Former ACC baseball stars Mike MacDougal (Wake Forest) and Kyle Snyder (North Carolina), both first-round draft choices in 1999, are together again, winning again and happy again. The lowly franchise that drafted and developed them, the Kansas City Royals, led the American League Central division entering August. MacDougal, a first-time closer, has overcome a freak accident and recently had the unforgettable honor of playing in his first All-Star Game. Snyder, a starter, has battled through a variety of injuries to secure a spot in the rotation.
By John Manuel
July 28, 2003 Kyle Snyder saw the look in Mike MacDougal's eyes, and he knew MacDougal well enough to recognize that the 2002 season had been long enough.
Mac was bouncing up and down all over the system last year, recalled Snyder during the major league all-star break in mid-July. When he got called up to Wichita for the playoffs, you could just see what a long year he had gone through. I was glad to see him there, though. It was a familiar face.
The two pitchers' paths were crossing again, this time in the 2002 Double-A Texas League playoffs. Snyder (North Carolina) and MacDougal (Wake Forest), rivals during their college days in the ACC, had been linked throughout their professional careers since the Kansas City Royals drafted them in the first round in June 1999.
Now here the two right-handers were again, teammates with the Wichita Wranglers. And neither one was where he wanted to be, thanks to injuries and plain bad luck.
But while Snyder was conducting the interview for this story, MacDougal was just returning from Chicago. He didn't get an all-star break because he was an American League all-star, the closer and saves leader for the first-place Kansas City Royals. When MacDougal got back to Kansas City, Snyder was waiting for him as his teammate once again, having earned a key spot in the Royals' rotation.
The two have known each other for nearly a decade. They first met during summer tournaments in their high school days, such as the Area Code Games in Long Beach, Calif. They faced each other twice in college, splitting the two decisions, and were teammates in the Cape Cod League, the nation's elite summer college circuit, in 1998.
We lean on each other now, and we kind of have since we got drafted at the same time, said Snyder, who was drafted seventh overall in 1999, 18 spots ahead of MacDougal. We still have our Chatham A's t-shirts. We've lived with each other in spring training, and to be teammates again on a team that is in first place in the major leagues, it's pretty special.
MacDougal: Big Scare, Surprise
The fact that both players are contributing to the Royals in a major way is almost as big of a shock as the Royals' lead in the American League Central. Kansas City still had a four-game lead in the last week of July, ahead of the Chicago White Sox. And if the Royals are going to retain that lead and make their first playoff appearance since winning the 1985 World Series, they are going to need continued success from the pair of first-round picks from the ACC who finally are paying off.
MacDougal has paid off the most, despite a difficult series just after the all-star break when he blew a pair of leads to the Seattle Mariners. He still was 3-4 with a 4.33 earned run average, and he ranked third in the American League with 24 saves.
MacDougal didn't even become a reliever until late last season, when he rejoined Snyder on the march to the major leagues. He already knew the way, having reached the majors as a starter back in 2001.
Of the duo, MacDougal was the one who had success first in pro ball. He signed a month after being drafted and joined Snyder in the short-season Class A Northwest League, where the duo comprised two-fifths of the rotation for the Spokane (Wash.) Indians. Baseball America named MacDougal the Royals' No. 3 prospect following his first full season in 2000, when he went 9-7, 3.92 at Wilmington (Del.) in the high Class A Carolina League. MacDougal continued to zoom up the charts in 2001, spending most of the season at Triple-A Omaha (Neb.) before making his big league debut on Sept. 22.
After making three starts (and picking up his first big league win), MacDougal was in the dugout for the Royals' final home game, talking with another former ACC right-hander, Georgia Tech alumnus Kris Wilson. That's when center fielder Carlos Beltran took a swing and missed, losing his bat in the process. The bat sailed out of Beltran's hand and into the Royals' dugout.
All of a sudden I hear a Look out!' and Wilson tried to pull me away, but I ducked right into the bat, MacDougal said. It hit me pretty square on the side of my head. It never knocked me out, but it kind of paralyzed my right arm and right leg. It affected my speech. I was thinking normal, thinking full sentences in my head, but when I tried to say them, I couldn't say them. Eventually, in a few minutes, I was able to say a word. I went to the hospital where they kept me up all night, checking me every hour for blood clots or whatever.
MacDougal's skull had been fractured, but he luckily had escaped any life-threatening injuries. The initial paralysis in MacDougal's right leg went away, but his right arm the main reason the Royals had paid him a $1.15 million bonus when he left Wake Forest wasn't right. MacDougal had numbness in the fingers of his pitching hand, a feeling he has described as akin to wearing a latex glove on his hand.
Now picture yourself throwing upwards of 95 miles an hour when you can't really feel the ball, and you have an idea of what was happening to MacDougal.
Control, Crayons, Conversion
Command of his pitches always had been his biggest obstacle. As a sophomore at Wake Forest, MacDougal was eligible for the 1998 draft thanks to a rule that allows 21-year-old sophomores to be selected. But his lack of control 78 walks in 91 innings kept him from being picked very high. Instead of signing as a 17th-round selection with the Baltimore Orioles, he returned to Wake Forest for his junior season, hoping to avoid any repeats of games like, say, a start against UNC Greensboro in 1998. That was the one where he didn't allow a hit in 5 1/3 innings yet gave up six runs (none earned) while walking eight and striking out seven.
His stuff was so good, he just couldn't control it at that age, said John Schiffner, who coached MacDougal with the Chatham A's of the Cape Cod League. He might have had more strikeouts when we had him, but our catcher couldn't catch him and he was pretty good because Doogie's stuff had so much life. He just tried to make glove saves like a hockey goalie.
Coming back turned out to be a good idea. In the summer of 1998, MacDougal and Snyder teamed up for Chatham and helped pitch the A's to the league championship, beating the Wareham Gatemen in the playoffs despite Wareham's top two starters, Ben Sheets and Barry Zito.
Schiffner knew at the time that MacDougal's stuff would profile him to be an effective reliever if he couldn't have enough command to be a starter. He also figured MacDougal's easygoing temperament would be a good fit in the bullpen.
The classic Doogie story is the crayon incident, said Schiffner, who was the basis for the character of the same name (played by Brian Dennehy) in the Cape-based movie Summer Catch. He was playing with some children before the game at the house of his host family, and they were coloring. Well, Doogie just forgot that he had the crayons still in his back pocket of his uniform, and when the game was over, they were still there. So when they're washing uniforms, those crayons just melted all over those uniforms, with wax and the colors all over the place. He just laughed it off. Classic Doogie.
MacDougal struggled with his command that summer as he overcame a case of mononucleosis, but a return to full strength led to a breakout 1999 season. He used his mid-90s fastball and darting slider to go 13-3, 2.62 as he tied for fifth in Division I in victories. He led the Demon Deacons to their second straight ACC Tournament championship and a regional victory during a 47-16 season for the program. His walks diminished to 65 in 120 innings, and he gave up just 88 hits.
That was the pitcher the Royals thought they were getting when they drafted and signed MacDougal, but he couldn't be that pitcher if he couldn't feel his fingers. After the bat accident, MacDougal's future seemed in doubt. He started 2002 in Omaha, but the numbness in his fingers still was affecting his already erratic command. He walked 55 in 53 innings before starting a descent down the organization ladder, going all the way back to the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League in an effort to find his control.
You could see when he was with us in Wichita that it was starting to come together for him, Snyder said. We both were starting to pitch the way we expect to pitch.
For MacDougal, the most positive results came in the Puerto Rican winter league, where he first showed a move to the bullpen was the way to go. Without having to conserve himself for long outings as a starter, MacDougal could air out his fastball. He even touched a ridiculous 103 mph on the radar gun, according to Guy Hanson, his pitching coach at Mayaguez. Hanson, a pitching coach in the Atlanta Braves organization, said he had never seen a better combination of velocity and movement in his 34 years in the game.
The way he handled games (in winter league) in Puerto Rico, with games on the line, put him in a position to come in in spring training and make this ballclub, Royals general manager Allard Baird said. We see him as a dominant stopper. He's got the ability to close it out.
MacDougal carried the winter's momentum into the 2003 season, seizing the closer role in Kansas City and earning manager Tony Pena's trust.
They thought my stuff was good enough to be a closer, MacDougal said. Once I did it, I loved it. I like to throw the ball hard. I'm usually maximum effort.
Snyder Gets Healthy, Confident
While MacDougal was returning from the all-star break, Snyder was returning to Kansas City from a stretch on the disabled list because of shoulder soreness. It was the latest in a long series of injuries for the 6-8, 220-pounder, whose career has made a quantum leap much like MacDougal's this season.
Mike has always had a plus-plus fastball, and he just wasn't confident with it after he got hurt, Snyder said. He started to get a feel for it last year late in the year, and we really both got going at about the same time. He went off in Puerto Rico, and I was able to finish strong in the Arizona Fall League. It gave us both a boost coming into spring training and a lot of confidence.
Snyder was coming to spring training healthy for the first time in his pro career. After having a solid start to his pro career as MacDougal's teammate with Spokane in 1999, Snyder had found nothing but injuries the next two seasons. An elbow strain turned into a torn ligament in early 2000, and Snyder spent almost 18 months in Florida, recovering from the reconstructive elbow surgery that now bears Tommy John's name as a shorthand.
The ligament-replacement surgery went well, and Snyder tackled the strenuous rehabilitation that goes with it professionally. He completed his first full season in 2002, though it wasn't a typical year. Though he made 21 starts between Wilmington and Wichita, he pitched just 74 innings as the Royals kept him on a strict pitch count. He then finished with seven solid starts in the Arizona Fall League, going 1-0, 2.89 in 28 innings.
He's one of those guys that you look at a plan and it worked, Baird said. We had a plan last year and it worked. Our No. 1 goal last year was for him to be healthy and go to the Arizona Fall League and perform and be successful.
Snyder got the chance at the big leagues thanks to injuries in the rotation, but he also earned his way up with five solid starts at Omaha, the home of a notorious hitter's park. He made his debut against the Boston Red Sox, and while he lost his first three decisions, he pitched at least five innings in each start. His first major league win came at Dodger Stadium in a 3-1 interleague victory against the light-hitting Los Angeles Dodgers, and Snyder was 1-4, 4.29 overall. In seven of his first 12 starts, he gave up three earned runs or less, and he pitched seven innings three times despite never having gone that far in pro ball prior to 2003.
I know for me, and I'm pretty sure for Mike, we came into pro ball with high expectations for ourselves, not just because we were first-round picks, Snyder said. For me, it's a matter of proving that my draft selection wasn't a fluke. I think every player wants to prove they were worth getting drafted and then prove that they belong in the major leagues.
MacDougal and Snyder are well on their way to doing just that.
John Manuel, a senior writer at Baseball America magazine, has covered college baseball since 1997.