POPLARVILLE – The COVID-19 pandemic for many spring athletes has become a painful memory of a lost sports season. However, for Graham and Kirk McCarty, the pandemic created a rare summer experience the two brothers would have never likely been able to share otherwise.
Like many athletes across the state of Mississippi, Graham was forced to have his senior baseball season at Oak Grove cut short. Like Graham, Kirk, who plays minor league baseball for the Cleveland Indians organization, also had his season canceled.
As a result, the Deep South Summer Collegiate Baseball League was founded, in which Kirk signed on to be a head coach. Initially, Kirk asked Graham to play in the league. However, Graham was reluctant after having settled on his career officially ending and preparing to be a regular student at Mississippi State.
“At that point, I understood that I was going to go to school at Mississippi State and be a student,” Graham said. “I had accepted that. It was unfortunate to have our season canceled because I feel like we had a deep run to make for the playoffs.
“Kirk had originally texted me and asked me if I wanted to play. I knew I would be all over the place on vacations and stuff with Mississippi State. I told him that I would love to play but that I couldn’t commit that time. If I’m going to play, then I want to be there all the time.”
Kirk continued to remain persistent, knowing that he could share a rare experience with his younger brother of six years.
“I saw it as an opportunity to spend time together, really,” Kirk said. “I’m living on the coast now, and he is in Hattiesburg. He is out of high school and in that same stage of life as adults. It was a cool opportunity. ‘It was just a come to play, it’ll be fun.’ I think he puts a lot of pressure on himself to succeed. I think at Oak Grove he felt that monkey on his back and that pressure. I wanted him to come play in an environment where there was no pressure. I’m the only coach, and it’s not in my nature to be combative, yell and be upset. I just want guys to learn and to have fun and compete.”
But Kirk did not relent with his younger brother of six years and instead asked him to coach.
“He said that he hadn’t been throwing and hadn’t been hitting, which I understand,” Kirk said. “Then I asked him to come coach. He said, ‘I haven’t coached; well neither have I so it would be a perfect match.’ He got out here the first day, and he ate it up being at first base.”
Graham eventually agreed but was worried that his youth would make him ineffective as a coach, with some players being as much as six years older while others had just finished their high school careers with him.
“I ended up coaching first base and had a good time getting to meet some players and learn the game a little more and have a good time,” Graham said. “At first, I was a little apprehensive. The truth is that I would be an incoming freshman, and they have guys who are 23 and 24, so I don’t really know how I would measure with them with that age gap. It was a lot of fun. I played with four or five of these guys in select ball or high school ball, so that was really cool coming out on the field with them one last time.”
However, Graham easily earned his team’s trust and even had to take over as head coach for six games as Kirk had to help coach his high school for a series of games.
“He did a great job,” Kirk said. “We talked a lot about the team and about the lineup. I remember one night we went back and forth because he had to make a line up work with the pitching staff, like who was he going to move around. He wanted me to tell him, but we went back and forth over text.”
In fact, in that six-game span, Graham went 4-1-1, which was crucial in helping Team McCarty secure the No. 2 seed in the league’s playoff and a 10-3-2 regular-season record.
“He’s wise beyond his years,” Kirk said “He had a lot of fun. You wouldn’t have known, and a lot of those guys are his close friends. There are guys who were six years older than him. I think the guys enjoyed having him out here.”
For Graham, coaching with Kirk and with some of his peers was an unforgettable experience, and it helped make up for losing his final high school baseball season.
“It was a lot of fun,” Graham said. “Kirk is a hard guy to pin down because he is all over the place. Getting out here and spending time with him doing what we both enjoy is a blessing.
“It’s special, especially coming off the corona-shortened season. Most people feel like they would have gotten their season stolen away from them, and I would have to agree with that. But coming out here and coaching with these guys kind of put me at peace and made me feel like that I had gotten a senior season, whether it be from the coaching box or the batter’s box.”