CLEVELAND — Triston McKenzie headed to the clubhouse in August after a gem of an outing, pitching deep into a game for the Cleveland Guardians, and found a cryptic message from a Guardians staffer on his cellphone.
He returned the text, and the staffer fleshed out the specifics.
One of the teenagers at Valley View Boys’ Leadership Academy, an all-male public school where McKenzie lends some of his free time, was in the intensive care unit. The boy, 13, had been shot four times in the chest and twice in the arm, and a seventh bullet grazed his head. His assailant kicked him in the head too.
No one knew whether the boy would live or die. Nor why he was shot.
“It was a very heartbreaking story,” said McKenzie, whose masterful pitching in Game 2 of the American League Wild Card Series (six innings pitched, eight strikeouts, two hits allowed) helped Cleveland sweep the Toronto Blue Jays and advance to face the New York Yankees in the AL Division Series. “I was just trying to figure out a way to get in contact with him — to talk to his family, just let them know I was here and that as much as it was affecting them, it very much affected me, too.”
The shooting affected the entire school. Many students at the West Side school are almost desensitized to violence, for it’s an all-too common aspect of their lives in a city with a murder rate like Cleveland’s.
Danger confronts Black and Hispanic boys often here, and Valley View has tried to shield them from it.
“We let them know what it means to be each other’s brother,” principal William Davis said. “That’s what we teach in our gender-specific school. We teach them what accountability means and knowing what it means to make mistakes.”
Davis stood behind the adage it takes a village to raise a child, and his village can use a few good men to help.
Count McKenzie among those willing to do so.
Earlier this month, McKenzie, dressed in an off-white sweater with a studious-looking bear stitched on the front, dropped in to see the Valley View eighth graders he has, in a sense, adopted.
McKenzie is no longer a stranger to them. He has been coming to hang out with the boys since before the coronavirus pandemic. He’s also no longer a stranger to MLB fans. In his second full season, he finished in the top 10 in MLB in strikeouts (190), ERA (2.96) and innings pitched (191.1).
On this recent visit to Valley View, he brought a guest: Guardians teammate Steven Kwan.
McKenzie and Kwan, who wore a T-shirt with the words “Love More” on its front, aren’t much older than the teenagers. But the ballplayers have experienced life in ways that few, if any, of these boys have — or, in some cases, ever will.
Seemingly at ease on their visit, McKenzie and Kwan laughed, they chatted, they encouraged the boys. McKenzie, a 2022 nominee for the Roberto Clemente Award, which salutes character, philanthropy and community service, has learned how to make such visits work, for him and for the boys.
He has connected with the eighth graders, Davis said.
As part of her duties as manager of player engagement and family relations for the Guardians, Megan Ganzer introduced McKenzie to Valley View.
“We were remote at the time, and I thought he would be willing to be involved from his hometown or from his place of residence,” Ganzer said. “I asked him, and he said yes.”
His appearances and his words have resonated with the boys, a class of about 20 Black and Hispanic students on the doorstep of high school. They saw McKenzie as a real live major leaguer who looked like them, who talked like them, who had once walked in their shoes and who had, as Ganzer puts it, found success.
McKenzie has spent almost three years visiting Valley View. He appeared reluctant, however, to call himself a “mentor,” a title a tad too formal for his liking.
Because of coronavirus restrictions, his visits started on the Zoom platform. He said he was just a face without a name to the boys he met.
Triston who? they wondered. We don’t really know who he is.
The boys didn’t follow MLB, so they didn’t recognize McKenzie’s celebrity. Perhaps they didn’t care to. All they knew when he started showing up in person was a 6-foot-5, 165-pound stranger with a broad, toothy smile was on their campus. His name didn’t kindle much passion.
McKenzie was just a regular dude.
But that sentiment tilted in a different direction once they saw McKenzie kept showing up. He proved to them he cared.
“I gained their trust,” he said. “I kinda understand how to speak to them.”
He called what he’s doing on his visits sharing his bounty.
“That’s how my parents raised me,” said McKenzie, sitting in the home team dugout at Progressive Field. “I have a younger brother, and when we get anything, we split it 50-50.
“That’s one of the characteristics of where I come from and just how I was taught.”
During his talks, he’s often shined a spotlight on his own aspirations. He’s told the boys about choices — and how to make smart ones.
His message comes from experience.
While in his late teens, McKenzie had a choice to make. As a senior at Royal Palm Beach Community High School in Florida, he held in his hands a scholarship to Vanderbilt University, one of the best college baseball programs in the NCAA, and he planned to head there to play baseball and pursue a medical degree.
He aspired to become a physician — his friends had dubbed him “Dr. Sticks.”
But then came the draft of 2015. The Cleveland organization, enamored with a right-hander who who threw hard and had a repeatable delivery, used the 42nd overall pick in the MLB draft on McKenzie.
Now, did McKenzie still want to attend Vanderbilt? He was at the metaphorical fork in the road; he had two splendid options. He could pick only one, though. His choice was baseball — the $2.3 million the franchise offered him proved a lucrative enticement.
“I think once I got drafted, I kinda felt like I was in a better position for myself to give back to the people than when I was in their position,” he said.
And give back McKenzie has.
After reaching the big leagues in 2020, but before he started visiting Valley View students, he built a relationship with the Boys & Girls Clubs of Northeast Ohio, where he stressed to teens that he had choices for a simple reason: He put as much work into his academics as he did into his athletics.
To mentor someone means to care for him or her, and caring can translate into circumstances that shake a mentor’s foundation. The shooting of the 13-year-old, a straight-A student about to start high school, tested McKenzie.
He passed it.
While he wasn’t allowed to visit the teenager, who survived his bullet wounds, McKenzie sent items to ICU for him to enjoy, including a Guardians jersey.
The teen, whose shooting remained under investigation, proudly showed off McKenzie’s gifts.
“His reaction,” Ganzer said of the boy, “was priceless.”
Davis said his students welcome McKenzie’s visits to Valley View and look forward to them.
“We can use men who are positive, who are willing to instill values that they get from their fathers, their mothers, their grandmothers and grandfathers about what it takes to be successful,” Davis said. “I would want a mentor to teach our kids about the stumbles, and the trials and tribulations.”
McKenzie couldn’t escape the word “mentor.” He needed to pin some term on what he does, and mentor seemed as apt as any.
“I just try to talk to the kids about regular stuff, just letting them know that I’m here, talking to them as a mentor and not somebody that’s like a power figure,” he said. “I’m one of them.
“I think they just felt more comfortable.”