The first time Tanner McKee met Baron Austin, the Northwest assistant baseball coach kicked the Mustangs underclassmen out of practice.
Guiding pitchers during early-season, fastball-only bullpens, McKee, an assistant for the Northwest Mustangs, noticed an off-speed pitch float through his peripheral vision.
“That looked like a curveball,” McKee said.
“Yeah coach, it wasn’t a fastball,” Austin replied.
“Alright then,” McKee said. “Get out. Go home.”
The depths of their relationship, which has flourished through spring and summer seasons, made Austin’s heroic, go-ahead RBI single in the 10th inning of a 3-0 victory over Post 253 Festus especially meaningful to McKee.
“I love that kid to death,” McKee said. “I was very excited for him to get that opportunity.”
Last season, McKee had the precarious task of assigning Austin, as many of his classmates made the leap to AAA, to another summer with the junior legion. McKee was perhaps the only coach who had the personal rapport to do it.
“We’ve been to rock bottom together,” McKee said.
As one of the oldest junior legion players, Austin improved his vocal clubhouse presence and said all the right things. He carried that upbeat demeanor and occasional swagger into his senior spring and summer seasons, and said he was thankful for the extra time in AA.
“Tanner is one of my favorite people,” Austin said. “Great guy, great mentor and coach. I’ve been lucky enough to have four years to learn from, not just as a baseball coach, but also as a friend.”
The Travelers lead three levels of legion baseball that qualified for their respective state tournaments in 2019. Post 642 Aux. advanced to the AA State Tournament, while the freshman team, in its inaugural season, accepted an automatic bid to its state tournament.
Sedalia’s juniors nearly claimed the 2016 AA State Championship weeks before the Travelers captured their own title at the AAA level.
The Travelers begin the Mid-South Regional Tournament 4 p.m. Wednesday against Nebraska’s Fremont Post 20 First State Bank and Trust at Duncan Field in Hastings, Nebraska.
A win advances Post 642 Sedalia to a 4 p.m. start Thursday against the winner between the Three Rivers Bandits (Oklahoma) and Texarkana Bulldogs (Texas). A first-round loss puts the Travelers in a 10 a.m. Thursday start against the loser between the Bandits and Bulldogs.
Championship play for the eight-team, double-elimination tournament begins 1 p.m. Sunday. Post 5 Emporia (Kansas), Festus Post 253, Bryant Black Sox (Arkansas) and the hosting Hastings Five Points Bank represent the side of the bracket opposite to the Travelers.
Alex Agueros can be reached at 660-826-1000, ext. 1483 or on Twitter @abagueros2.