with all through the minor leagues, all these guys are in the big leagues from moving through the system, and a lot of them aren’t first-round picks. These are guys who have earned it. At Millersville, Jon always said, ‘leave no doubt’ if you want to play every day. He makes you earn it.”

Chas is one of four Millersville alums to play in the Major Leagues and the first alum to win a major sports championship as a player in any sport. While his path to World Series champion was unlikely, he was one of four PSAC alums competing in the MLB postseason in 2022. In that group was fellow Millersville alum Tim Mayza, a pitcher for the Toronto Blue Jays. Mayza, now 30 years old, has spent five seasons in the big leagues, and 2022 was the best of his career, going 8-1 with a 3.14 ERA. Mayza and McCormick played just one season together in 2013, but both are undeniably products of the winning culture, relationships and development Millersville baseball offers.

“Millersville has always been a big family,” said Shehan. “That’s what college athletics is supposed to be. It’s become too much of a business, and there is volatility in chasing wins instead of chasing culture that leads to wins. The game has changed so much. We can’t have the same program today that we did when Ryan was here in 2011 or when Chas was here in 2016. We continue to learn, innovate and improve on the culture and player development.”

The methods may  change, but the relationships and the selfless and relentless core values endure and produce the same winning results. And those results were seen by millions on Nov. 5 when McCormick crashed into the outfield wall and fell to the warning track with the World Series hopes of two fan bases squeezed in his glove. McCormick may be an Astro now, but he’ll be a Marauder forever.

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