McReynolds success restores credibility to Arkansas prep programs
By John Klein
FAYETTEVILLE, Ark.--There are those who believe, and with good reason, that Arkansas outfielder Kevin McReynolds is the nation's most talented collegiate baseball player.
It is almost ironic that a product of Arkansas high school baseball would lead the Razorbacks into the collegiate limelight.
The Razorbacks, for years, were forced to depend upon recruits from outside the state to maintain their program. The state's high school baseball program was simply ill-equipped to supply even just one major college team.
Until the past two years, the state had fewer than 30 high schools playing baseball. The quality of that baseball was suspect.
This, Arkansas coach Norm DeBriyn relied heavily upon the fertile high school programs of neighboring states such as Oklahoma.
However, when he saw McReynolds at Little Rock's Sylvan Hills High, he knew he had found the first of what he hopes are an increasing number of collegiate-level players in Arkansas.
"All you had to do was see him play to know that he was a good one," said DeBriyn. "He put such a charge into the ball when he hit it and he could really run. Anyone could tell he could play.
"We first became aware of him as a sophomore. We stayed closely in touch with him. I remember the first time I took Doug Clark (Arkansas assistant coach) with me to see Kevin play. Doug turned to me on the way back to Fayetteville and said, 'He's the best high school player I've ever seen without a doubt.' Now I know he wasn't wrong."
McReynolds had incredible high school stats. His senior year he hit .638, slammed 15 homers and delivered 60 RBIs. That was in a mere 25 games.
Yet, because of the level of competition, those stats could have been deceiving. They weren't in McReynolds' case.
It took him little time in proving his worth. As a freshman, he was the starting center fielder on Arkansas' national runner-up team. He hit .282 on the year with eight homers and 37 RBIs. However, it was his performance near the end of the season and in the playoffs that gave a clue to his vast talents.
In the College World Series, McReynolds hit .566, including two home runs, two doubles and five RBIs. The Porkers lost the title game to Cal-State Fullerton.
Last year he blossomed into one of the nation's finest outfielders. He was a unanimous choice as the Southwest Conference Most Valuable Player and was a second-team pick on the coaches All-America squad.
The junior hit .386 with 17 homers and 57 RBIs as the Razorbacks finished second in the league and landed an NCAA playoff berth for the second consecutive year.
To understand the scope of these accomplishments, for both McReynolds and the Arkansas program, one must remember that Razorback baseball was considered a minor sport at UA when it entered the '70s under the then-new coach DeBriyn. It exited a national powerhouse.
"It's hard to explain how much the progress of baseball at this school is doing for the state high school programs," said McReynolds. "When I was in high school, there were only three high schools in Little Rock that played baseball. There were very few others.
"The baseball here at Arkansas is only going to get better and better as the program here at the university improves. When we were in the College World Series, a Little Rock television station carried every game we played live to most of the state (including Tulsa, Okla., where Arkansas recruits heavily). It got a lot of people excited about our program and excited about high school baseball."
Although there were few high school teams, McReynolds insists there were good players on the Arkansas high school scene. However, because of a lack of publicity, most get overlooked.
Even with his almost incredible stats, most pro scouts didn't give McReynolds a second look. He was drafted in the 18th round by the Milwaukee Brewers out of high school.
The thought of professional baseball before college wasn't even considered.
"I knew January of my senior year that I would not play professionally until after I played college," said McReynolds. "I didn't really consider any schools except Arkansas.
"The main reason I settled on Arkansas so quickly is because they were the ones that showed any interest in me. Not many people come hunting in Arkansas for high school baseball players. But I think that'll change as the programs get better and more plentiful."
Even DeBriyn is realistic about the state's prep schools. Occasionally he would find a players of the major college level but most often he was forced out of state.
McReynolds was the needle in the haystack. Now, DeBriyn hopes the success of his team and McReynolds will increase interest among Arkansas prepsters.
"That is a very important point to us," said DeBriyn. "A lot of times I hear people say 'you just don't recruit Arkansas kids.' But that is wrong. We want the Arkansas kids more than anyone.
"But the lack of high school baseball in the state hurt us. We didn't get to see a lot of kids and sometimes overlooked some of them. There are a lot of good high school athletes in this state. And those athletes want to play baseball for the University of Arkansas. We have the support of the state. The interest is building in the state for our program and that means more high school baseball. That can only help us. And having someone like Kevin, from right here in our state, become a star like has really helps."
The talents of the 6-2 by 210-pounder are many. It is hard to pinpoint one area in which he shines more than another. He hits for both power and average, has outstanding speed on the bases and is an excellent fielder.
Last summer he was the Most Valuable Player at the National Baseball Congress tournament in Wichita as his team, the semi-pro Alaska Goldpanners won their fifth national title.
He hit .395 with 16 home runs and 56 RBIs during his first summer of baseball since playing for an American Legion team in Little Rock before his freshman year at UA.
"I'm really thankful that I played last summer," said McReynolds. "I didn't play the summer before because we were in the College World Series until pretty late and I thought the break would help me.
"Last summer baseball was a fun game for me up in Alaska. The coach, Ben Hines, played a deliberate style of baseball and made it enjoyable for all of us. He was just super. It was so relaxing that we looked forward to playing. It was just fun, but we won, too."
McReynolds just seems to get better with each passing season. As a freshman he often looked awkward at the plate because of his aggressiveness with the bat. With time he developed the patience to hit the breaking pitches.
"When I was a freshman, the book on me was that I couldn't hit a curve," said McReynolds. "I got to where I could hit it consistently but people were still throwing me a lot of breaking pitches last year.
"I still consider myself basically a fastball hitter. I go up there with the intentions of hitting the fastball and if I get a breaking pitch I adjust to it. I don't think I have any more difficulty with breaking pitches than I do with fastballs, now."
DeBriyn has watched that development.
"The only concern and scare I had with him was as a freshman, and it was very minor," said the Razorback coach. "During the fall, he had a broken wrist and didn't play much. And then he got the flu right at the first of the second semester. He went home to Little Rock for a couple of days and talked with his parents. When he came back, I could see that inner confidence that had impressed me so much when I first met him in high school.
"A couple of pitchers would have made him look bad at times as a freshman but he just kept improving. By the time the end of the season came around he was an outstanding player for us and a big reason for our success that year (College World Series finalist.)
"The thing that really amazes me about him is how he just keeps getting better. Sometimes I don't know how he can get any better but he always does. This is one player who really is a great one."
Kevin McReynolds went on to play 12 years in the major leagues with the Padres, Mets and Royals before retiring in 1994. He lives in Little Rock with two young daughters. Always an avid hunter and fisherman, McReynolds runs a commercial duck-hunting club in southeast Arkansas.
"Im down there Monday through Thursday," McReynolds says. "Theres about 500 acres so there is a lot of upkeep involved."
The greatest player in Arkansas history also keeps close tabs on the Razorbacks program and his old coach Norm DeBriyn, now in his 33rd year.
"I feel a loyalty to Norm and the program," McReynolds said. "I hope he stays here as long as he possibly can. They took a chance on me, a high school player from Arkansas at a time when high school baseball in Arkansas was basically nil. They took a big chance on me and I like to think in return I tried to give something back to the program. If Norm hadnt offered me a scholarship, I wouldnt have been able to go to school."
John Klein, who wrote the original cover story on Kevin McReynolds, covered college baseball at The Tulsa World from 1977-85. He left for five years to work for The Houston Post, where he covered the old Southwest Conference. He returned to the World in 1991 to become the papers sports editor and lead columnist. Over the years, John has been to the College World Series with six different teams he has covered: Oral Roberts, Arkansas, Oklahoma State, Texas, Texas
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