Former major-league player Brian McRae is the new coach of the Victoria HarbourCats.
Graig Merritt, who guided the HarbourCats to a WCL record 40 wins in 2016, was not offered a contract extension and will not return to the club next season.
The team, which also established a WCL record 19-game winning streak this past season, named the 48-year-old McRae as Merritt’s replacement for the 2017 season.
McRae, a 10-season former major-league player, liked Victoria so much, during youth baseball camps conducted by Toronto Blue Jays alumni at Royal Athletic Park the last few years, that he kept it in mind as a potential future destination in his coaching evolution.
That time has come.
“I’m excited,” said McRae.
“I always kept Victoria in mind after visiting during the Blue Jays alumni youth camps and I told them to keep me in mind if an opportunity ever came up. I want to keep the momentum going that the organization built up this season.”
McRae played outfield in the majors from 1990 to 1999 for the Kansas City Royals, Chicago Cubs, New York Mets, Colorado Rockies and Blue Jays. His career MLB batting average was .261 with 103 home runs and 532 RBIs.
“He’s been there and done it,” said HarbourCats managing director Jim Swanson. “He knows about the next level.”
McRae doesn’t have a lot of coaching experience, but understands the game and worked five years for MLB.com Radio and has also appeared on Baseball Tonight on ESPN. He works with players ages eight to 17 as the general manager of the Kansas City Sluggers youth academy that has produced players such as major- leaguers Albert Pujols and Shawn Marcum. He has been assistant coach of the U.S. U-18 team and Park University of the NAIA and will begin a stint as student assistant this season of the NCAA Div. 1 University of Missouri Tigers.
He is the son of former major-league all-star player and former manager Hal McRae, and Brian was managed by his dad on the Royals.
“I’ve done something [the aspiring players] want to do,” said McRae, referring to his time in the majors.
If that status makes young aspirants listen more intently, or helps him better communicate to them, then it’s all to the good, said McRae.
Merritt, meanwhile, said he was flabbergasted by the move to replace him after a record-setting season.
“I understand it’s a business and they made a business decision. But I feel disappointed, disrespected and used,” he said.
“I felt we had unfinished business, which is to win a championship for Victoria. It makes me feel empty leaving town without winning a championship. But they went with a new face with a lot more recognition than mine.”
The Victoria season ended with a 2-0 sweep loss to the Bellingham Bells in the best-of-three WCL North Division playoff.
Merritt, however, pointed to the WCL record 40 victories in the regular season.
“Nobody in league history did what I did. There is a saying in sports: ‘The ball doesn’t lie.’ ”
Swanson said he realizes the move will surprise some because of Merritt’s success this season. “This was a season not to be forgotten,” Swanson said.
“Graig [Merritt] did a great job and earned every bit of respect. He motivated and improved players and took our program to another level.
“This is a development league, whose goal is to move both players and coaches to the next level, and we had to anticipate Graig having other opportunities. There was a real risk of losing him. Almost all coaching deals in the WCL are one-year deals to allow the flexibility that is needed for both the coach and the team. Graig has earned every opportunity coming to him. I hired Graig [in 2015] and he proved me right.”
Merritt, however, said he wanted to return to Victoria for next season. Merritt, who is a scout for the Tampa Bay Rays, coached the HarbourCats for two seasons.
The WCL is a league in which U.S. collegiate NCAA players extend their seasons through the summer to aid in their development. A total of 234 WCL alumni played in affiliated pro baseball in 2016, including 25 in the major leagues.