BC 139. Greg McMichael | The Major League Transition

Former Major League pitcher and 1995 World Series champion with the Atlanta Braves, Greg McMichael joins Brian for a fantastic episode on the pro baseball grind, the mental game, and life after sports.

 

Discover…

  • The extreme adversity that Greg overcame to reach the Major Leagues.
  • An amazing story about how Greg thought his career might be over, but he continued to pursue his goals and ended up being an integral part of the ’95 World Series champion Atlanta Braves.
  • Greg’s unique perspective on the mental game.
  • The #1 way Greg measures success today… his answer will likely surprise you.
  • And more…

To contact Greg, e-mail him at Greg.McMichael@Braves.com

PODCAST TRANSCRIPTION

So I think I have a much higher standard than just trying to be the World Champion or just trying to be the best relief pitcher ever.  I’m required to dig way deeper than that because I’ve seen plenty of people who were the best but all other areas of their life were in shambles.  I want to be that person that succeeds in way more than just what the stats read.  I want to be more well rounded.  I think by doing that I’m going to be the best in multiple areas and not just one area.

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Cain:  Hey, how are you doing?  This is Brian Cain, your Peak Performance Coach, with the Peak Performance Podcast, and today our guest is a 1995 Major League Baseball World Series Champion and a pitcher with a career 3.25 ERA.  His name?  Greg McMichael.  Greg went to the Webb School in Knoxville and then went on to the University of Tennessee and had a great career before being drafted by the Cleveland Indians and spending the better part of eight seasons in Major League Baseball.  Greg, thank you for taking the time out of your hectic schedule here to sit down with us and be on the podcast.

McMichael:  Yeah, no worries.  Thanks for having me, Brian.

Cain:  If you would, Greg, could you kind of catch our audience (which is going to be mostly coaches and athletes), kind of give them a snapshot of your journey from going to the Webb School and kind of how you got into baseball all the way up to where you are now in your position with the Atlanta Braves.

McMichael:  Sure, I’d be glad to.  So my journey kind of starts back when I was about 13 and I was diagnosed with a rare cartilage disease called osteochondritis dissecans.  At the time I think it was pretty rare.  I think there were only like two cases in Tennessee.  I’ve recently have had students in the last 10 years that have had it and it’s more common today because kids are growing faster.  So basically what had happened is I grew like six inches in one year and the cartilage in my knees had died, so they had to go in and start taking it out.  They tried to repair it, which kind of like the micro-fracture nowadays, they went in and they drilled holes.  Back then it didn’t work.  So I had three surgeries before I got out of high school and at a very young age they told me I’d never play sports again.

Coming from a kid that played basketball, football, baseball, swam, I ran track, I played tennis – I did everything that you could possibly do – to all of a sudden doctors saying you can’t do anything anymore.  So for two years I was in a pretty dark place.  I started hanging out with seniors.  Started doing drugs and drinking and stuff.  It just was not a good scene at all because baseball was my life – or sports were my life and competition – and that was taken away and I really didn’t know what to do.  But I got to a point where as a sophomore in high school I just said I’ve got to go do something.

I tried to pitch and the doctor just said, “Well, you can try but it’s going to hurt and it’s going to be hard to run and do all that kind of stuff.”  So I figured pitching was the one thing where you didn’t have to run a lot, didn’t have to do much, that I could try.  So I pitched and I did pretty well my sophomore year.  My next year I got a little stronger.  I pitched and played first base.  I played quarterback on the football team.  Then by my senior year, I had received a full ride to Tennessee. We won the state championship in baseball.  I went on to the University of Tennessee and pitched for three years.  I didn’t do really well my first couple of years just because adjusting from a small school like Webb (that you talked about) to SEC Baseball was a big jump.  So it took me a couple years to adjust, but I got better and better and by my junior year the Indians drafted me in the third round.  I was the #1 pitcher at Tennessee.  I did pretty well in the SEC.

I went on and then that’s when my career really started taking off, because I think at that time all the adversity I had gone through I realized that I was a quick learner.  I realized that one of my gifts was being coachable and then adapting with things around me, seeing what others were doing, implementing it into my skill set.  So I was able to learn and succeed pretty quickly.  I went through the Indians organization very quickly and by the very first year we played, we won the Carolina League Championship.  I was the starting pitcher on the team.  We won the championship and then the next year we set the record for wins in Double-A.  We won another championship.  Then I was real up close to the big leagues when I got hurt again.

The Indians knew of my history of knee problems.  I had surgery and they said, “You know what – you’re going to have to retire, you need to shut it down, we don’t think you’re going to make it.”  So they released me after just cruising through their organization.  So I went back to the scout who had signed me and he was now with the Braves (his name is Roy Clark), and I went to him and I said, “Hey, they just released me.”  He’s like, “Why did they release you?”  I said, “Well, I had surgery and they didn’t think I was going to make it back.”  So I went to a little tryout with him and he looked at me and he says, “You know what?  I still see what I like about you and I think you’re still in a good position.”  So he got me signed by the Braves.  I had to start back over in A-Ball.

Then I went through their organization pretty quickly and actually made the team out of spring training in 1993.  I had signed with them in 1991, made the team in 1993, and by the All-Star break I was the closer for the Braves.  They had been in the World Series the last two years and then two years later we won the World Series.

What’s interesting about that story is not only is it a God story – what He did in my life in bringing me from those very dark times – but the guy who released me with the Indians who told me that I should hang it up came over and shook my hand in 1995.  He was the first person I saw when he walked in the clubhouse after we beat the Indians in the World Series.  He shook my hand and said “Congratulations!”  So pretty – I wish I could take credit for the whole thing but I worked hard.  I stayed at it.  I didn’t give up even though plenty of times I wanted to.

Cain:  One of the things that we hear a lot of our guests on the podcast talk about is at some point in their life they had to kind of draw a line in the sand and make a decision that they weren’t going to become a victim of adversity but they were going to become a victor and make adversity their advantage.  That sounds like you had to do that in high school with the injury, you had to do it again with kind of a lifestyle change from hanging out with the wrong crowd to the right crowd in high school, and then again when you had surgery in 1993 and the Indians released you.  Is that something that you learned or is it something that was just a part of your DNA?  How do you learn to make adversity your advantage as an athlete?

McMichael:  I think that you know that it’s a part of the game.  I think that’s what so great about athletics, is when you decide to be an athlete and play, it just comes with the territory and you’ve got to learn to deal with it or you quit.  You give up.

I’ve been teaching for the last 15 years and I tell my students all the time – you called it “drawing a line in the sand” – but there will come a time where you’ve got to decide am I going to keep moving forward or am I just going to quit and run away?  It happens at some point in time.  I call them “gut checks.”  Some kids today, especially in the Atlanta area where I am, the competition is so fierce – it comes at 7th grade, 8th grade, 9th grade – where that coach says, “You know what?  You’re not good enough, we’ve got too many guys here.”  I see it all the time.  I say that’s going to be the point in time where you decide if you really want to be a ball player.  Do you really want to pitch or are you just doing it because you have nothing else to do or are you doing it because you’re passionate about it?

I’ll tell you just one quick story.  I had a student years ago that was cut his freshman year and he came to me and he says, “I really want to pitch in high school but I just got cut.”  So we worked the whole year and his sophomore year he got cut again.  He worked a whole year and he went to junior tryouts and he got cut again.  I looked at him and I said, “I love you but maybe it’s time to either go to a different school or find something else you’re passionate about.”  He said, “No.  I’m going to pitch at my high school, I’m going to pitch for my high school.”  I said, “Well, that coach doesn’t like you, he doesn’t like something or you’re not good enough or he’s got too many good athletes.”  He goes, “I don’t care.  I want to work.”  So we worked another year and he made it as the 11th pitcher on his staff.  He goes on to get full ride, college, goes on to play independent ball. So a great story.

There was a gut check for him and he just said, “No, I am passionate about this” and he kept moving forward.  We all face those, whether it’s life, whether it’s college, whether it’s career, whether it’s sports.  So it’s just a great story for me.  But yeah, I agree with you.

What gave me the strength to do that?  I think it was my relationship with the Lord because I wanted to quit, but I also knew that this was something I was good at and that I was passionate about it.  So I think those factors all played into that if I quit I had nowhere else to go.  I had to keep moving forward.

Cain:  If we can, let’s kind of jump forward a little bit to the 1995 season World Series.  You’re a World Series Champion.  What’s the – and you were a closer on that team?  Is that right?

McMichael:  I was the setup guy by that time.

Cain:  Okay.

McMichael:  I closed earlier in my career but I was a setup guy.

Cain:  Was Rocker the closer on that team?

McMichael:  Mark Wohlers.

Cain:  Wohlers.  Okay.  Fantastic.  So talk a little bit about kind of the mental game of baseball for you as a pitcher, whether it was coming in to close a game or coming in as a setup guy.  I’m sure your career at some point you were a starter.  What’s kind of the mental game of baseball to you as a guy who has played and had success at all levels, a World Series ring?  What’s the mental game of baseball, Greg?

McMichael:  Pitching is an interesting job because you have to have (as my wife would say) water off a duck’s back.  You have to be able to have the ability to get beat one night and come back and believe that you’re going to succeed the next night, and so it’s really a series of tiny battles throughout the whole season.  The season is a marathon but yet pitching as a reliever is a sprint, which is an interesting dynamic because those are two different mental games.

Running a marathon versus a sprinter – they’re two different situations.  As a reliever you have to have short-term memory loss.  You have to keep having confidence even though maybe the fans don’t have the confidence in you or the coach doesn’t have confidence in you or sometimes you don’t have confidence in yourself.  You’ve got to find a way to keep going out there every night. The season starts around February because you’re going to spring training and you have a month to prepare, six weeks to prepare, then between April and September you’re competing night in, night out.  Even though you might not be in a game (I think the most I wasn’t in 81 games which is almost half the games) you’re warming up in another third of the games, so you’re preparing to go in.

So there’s a physical grind, but there’s a mental grind because you know that at any second that phone rings, you get up, you prepare, you go in, and you’ve got to compete at a very high level at the very first pitch.

As a starter you have time to prepare five days in advance.  You go out, you warm up very slowly, you prepare for a marathon type of game.  As a reliever you have to throw your very first pitch, the first pitch, because if you come in with bases loaded, nobody out, or a man on first, two outs – the game you’ve got a one-run lead and it’s the 8th inning – you can’t relax.  Your first pitch has to be as good as your last.  As a starter you can make a few mistakes early on and recover because it’s for seven innings.  But as a reliever if you make one bad pitch, you’re out of the game or the game is over.  That kind of edge that you’re living on is very intense and you have to be perfect right away.

So doing that night in and night out, you’re going to fail.  It’s just the numbers work out that way, but you’re also going to have a lot of successes.  The key is how do you stay even keeled, how do you balance yourself out night in and night out and not get too high and not get too low?  So that is kind of a mental marathon, whereas physically you have to be ready to sprint every night.

Cain:  So what are some things that you did to keep you on that even keel and be consistent from a routine standpoint, or what were some of kind of like your daily routines and things that you use to be consistent?

McMichael:  So I think from a personal level I had my relationship with the Lord, kind of the spiritual component of my life that kept me even keeled.  Then from a family perspective I had to be grounded.  My wife was good at helping me stay grounded.  She wasn’t all into baseball.  She didn’t talk about baseball.  So I had a family life that was very balanced, which was good.

Then from an athletic standpoint, coming to the field there was a routine that I had to get into.  I teach this to my students.  You’ve got to have a routine.  The world looks at baseball players and they are called superstitious.  You put your socks on the same way.  But I call that a pattern.  What I’ve seen is that when I have a pattern that I’m comfortable with that I can repeat day in and day out, then it allows me to repeat as an athlete.  I warm up the same way.  I dress the same way.  I eat similar.  I have routines throughout the day that I call patterns that I try I repeat.  So it’s playing catch with the same person.  It’s working.

And of course this kind of evolves over the course of your career because you find things that work and things that don’t work, but it could be as simple as how I step up on the mound, how many warm-up pitches I have, do I throw a sinker first, do I throw a slider first, do I throw change-ups first, what am I thinking about, how do I pray?  There is just that whole pattern that you try to develop as an athlete.  I think that’s the biggest thing that allows you to compete.

Remember, pitching is about doing 100 times the right way and thinking the right way, physically doing the right way.  Ultimately that’s impossible to do because we’re human and we’re flawed, but when you have the mentality that you’re going to repeat the right pitch, the perfect pitch the right way every time, whether it’s in practice or warm-ups or in the game, then you’ve created a pattern that you can have the best success on going out there and doing your job.

Cain:  I love that concept of the patterns and repeating and getting into a routine from the way that you eat and how you dress and your warm-up and who you’re playing catch with.  I’d imagine that even now today, working in alumni relations with the Braves after your baseball career is over, that you probably still have routines in the sense of kind of how you attack your day.  Is that accurate?

McMichael:  That is.  It’s probably – it’s funny because I’m dealing with a lot of guys that have retired and passed from playing to now just being a dad working in a second career.  I’m on my third career now.  I tell alumni all the time you’re going to have multiple careers.  The key is finding a new pattern (like you said).  It’s very – I was depressed for a whole year after I quit because I thought there is no way I can go from doing what I’m doing to now carpool and dad every day, dinner at home.  The pattern looks a lot less exciting than what I was doing before and I thought I just don’t think I can do it.  I don’t think I can create a new pattern.  But you do.

Again, you’ve got to find what works and you’ve got to adjust into a new career.  So I’m doing something that I love and I wouldn’t go back.  It’s just a new phase in my life.  But you’re absolutely right.  You have to find a way.  You’re trying to be successful at what you’re doing now so you’ve got to do the same thing.

I tell you what – it’s harder the older I get.  Sometimes I’m less motivated.  I’m a little flabby around the midsection and my kids are going like, “Dad, really were you an athlete?” you know.  But it’s fun.  But yeah, I think it’s probably more important now because it doesn’t come as natural as it did.  I played baseball from 7 years old all the way up till I was 34 and in the big leagues, and that was something you repeated every year and it just got better and better and better because you repeated so much.  Then all of a sudden you change careers at 35 and now you don’t have all that – I don’t know if it’s called an aggregate or you don’t have that kind of building upon year after year like you did.

You see guys go – and I did this – into the business world and you don’t have that knowledge and that experience that’s built up for 30 years.  You’re starting fresh into a business and boy, that’s a recipe for disaster for a lot of guys because you think, “Oh well, I was successful at this so I can walk into this arena and I can be just as successful.”  You can get blindsided so easily because you don’t have that cumulative knowledge that you did before and it’s just a real scary thing, but you’ve just got to keep your eyes wide open on that.

Cain:  Let’s talk a little bit about that kind of retirement and career transition that I’m sure you see and help a lot of players through, because as an athlete or as a college coach, you play and all of a sudden  somebody says – very few people retire.  Most people either get injured and they’re done or they get cut and they’re done.  A lot of my friends that have done that or guys that I’ve worked with in college, they go on to play in pro, then they kind of go into (like you said) those dark years. Or college coaches, that this is what they’ve always done.  They’re a head coach.  They get fired and now they have a really hard time getting another college coaching job.  I think there is that retirement/career transition.  What are some of the things that you see with the people that you work with, with the former players, that they struggle with – like all of them in that career/retirement or transition – and then what advice do you often give them consistently?

McMichael:  With these guys, I see a lack of confidence.  If you think about how baseball works, you’re told what to wear, when to be on the field, when to eat, when to pitch, when to hit, so you are truly – you’re almost a company guy, a movement worker.  I mean there is no really thinking outside the box.  There may be some small things on how you train in the off-season but for the most part you’re pretty much, everything is dictated to you what you’re going to do.  Now when you leave that and you’re asked to come up with a different career, it’s really hard for these guys to think outside the box.

One of the things that I’ve offered in the past is, I’ve said, “Okay, we need to get you tested, we need to find out where your skills lie outside of being a pitcher or a hitter, we need to get you a coach and we need to help you transition to another career.”  Literally, I see a lot of guys frozen – not knowing what to do, how to do it, and then lack the confidence to step out and do it.  That’s where I’ve tried to step in and say, “You know what?  I know you have a skill set, I know you have other passions.  We need to find out what those are and you need some help to do it and there are professionals out there that can do that.”  So I’ve encouraged them from that perspective.

A lot of guys go right back into the game because that’s what they know, so it’s easy to transition from player to coach or player to scout.  Outside of that it’s a little scarier and I haven’t seen as many people transition.  I think the players from 20, 30, 40, 50 years ago did a great job of transitioning because in the off-season they had to work.  They couldn’t just train.  My generation of players made enough money where they could just train in the off-season but then it hurt them on the backside because when it was time to retire they had no skills.  They had no skill set.  So I think you look at the guys back from the 70s and the 80s – when they retired, they just went right into working with AT&T, they had internships, they did all this kind of stuff.  So they seemed to be a lot healthier in their second career than my generation of players who all became instructors.

It’s not that – I love teaching.  That’s part of my passion.  But I do it because I want to, not because I have to.  A lot of these guys transition into teaching and coaching and scouting because they don’t have any other choices, so therefore they don’t do it as well because they’re not as passionate about it.

The one thing I do try to encourage them to do and if they need help – and I know the Player’s Association has talked about this a little bit, but being on the ground here with the alumni with the Braves, I think I have a lot better feel than somebody who is sitting up in New York trying to talk about what is going on around the country.  I know in Atlanta the 62 guys that I deal with here and then there are 250 nationwide that I kind of communicate with, but at least the 62 guys here in Atlanta I’ve got a really good feel for what they need and how to transition them.  But it is a scary thing.  I think the biggest thing is you’ve got to start with getting yourself tested, find out where your skills lie, then you’ve got to get a coach and have somebody help you find an internship into that arena.

There was a lot that happened in high school and college that was very positive.  Obviously, there are always personal choices, life choices, but I think what kind of transcends all those areas, all those time frames in my life, is probably just a couple factors.  I think, one, I would tell myself at 18, 22, 30, that every decision that you make today is going to have an eternal impact and it’s going to have a daily impact, it’s going to have a weekly impact, it’s going to have a monthly impact.  So the decisions that you’re making today are going to affect you from now until eternity.

So I think take every thought captive.  Take your work seriously.  Think about that you’re not only building and looking for success today but you’re looking for long-term success.  Sometimes it’s easy to believe the lie that you’re living in a bubble, that your decision right now only impacts you right now.  I think that should be a way of life for you no matter what age or stage of life you’re in.

Because like we talked about, as an athlete, number one, we have an accumulative effect.  So the things you work on today are going to be the skills developed tomorrow and next week and next month – but also the work ethic that you’re building, the personal choices that you’re making with your girlfriend, with your fiancée, with your wife, the personal choices that you’re making when you’re out with your friends, the time that you have to work on your skills as a pitcher in practice when nobody is looking, when you’re just sitting around in the outfield and your mind is wandering, or you’re playing catch with your buddy before practice.  Use those times to create good, positive decisions that are going to make you a better pitcher, make you a better employer/employee, make you a better husband, make you a better friend, all those decisions that you’re making.

I think there is probably not one thing I’d look back and say, “You know what?  This is a mistake.” We’re all going to make mistakes.  You can live your life full of regret or you can say, “I’m human, I’m flawed, I’m going to make mistakes, but the one thing I want to do is I’m going to change my behavior now, change my thought process now.  I’m going to make good decisions now so that they accumulate and I’m going to be better next week, next year, 10 years, 20 years.”

So that would probably be the biggest advice I would tell myself at 18, 25, 35, even today.  I’m turning 50 next month.  It doesn’t change.  I still have to talk to myself the same way.  I still have to say, “You know what?  Decisions I’m making now with my kids, with my wife, with my job – they’re going to impact me when I’m 60.  They’re going to impact me when I’m 55.  They’re going to impact me when I’m 70.”  I just don’t think you ever get away from that.  I think it’s just a good word.  We always want a better work ethic.  There are things that I’m branching out into now that I want to see come true in a year or two years so I have to stay focused on that.  I don’t think that changes from 18 to 49.

The #1 thing I’ve learned in my personal life over the last probably 25 years is that, do I look at my wife and is she happy?  Is she content?  Do we have a good relationship?  So #1, do I see a harshness in her life or do I see joy and do I see a special relationship?  I can honestly say that that hasn’t always been the case, but I can say today that we have as good or better a relationship than we’ve ever had.  So to me that’s the #1 way that I judge success because that is just a foundational issue in my life, that I could be the best alumni director in the world, I could have all the World Series Champion rings, but if I walk home and there is somebody there that hates my guts or somebody there that’s just a miserable relationship, I’ve seen those and that just has to be the worst thing ever.  So I’m very thankful for that.  That’s the first way that I measure success.

Outside of that, I look to see am I working hard?  I’ve got to leave it out on the table.  I know that stats – I was in a career that measured me by stats.  That’s a very difficult thing because one question we always used to ask each other is that if you’re only meant to be a .150 hitter, if you’re only good enough to be a .150 hitter in the big leagues, are you going to be satisfied with it?  Are you going to be okay with that?  Ultimately there can only be one champion. There are very few guys that bat over .300 for their career. There can only be one Cy Young Award winner.  If that’s the thing you’re always chasing, to be the best, you’re setting yourself up for disappointment.

I know that that’s not always a popular view, that you could say, “Oh, you’ve got to strive to be the best, you’ve got to be this.”  To me that doesn’t evoke in my life, me being the best.  I don’t always get the best out of myself when I set myself up to be the #1 person.  What does bring out the best in me is when I say, “Did I leave it all on the table mentally, physically, spiritually, relationally?  Did I work as hard as I can in all of those areas and did I leave it all on the table?  Did I strive to find ways to leave it on the table better?”  To me that always brought out the best in me so that’s how I measure success in my own life.  Am I doing everything that I know possible to be the best I can be?  Ultimately I don’t have to answer to my stats.  I have to answer to my Lord and Savior.  He requires me to be the best because He created me for so much more.

So I think I have a much higher standard than just trying to be the World Champion or just trying to be the best relief pitcher ever.  I’m required to dig way deeper than that because I’ve seen plenty of people who were the best but all other areas of their life were in shambles.  I want to be that person that succeeds in way more than just what the stats read.  I want to be more well rounded.  I think by doing that I’m going to be the best in multiple areas and not just one area.

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