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In a span of a few months last spring, life came at MacKenzie Gore as fast as his fastball barrels toward opposing batters.
Entering his senior season at Whiteville High, Gore was hoping to help the Wolfpack win a third North Carolina High School Athletic Association 1-A championship before continuing his baseball career at East Carolina, having already signed with the Pirates. But then, things changed. The left-handed fireballer with the high leg kick started getting attention from professional scouts — a lot of attention.
“It was a very different and unique season,” Whiteville head coach Brett Harwood said at Tuesday’s Wilson Hot Stove banquet, where Gore was presented with the Gaylord Perry Amateur Pitching Award. “Anytime you play your first home game and there’s 50-plus scouts there to see one kid, that’s not something you get every day. It was fun but at the same time, it was a lot of pressure, but I thought MacKenzie handled it really well, which allowed a lot of the younger guys on our team to handle it well. It never fazed him and that’s just a testament to his character and putting the team before anything else. So he made it a lot easier for me.”
When it became apparent that Gore’s senior season was going to be unlike the others, he and his parents, Selena and Evan, put together a plan.
“We decided as a family — and there wasn’t anything against the scouts — that we wanted to keep our life as normal as possible,” Selena Gore said. “The focus wasn’t on baseball, it was on MacKenzie enjoying his senior year and doing the best he could do. So we decided that we weren’t going to do in-home visits, so Coach Harwood came up with the idea of doing them at school during his lunch time, because he had lunch and then weight training. So he basically had 30-40 minutes, maybe up to an hour, and that was it. He was able to go to the meetings, the majority of them. So that kind of kept normal for all of us.”
Distractions kept to a minimum, he put together one of the finest seasons in the land in 2017. He won all 11 of his decisions while posting an 0.19 ERA and striking out 158 hitters in 74 1/3 innings. More importantly, Gore helped Whiteville win its eighth state championship and third in his four years with the Wolfpack. He was named MVP of the state championship series.
“As the year went on, stuff kind of got more in the picture but it was fun,” Gore said. “We won in high school and that was a big day.”
BIG DAYS AHEAD
More big days would quickly follow in a hectic couple of weeks in June that saw Gore graduate high school and be named the Baseball America Player of the Year and the Gatorade Male Athlete of the Year. He then became the third pick overall when the San Diego Padres selected him in the Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft. The slot value of the signing bonus for the No. 3 pick was $6,668,100.
That changed everything for MacKenzie Gore, who wasn’t projected to go that high before his senior season despite being on the radar of every MLB team.
“He had committed to go to East Carolina and during the season we were fully expecting him to go to East Carolina,” his father, Evan Gore, said. “So I guess you could say it sort of took us by surprise a little bit.”
All of a sudden, the 18-year-old kid from a small town in eastern North Carolina had a major league decision to make. He decided that the opportunity was too much to pass up and elected to sign with the Padres.
“It was really just draft day,” Gore said of when he made his decision, “but it’s been good so far.”
Gore and his family — father, Evan; mother, Selena, and sisters Meredith and Lexie — traveled to San Diego for his official signing. Shortly thereafter, he was part of the Padres rookie league team in the Arizona League in Peoria, Arizona. In seven starts there, he went 0-1 with a 1.27 ERA and 31 strikeouts in 21 1/3 innings.
Not a bad start for a kid who could easily be labeled “can’t miss.” While that description often is a kiss of death for some big league prospects, Gore strikes the observer as one who can live up to his hype. The main reason for that is his background with two nurturing parents and a whole bunch of people who helped him get to where he is.
GROWING UP IN WHITEVILLE
Evan Gore, an executive with BB&T in Whiteville, said his son never aspired to be a major league baseball player while growing up.
“First of all, baseball was not his first love,” Evan Gore said. “Soccer was his first love when he was younger and he was never really a big kid so he was always one that had to compete against the older guys and the bigger guys. So I knew he was able to compete but we just treated it as something that he did as an extracurricular activity and we looked at all the positives that he would get out of something like baseball — learning to be a good teammate and compete — and that was what we really talked about when he was coming up. We didn’t talk about him being a major league baseball player.”
However, playing baseball in Whiteville is a little different from other towns. According to thebaseballcube.com, 12 Wolfpack players have been drafted by MLB teams, including first-round picks Tommy Greene in 1985 and Patrick Lennon in 1986 as well as George Threadgill in the second round in 1983 and brother Chris Threadgill in the third round in 1987. All of them played for legendary Whiteville head coach Linwood Hedgepeth.
Harwood, who played on Whiteville’s state championship team in 1991, said that baseball was just part of the culture of a town that has celebrated state championships in football, basketball and golf over the past three decades.
“I think it’s a culture that was built in the early ‘80s, maybe even earlier than that, but your Tommy Greenes, your Patrick Lennons, Threadgills, just come through on and on and I think it just started something in Whiteville where baseball became more than just a game,” Harwood said. “I know it’s a game but it’s important to our kids and it’s important to families.”
It’s a community effort that includes a vibrant Dixie Youth Baseball program, Evan Gore said.
“There are just people who have good baseball knowledge and they stay active in the program and they work with the kids,” Evan Gore said. “If I had to pay for all the lessons that MacKenzie’s had from all these guys over the years, I would be flat broke. It’s just what’s important there and the community supports it.”
That support was evident Tuesday when both Harwood and Whiteville pitching coach Fielding Hammond accompanied the Gore family to Wilson for the Hot Stove banquet. Also sitting with the Gore family was East Carolina head coach Cliff Godwin, who, despite losing arguably his biggest recruit to the pros, maintains a strong relationship with MacKenzie.
“I’m staying in Greenville this fall working out, so it’s been good to be around the guys and stuff,” said MacKenzie, who assured that he is still a Pirate at heart.
However, a bold new world awaits the young man, who instead of being in Greenville just a couple of hours away from his family, will be on the other side of the country. It’s a reality his mother, a fifth-grade teacher in Whiteville, said she’s struggled with — a little bit.
“For us, we’ve got to think about what’s best for him — and it was his decision,” he said. “We guided him and everything but there’s always a fear that something would go wrong. He’s handled it very well and I’m optimistic and faithful that he’s going to continue to handle it well. I tell him that I’m going to know what you’re doing, whether I’m there or not.
“MacKenzie has always been very committed. They (their kids) all play whatever sport they want to play but he has always been very committed to his preparation. During the offseason, he has worked and worked and worked. I know that he will be focused and I know that things can happen so we’ll just keep praying and keep visiting and listen to those voices and when he comes home, I’ll just take care of him.”
MacKenzie Gore certainly hasn’t let his sudden fame and wealth go to his head. When informed he would receive the Gaylord Perry Award from the Wilson Hot Stove — certainly an established and prestigious accolade but perhaps not as prominent as some of his other recent awards — Gore was honored. His only question was whether he should wear a coat and tie to the banquet. He did wear a suit, sans tie.
Heaven forbid, if he develops arm trouble or any other malady that could derail his promising career, MacKenzie Gore has plenty of other options. His father joked that he told him he could go into banking when “the train ride ends.”
However, that train is just getting started and hopefully will have a long journey for the young man from Whiteville.