A year ago, he was sure he was headed to Omaha.
In August, he found himself in Wichita.
Matt McLain shrugged and grabbed a bat. What’s 300 miles, if you’re looking for baseball?
The UCLA shortstop played 30 games for the Santa Barbara Foresters last summer in the California Collegiate League. That led to the National Baseball Congress, a Wichita institution, and McLain homered in the final game. The Foresters outscored their foes 33-4 in the tournament, and they won it for the eighth time in 14 years.
“There was a rule that only four players from the same college team could play,” McLain said. “They already had four from UCLA. I was on the outside looking in. Fortunately they changed the rule. Team USA was shut down. The Cape (Cod League) was shut down. I don’t know what would have happened. Turned out it was one of the best summers ever.”
McLain also hit .430 and drove in 28 runs in those 30 games.
In the spring, UCLA played 15 games before the virus arrived, winning 13 as McLain hit .397 and slugged .621.
There was no College World Series on the horizon. But each one of McLain’s hits, homers and shortstop plays muted the cluck-clucking voices of those who wonder why he even bothered with college.
In 2018, McLain was the 25th pick in the draft, and Arizona flashed $2.62 million at Matt and his parents, Wendy and Mike. They said no.
That led to McLain’s freshman initiation, a painful .203 average with 64 strikeouts in 61 games at UCLA. The family never flinched.
“On the one hand, you’re watching your kid struggle,” Mike McLain said. “But I’m a big believer that you learn from adversity. I didn’t get the sense it was getting to him. He is pretty even-keeled.”
Let’s look back at the would-have-beens. If Matt signs with Arizona, he doesn’t play minor-league ball in 2020 and, at best, spends a summer of drudgery with a “summer camp” team, waiting for an unlikely call-up.
Instead he thrived, and now he stands to be the highest-drafted Southern California player, pro or college.
The mock drafters think McLain could get to No. 6. The college predictors think the Bruins should be in the top five nationally, although they lost their opener 6-2 to San Francisco on Friday, an incongruous affair in which McLain made only the sixth error of his 75-game career.
McLain’s confidence is rooted at the house in Tustin, where he was challenged and supported daily.
Wendy was an outstanding softball player at Orange Coast. Mike, who runs a recruiting and staffing business, was a UCLA football walk-on for a season and was on Bob Johnson’s first CIF championship team at El Toro.
Another push came from the brothers, who all played together at Beckman High in Irvine. Sean is a redshirt freshman at Arizona State. Nick will follow Matt to UCLA next year.
“It was pretty clear they were the Three Musketeers,” UCLA baseball coach John Savage said.
Mike would throw whiffleballs in the garage, Wendy would send them grounders. “She’d hit rockets,” Matt said. “He’d throw as hard as he could. He didn’t let us win. We learned what competing was. Learned how to win, honestly.”
“But you have to have fun doing it,” Mike said. “I was a Little League coach and probably the worst one in the league. Wendy would tell the runners, ‘Look, you’re at second, if it’s hit to your right, you freeze.’ I’m sitting there like, ‘Who cares, Wendy? Let ’em play.’
“Any travel ball coach has to have a sense of humor. Without fun, the train never leaves the station.”
So when Matt’s train stalled, nobody on board panicked.
“We never second-guessed the decision,” Mike said. “It was like playing with the house’s money.”
“I sort of lost my identity as a baseball player, as a hitter,” Matt said. “It was a different game. I had to learn what it meant to be a college player, to put in the work. You learn that failure is just around the corner in this game.”
Curiosity surrounds any first-round pick who chooses college. Since McLain was an all-weekend player, there were no hiding places.
“Fortunately we were winning,” Savage said. “We were 52-11 and had 13 players drafted. That softened the blow, but he struggled and he learned. I could put him low in the order and he’d still be the first-round pick who went to college. He’d still have that target on his back.
“Now every aspect of his game is stronger. He’s an ideal Bruin in so many ways.”
The ideal Bruin season ends up in the heartland, 300 miles north of Matt McLain’s last trophy dash.
This content was originally published here.