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Destined to be a BIG-leaguer

Rays pitcher Seth McClung, at 6-7, 250 pounds, is larger than life, and so is his story.

By MARC TOPKIN, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times
published March 9, 2003


ST. PETERSBURG -- In Seth McClung's case, size does matter.

He's a hefty 22-year-old with a larger-than-life personality and an enormous future. And he just might end up being one of the biggest surprises of the Devil Rays spring training camp.

At 6 feet 7 and 250 pounds with a head of bright red hair and a laugh that arrives before he does, McClung is hard to miss. Factor in a fastball that's regularly in the 95-97 mph range, tops out at 100 and keeps batters on edge because they haven't seen him before, and the righty can really stand out. Consider he's genuinely respectful of his elders, gregarious among his peers and generous with his time, especially with youngsters, and he is easy to root for.

When the Rays took McClung in the fifth round of the 1999 draft, he was about as raw as they come, a youngster from a small West Virginia town with a good arm and big-city dreams. Four years -- and a number of steps forward and back -- later he has a chance to make a jump from A ball last April to Double A to the big leagues, having impressed with his ability and attitude, moxie and maturity.

McClung might end up being the story of the Rays' spring, but is reluctant to draw attention to himself, saying he doesn't think his story is any more interesting than anyone else's.

"I'm just a kid trying to play ball," he said.

Except he had childhood epilepsy, severe migraines and a brain tumor.

Medication helped control the seizures, and by junior high he outgrew the epilepsy and the headaches stopped.

The brain tumor was a different story.

Marky McClung still remembers the tears that flowed when the doctor called with the news that her 10-year-old son had a serious problem.

She immediately turned to faith, calling her friends and eight brothers and sisters and forming a prayer chain that quickly spread among 43 states. Seth took his own action, walking down the street to see a pastor who lived in the neighborhood and asking, like he'd heard in Sunday school, to be anointed with oil.

Something worked. Three weeks after the initial diagnosis, with surgery planned, Seth went back for another test. The tumor -- for reasons, she said, doctors were never able to explain -- was gone.

It seemed amazing.

No, Marky McClung said.

"It was a miracle."

Except he grew up with sports the family business.

His father, Mike, was an all-state football player in high school, making 160 tackles as a down lineman.

His oldest brother, Marcus, was good enough to play linebacker and be special-teams captain at Virginia Tech. He was signed by the Canadian Football League's B.C. Lions, only to blow out his knee in his first training camp and never return.

Another older brother, Shawn, is an extreme sports enthusiast, jumping into things such as kayaking, repelling and dirt-biking.

He has an older sister, a 6-footer named Tempest, who dabbled in volleyball and basketball.

And there is his "little" brother, Sam, who, at 6-7 and every bit of 350 pounds, plays offensive line at Tusculum College in Tennessee.

Through sports, the McClungs grew incredibly close, which has turned out to be a very good thing. "If I didn't have the strong family backing I have, I wouldn't be half the person I am," McClung said. "My parents are supportive yet critical at the same time, almost in perfect amounts."

McClung draws inspiration from Marcus, wearing his No.37 -- or this spring the reverse, No.73 -- in tribute when possible. "I told him, 'You pushed me all my life, now I have you on my back,"' McClung said.

Except he played seven sports in high school.

During ninth grade, which was spent in Cramerton, N.C., McClung was a member of six teams: wrestling, throwing the discus for the track team, football, basketball, soccer and baseball.

The McClungs moved back to West Virginia the next year, and Seth stuck with basketball and baseball, giving up football because of the epilepsy in his past and bright future ahead on the diamond.

But he needed more. So he got busy his junior year at Greenbrier East High running cross country, high-jumping (to a personal-best 6-6) and playing goalie on the soccer team, forward on the basketball team and centerfield, shortstop, first base and, of course, pitcher on the baseball team. His senior year was more of the same, though he gave up soccer so as not to risk injury to his pitching shoulder. (He also plays golf -- left-handed -- and tennis and pingpong with either hand.)

"I never stopped," he said. "I was always doing something."

Except he knew five years ago he was going to play for Lou Piniella.

Because Marcus starred at Virginia Tech, Seth became something of a fan, going to Blacksburg for as many football games as he could.

After one game, he spotted Piniella outside the locker room, waiting for his son, Derek, who also played for the Hokies. McClung was in awe, but he introduced himself, telling Piniella, "Hopefully, one day our paths will cross again."

Except he has dyslexia.

Many think that means he reads and writes letters and numbers in the wrong order, but dyslexia is much broader.

In McClung's case, it can sometimes be a matter of concentration, of being unable to remember a sequence of commands or read a long passage correctly. "I don't see things backward, sometimes I don't see them," he said.

The condition is not a problem on the mound, though he sometimes has to be extremely focused when following the hand signals for a special play. The same is true when he writes, such as for his online diary for wvspn.com, a follow-up to his previous entertaining work for riverdogs.com.

"Have you ever done something with electronics where you didn't really set it up the right way but you got it to work? That's kind of the way my mind works," he said. "I scored high on my IQ tests. I'm intelligent. There's just some things I don't do the same way everybody else does."

Except he was born to play baseball.

Actually, the push started before he was born. "When my dad found out my mom was pregnant, he went out and bought a bat and ball, and he didn't know if it was a boy or a girl," McClung said. "He had a bat and ball waiting."

He started playing early, and stuck with it, dominating along the way, once pitching against Josh Hamilton in a Little League state championship game. He quickly earned a name and a reputation in high school, thanks to feats like a seven-inning no-hitter with 16 strikeouts and 16 walks, when he was clocked at 95 mph on the first and last of 156 pitches.

By his sophomore year, he realized pro ball was a legitimate possibility. By the end of his senior year, he had a $350,000 signing bonus from the Rays.

By the end of this month, he could have it made.

"My first word was 'ball,"' McClung said. "I always knew I was going to play pro ball.

"Every moment of my life and every lesson I've learned has prepared me for this moment right now. I'm here to become a big-leaguer, and that's what I want to do. That's my mission. Everything else right now takes a back seat to that. I don't go out at night, I don't do anything out of the ordinary.

"Everything is in preparation for this right here, because I don't want anything else in the world other than to be a big-league ballplayer."

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