Minor League Baseball

How a kid from Whiteville became one of baseball’s top prospects

Watch MLB draft prospect MacKenzie Gore pitching during the final stretch of the season

Whiteville High School senior Mackenzie Gore finishes a stellar four-year career winning his third state championship for the NCHSAA Division 1A school.
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Whiteville High School senior Mackenzie Gore finishes a stellar four-year career winning his third state championship for the NCHSAA Division 1A school.

Linwood Hedgepeth long ago left his stamp on the game of baseball in this Whiteville community of 5,500 residents. Four decades ago, he staked claim to having more graduates of his program playing collegiate baseball than any high school coach in the country. He has sent a handful of players to the major leagues.

So, when Hedgepeth began a conversation with Evan Gore, the father of a left-handed pitcher who at the time was a seventh-grader, the elder Gore was all ears.

“You don’t realize what you’ve got here,” Hedgepeth said, pointing to the young player.

FRONT PITCH
Whiteville's MacKenzie Gore, who has a 95 mph fastball, warms up in the bullpen before his last home game in Whiteville, N.C., Saturday, May 13, 2017. Chuck Liddy cliddy@newsobserver.com

Evan Gore is fully aware now, five years later, of his son’s immense potential as a pitcher. When the high school baseball season began, MacKenzie Gore was ranked by Baseball America as the 38th best draft-eligible prospect in the country, meaning he likely would have been selected in Monday’s Major League Baseball Draft either late in the first round or early in the second.

Gore already had signed to play college baseball at East Carolina, so a huge decision awaited the 18-year-old following the draft. Would he pursue a college degree 180 miles north of Whiteville in Greenville and again enter the draft in three years? Or would he accept a signing bonus in the neighborhood of $1.5 million and immediately begin attempting to climb the ladder through the minor leagues to the majors?

That was four months ago. Since then, the 6-1, 185-pound Gore has gone about dominating Class 1A high school baseball like no pitcher in North Carolina since another left-hander, the ill-fated Brien Taylor, came out of Beaufort in 1991 to become the first selection in the MLB Draft by the New York Yankees only to have his career derailed by an injury to his shoulder during a fight in his second professional season.

Gore is now projected as a possible top-five pick on Monday and could be in line for a signing bonus of about $6 million.

Gore won 11 games during his senior season without a defeat, and last weekend helped pitch Whiteville to its third state championship in four seasons. His 0.19 earned run average was the result of allowing 25 hits and just five walks over 74 1/3 innings while striking out 158.

MacKenzie Gore, a potential top five pick in the MLB draft, gives freshman Jake Harwood his MVP trophy after Harwood drives in the winning run in a championship game.

In one midseason, five-inning game against East Columbus, Gore struck out all 15 opposing batters, threw only eight called balls among his 54 pitches and allowed opponents to hit just two foul balls. In the regular-season finale against Fairmont, another five-inning affair, Gore allowed a leadoff single in the first inning, then retired 15 consecutive batters, 12 by strikeout. For good measure, perhaps to show the 20 or so scouts stationed behind home plate just what kind of athleticism he possesses, Gore stroked a pair of moonshot home runs. So deep did the home runs sail beyond the fence, the Fairmont right fielder turned and waved both balls goodbye as they disappeared into the woods.

Every major-league team sent scouts to watch Gore pitch this past season. They all wanted a first-hand look at an electric fastball that speeds past batters – topping out at 95 mph – like an express train sailing through a local station, and a sharp-breaking curveball that nosedives at home plate like a seagull going into water for a fish.

Gore surged up the draft boards, and Baseball America now projects him as the fifth selection in the draft’s first round. If so, Gore would fall into a predetermined bonus slot value of about $6 million. That would considerably pad a meager bank balance that currently counts only a few dollars of savings from minimum-wage work at McNeill’s Pharmacy in Whiteville.

Should that happen on Monday, ECU’s dreams of having a star pitcher who could one day lead it to the Pirates’ first College World Series appearance will likely be dashed. No teenager and his family is likely to rebuff that kind of life-changing money at the risk of a career-ending injury in college.

There are a few stories like this every year in baseball, and it is worth retracing the steps that got Gore to this point.

The parents

NEWPARENTS
Selena and Evan Gore alternate watching their son MacKenzie Gore play on the baseball field and daughter Lexie play soccer behind them from the stands of the football Stadium in Whiteville, N.C., Saturday, May 13, 2017. Chuck Liddy cliddy@newsobserver.com

Evan and Selena Gore represent throwbacks to a time when kids grew up in a small-town community, dated in high school, went off to college, later married and returned home to raise a family.

Evan’s mother was Selena’s first-grade teacher. His father was a teacher who farmed soybeans and was a sharecropper for tobacco. Selena’s parents were farmers, once in the tobacco business and later turning to corn and soybeans.

The two families lived three miles apart, some 30 miles south of Whiteville in Columbus County, hard by the South Carolina line. Evan and Selena hardly knew each other growing up but started dating seriously when they reached Nakina High School.

Evan played basketball and baseball at the tiny high school, which later was incorporated into South Columbus High. He would have played football, but with only 250 students Nakina High lacked enough males to field a team. Selena participated in basketball and softball. She concedes that if any athletic genes were passed along to their children they came directly from her husband.

Evan started at UNC-Wilmington and finished at N.C. State, while Selena found ECU to be too big for her tastes and eventually graduated from Meredith College. When Evan got into the banking business, he made a pit stop in Shallotte before the couple settled in Whiteville in 1996 where Evan is an area market president for BB&T Bank and Selena teaches at Edgewood Elementary School.

It is difficult these days for the family to gather around the dinner table at their beautiful upper-middle class home in the Land O Lakes subdivision six miles north of Whiteville. Meals often are grabbed on the run between work schedules, daughter Lexie’s high school soccer games and MacKenzie’s prep baseball games. Selena chronicles all the activity with her camera as an amateur photographer.

Then there is the process involved in MacKenzie’s decision either to attend ECU or to play professional baseball. It weighs on the entire family, and at times “has not been fun,” according to Evan.

“It’s pretty stressful on the parents because you have very little control over the decision,” Evan said. “I could make the decision for myself, could make it now and we’d be fine. But in a situation like this, you’re trying to go through it with somebody who really is still a kid. That’s difficult on a parent.”

PARENTS
MacKenzie Gore gives his grandmother, Janice Gore, a hug as his mother Selena Gore looks on. Gore, a projected top five pick in the Major Leauge Baseball draft, had just pitched his team to a 19-0 win over Fairmont High School in Fairmont, N.C., Thursday, May 4, 2017. Chuck Liddy cliddy@newsobserver.com

Evan and Selena can speak from experience when imparting the value of education on their son and on how the college experience can help transform a young man into an adult. Educating him about the ways and whims of professional baseball are quite another matter altogether.

“We just want the best for him,” Selena said. “Whose decision will it be? It will be his decision. But we will give him guidance and give him pros and cons of both. It’s not about being drafted. It’s about what’s best for him. This is his life decision.”

The Gores had every intention of handling the matters of their talented son without the benefit of an adviser from a sports agency, an increasingly common part of the process. As late as February, before MacKenzie’s senior season, Evan believed his career in banking would serve him well in both advising his son and in negotiating with clubs.

Then the season started and the unknowns of the baseball world began to overwhelm the family.

“We felt like we needed to get some help, and it’s really made the process a lot smoother,” Evan said. “I’d never been through this process. I understand a lot about finance, but I’d never been through the baseball process.”

The Gores signed with the Boras Corporation. The sports agency, headed by high-profile sports agent Scott Boras, assigned an adviser to the Gores, who pay for the work as they would a lawyer, on an hourly basis.

Draft projections have Gore being selected either fourth or fifth in the first round. The bonus slot value for the No. 4 pick by Tampa Bay is $6,153,600, and the slot value for the No. 5 pick by Atlanta is $5,707,300.

If he signs with a team, Gore would be obligated to pay the Boras Corporation 4 to 5 percent of his bonus total and be assigned an agent. The agent would likely offer Gore money management training, options on disability insurance and options on how he should receive his bonus payments. The agent also would begin negotiating contracts for Gore with bat companies, trading card companies, shoe companies and equipment companies.

The high school coach

MacKenzie Gore is expected to be a top five pick in the MLB draft next week and has helped the southeastern N.C. 1A school win three state championships in four years.

Brett Harwood has known baseball his entire life. His father, Arnold, once coached at West Columbus High and sent brothers Otis and Donell Nixon to the big leagues. So, Harwood has an idea about how to handle baseball situations.

Yet there may be no greater challenge for a high school coach than the delicate balance between leading a team’s quest for a state championship against properly managing the multimillion-dollar arm of its ace pitcher.

It used to be that a coach could ride one pitcher, using him seven innings or more twice a week, on the way through the state playoffs. But the North Carolina High School Athletic Association enacted pitch limits for the first time this past season to protect pitchers’ arms against injury. Those rules set limits on the number of pitches thrown in a game and defined how much rest was needed after throwing varying numbers of pitches.

Not that Harwood would have abused Gore’s arm anyway. He and his pitching coach, Fielding Hammond, treated their ace with kid gloves all four seasons on the varsity, rarely letting his pitch count top 100 and fully aware that health trumped winning at every turn.

“I just believe that at the end of the day there is no way I could sleep at night thinking I hurt him or did something to keep this kid from the opportunity that lays ahead of him,” Harwood said.

In the recent state finals, Harwood got 76 pitches and a two-hit shutout out of Gore in the opening game. Although Gore had another 44 pitches at his disposal in the finals, Harwood made the decision after the opening game that his team would win or lose without their ace pitcher, no matter the situation. Whiteville won the second game to capture the crown.

Harwood is one of only three coaches who has led the Whiteville High baseball team since 1980. Hedgepeth’s teams won Class 2A state championships in 1983, 1985 and 1989. Greg Blackmon picked up another in 1991, and Harwood added a 2A trophy to the school’s case in 2012, followed by 1A titles in 2014, 2015 and 2017.

Harwood saw the curse of off-field distractions beginning to affect Gore following his ninth-grade season when he earned MVP honors in the state finals. A one-on-one talk followed, and Gore learned of his coach’s wayward ways – Harwood had been suspended from the Whiteville baseball team during his high school days.

“I was getting a little big-headed,” Gore recalled. “He had to bust my bubble a little bit.”

The college coach

INROOM
MacKenzie Gore speaks to a friend about his final home game in his bedroom at his home in Whiteville, N.C., Saturday, May 13, 2017. Chuck Liddy cliddy@newsobserver.com

Cliff Godwin was thrilled by MacKenzie Gore’s unofficial visit to the Greenville campus on Dec. 4, 2014. The newly hired ECU coach could not have scripted it any better. The Whiteville High sophomore clearly enjoyed the tour of the campus, the inside look at the athletic facilities and a meeting with the Pirates coaching staff.

The capper came when Gore and his parents joined 41,000 mostly ECU fans at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium later that day for a thrilling nationally televised Thursday night football game against Central Florida, which the Pirates lost on a Hail Marry pass on the game’s final play.

No matter, young Gore was sold on ECU even with the likes of UNC, N.C. State, Clemson, Virginia and just about every other major college baseball program in the southeast wooing his services and that of his left arm.

Eight months later, Gore was back on campus along with his mother for another unofficial visit. This time, Gore simply wanted to watch a Pirates’ offseason workout. Afterward, the three met in Godwin’s Clark-LeClair Stadium office.

“Coach Godwin, I want to be a Pirate,” Gore said.

A stunned Godwin leaped from his chair to hug both Gore and his mother.

“Some people, if you don’t know East Carolina baseball, might say, wow, why did he go to East Carolina?” Godwin said. “I look at it is because we are a little bit different than those programs.”

The difference for Gore was ECU’s two-hour driving distance from home and Greenville’s mid-size population of 91,000.

If Gore goes pro, it would not be the first time ECU has lost a great prospect. Los Angeles Angels superstar center fielder Mike Trout had also committed to join the Pirates before being drafted 25th overall in the 2009 MLB draft.

“If you’re recruiting the right players, you’re going to have to fight the draft,” said Godwin. “There’s going to be professional draft interest in a lot of players we recruit every single year just because, obviously, you want talented players to win a national championship. If you’re not competing against the draft, then you’re probably not getting good enough players to compete at the highest level.”

On the second Wednesday in November of 2016, Gore signed an NCAA grant-in-aid with the Pirates.

College baseball recruiting is far different than any other sport. Baseball programs are limited to 11.7 scholarships to disperse among 27 players. Almost no programs offer full scholarships to the top-level recruits because it would be difficult to field a team of high-quality players.

Neither Godwin nor the Gore family would say how much scholarship money ECU offered MacKenzie. All acknowledged that ECU, like all college baseball programs, would work on supplemental financial aid and leave the remainder of school costs to be covered by the Gores.

“I know that, regardless of whether he shows up for school or not, he’s always going to be a Pirate,” Godwin said. “He’s told me that a thousand times. He’s going to be a guy who helps the program even if he never steps foot on campus.”

So the ECU “No Quarter” flag that is attached to the ceiling in Gore’s room at home will likely remain there.

The scouts

SCOUTS
Professional baseball scouts crowd behind home plate at Fairmont High School where MLB prospect MacKenzie Gore of Whiteville pitched his team to a 19-0 win in Fairmont, N.C., Thursday, May 4, 2017. Chuck Liddy cliddy@newsobserver.com

Baseball scouts discovered Gore when they went to see Eric Jenkins, a senior outfielder at West Columbus High, during the 2015 season. Gore, a sophomore at the time, happened to pitch for Whiteville a couple of times against West Columbus that spring.

Jenkins became a second-round pick of the Texas Rangers a couple of months later, and those scouts who saw Gore quickly moved him high up their list of 2017 prospects. Gore did not disappoint during his summer travel ball outings and again through a spectacular junior season.

By the summer before his senior season, Gore was projected by scouts to be a second- to fourth-round selection in the 2017 draft. When the nation’s best prospects appear in showcase games before their senior season, they occasionally move their draft status drastically, either up or down.

Gore did not perform particularly well during those games, yet his stock remained about the same. Then came what often is the most important period for a prospect, the offseason and preseason of his senior season.

One-by-one, each of the 30 major-league teams sent an area scout to Whiteville for what are generally known as home visits with the prospect and his parents. The Gores had other ideas for how to conduct these interviews, which lasted from October through December.

“It wasn’t against anyone,” said MacKenzie’s mother, Selena, of the decision to keep scouts away from the family’s home. “I was just afraid it would be too stressful. We wanted to keep things as normal as possible.”

Harwood, the Whiteville High coach, offered a different way to handle the sessions. Scouts would get 30 minutes to an hour during the school’s lunch period in Harwood’s office with the coach and MacKenzie’s father, Evan, in the room.

Following the “home visits” from scouts in the fall, Gore attended a private throwing session in Creedmoor for the Toronto Blue Jays, who were the lone major-league team to arrange such a get-together, and it included another 10 prospects.

As Whiteville prepared for the start of its season, scouts were invited to watch Gore’s bullpen sessions. Because she was unable to attend the “home visits” at school, MacKenzie’s mother attended most of the throwing sessions.

It was during these bullpen sessions and pre-season scrimmages that Gore’s standing as a prospect began to change dramatically, according to one scout. One particular intra-squad game stood out for the four or five scouts in attendance.

“When I walked out of there that day I realized he was a different animal than he was during the summer,” the scout said. “It was impressive. I rang the alarm bells with that report and the grade I put on him.”

As scouts continued to revise their reports during this past season, major-league teams began sending national cross-checkers and scouting directors in to verify that Gore was now a high-level, first-round draft prospect.

TEAM
MacKenzie Gore (left) stands to the side as the Wolfpack baseball team readies for their last home game of the 2017 seaon in Whiteville, N.C., Saturday, May 13, 2017. Chuck Liddy cliddy@newsobserver.com

Scouts like to make comparisons to current major-leaguers in their reports. The one most often made with Gore was to Madison Bumgarner, who is considered among the best pitchers in the major leagues for the San Francisco Giants. Perhaps those comparisons were natural since both are left-handers, both hail from small North Carolina towns – Bumgarner from near Hickory – and both feature a signature, albeit unusual, pitching delivery.

One scout said Gore’s ability to command his fastball with the kind of leg kick he uses makes him a “freak.”

Scouts grade prospects on a 20 to 80 scale with 50 being average, 55 a solid grade, 60 a plus, and 70 a plus-plus. Scouts grade on two scales: Current and projected to the major-league level. One scout graded Gore’s fastball at 60/70 for movement, 60/70 for command, 60/70 for effectiveness and 56/60 for velocity with his speed sitting at 92-95 mph. The same scout graded his curveball at 55/70, slider at 60/70 and changeup at 60/70.

Early in the season, as many as 30 scouts camped behind home plate with radar guns in hand to see Gore pitch at Whiteville games. For a couple of road games, there were nearly as many scouts flashing their radar guns on every one of Gore’s pitches as there were fans in the bleachers.

As Whiteville’s season ran deeper into the playoffs, fewer and fewer scouts attended Gore’s games. As his stock soared, scouts and their respective teams – picking further down in the first round – realized they had been effectively eliminated from the sweepstakes.

The Kid

AUTOGRAPH
Whiteville's MacKenzie Gore signs a basball for Riverside High School fan Easton Warren after the Wolfpack defeated Williamston during the NCHSAA 1A playoff game in Williamston, N.C. Wednesday, May 16, 2017. Chuck Liddy cliddy@newsobserver.com

Nothing illustrates what life is like growing up in a sleepy Eastern North Carolina town better than the hunt for the lone remaining copy in Whiteville of the 1986 Sport magazine article that proclaimed it “Baseball Town USA.”

All leads pointed to J S Mann’s clothing store, which abuts the train tracks that run through downtown on South Madison Street. Ever since the magazine story put Whiteville on the national baseball map, the story hung on a wall inside the store.

Terry Mann, who owns and operates the store, greets most visitors. He also is Whiteville’s mayor. At first, back in February, Mann believed the October of 1999 fire that gutted the store also took the prized magazine story. But Mann was happy to report a couple of weeks ago that the story survived the fire, and he had the copy in his hands.

Mann is aware that young Gore finds solace at a fishing pond some 500 yards from his home, and that he attended both his Whiteville High junior and senior proms. Mann knows this because the mayor rented Gore his tuxedos both years.

Mann has known the Gore family for years. He has heard the story about Selena Gore going into labor with her first-born son while she was at school, where she teaches fifth-grade reading and science. She was six weeks early.

Even with the early arrival, MacKenzie stood out from the rest in the neo-natal unit because he weighed six pounds. Had Selena gone full term with MacKenzie, doctors said he likely would have weighed a whopping 10 pounds.

Mom wanted to name her son Noah, but older sister, Meredith Elaine Gore, won out because she wanted her baby brother to share the same initials as her. So, with the insertion of a middle name in honor of his father, he became MacKenzie Evan Gore.

The Gores’ first-born, Meredith, was born with a mild case of cerebral palsy. Meredith, who uses a wheelchair, proved to be an inspiration to her younger brother as she graduated and earned her MBA from Campbell University in a mere three and one-half years. She works today in billing and accounting for Liberty Healthcare Management in Whiteville.

These days, she has employed the help of 17-year-old sister Lexie to keep their brother humble in the face of ever-increasing adulation. The two, along with Mom and Dad, constantly check MacKenzie’s tweets to make certain his ego remains in check. They were thrilled recently when his response to a particularly glowing review of his pitching was to tweet: “Ignore the noise.”

MacKenzie has been living by that mantra from the time he first began playing baseball at age 9. Once he completed youth-level baseball under the tutelage of his father, MacKenzie began getting personal attention and tutoring from Hedgepeth, the retired longtime high school coach. It was tough love from the outset. Once, following a perfect game that he pitched in middle school, Gore was expecting high praise from Hedgepeth. Instead, as the two watched video of the performance, Hedgepeth was highly critical of his pitch location and insisted there was much room for improvement.

Perhaps that is why Gore displays a quiet confidence on the pitcher’s mound to go along with his unusual winding high leg kick that is part Juan Marichal and part Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez. (His pitch delivery at full extension should remind old-timers of the great Sandy Koufax).

KOUFAXNEW
Whiteville's MacKenzie Gore pitches against the Murphy Bulldogs in the NCHSAA 1A Championship game in Raleigh, N.C. Friday, June 2, 2017. Chuck Liddy cliddy@newsobserver.com

Gore began using the leg kick once he made the Whiteville High varsity as a ninth-grader. Combine that with a fastball that already was topping 90 mph and Gore’s pitching slants almost immediately rendered opposing hitters helpless.

In the first start of his high school career, at age 15, Gore pitched 6 1/3 innings of no-hit ball. Later, in the fourth round of the high school playoffs, Gore pitched a no-hitter against a Durham Voyager Academy team that was favored to win the state title. Then he earned MVP honors in pitching Whiteville to the state crown.

Gore went unbeaten in eight decisions that freshman season, tacked on four saves out of the bullpen and compiled a 0.87 ERA thanks to 11 walks and 107 strikeouts in 80 innings pitched. He had gained enough notice to garner invitations to several travel-ball teams the following summer, but instead stayed home to play for the Whiteville American Legion team.

His sophomore season led to another state championship with Gore throwing a one-hitter with 13 strikeouts in the opener of the title-game series, then getting the last four outs in the deciding game.

He has carried a 3.5 grade-point average throughout high school, and once had his car taken away for breaking curfew. In other words, he is much like any other teenager, except for the fact that he soon will make a decision that will have life-lasting effects.

“You’ve just got to thank God,” Gore said. “He’s got a plan, and you’ve just got to pray about it and do whatever he tells you. Thank the Lord, that’s all you can do.”

All along the way during his senior season, Gore tried his best to keep the surroundings in perspective while honing his focus on winning a third state championship in four years for Whiteville. As the lone senior on the team, Gore become somewhat of a surrogate assistant coach in the way he directed and coddled his younger teammates.

“He’s always put Whiteville first,” Harwood said.

BUS
Whiteville's MacKenzie Gore looks out the window of the team bus as they get ready to head home after defeating the Riverside Knights 5-0 in Williamston, N.C. Wednesday, May 16, 2017. The Wolfpack had a three hour ride home after winning the third tound of the NCHSAA 1A baseball championship. Chuck Liddy cliddy@newsobserver.com

His high school career could not have concluded in more spectacular fashion. After Gore hit a two-run homer and pitched a two-hit shutout with 13 strikeouts in the series opener on June 2, Whiteville rallied for five runs in the bottom of the seventh inning to win the Saturday game and capture the title.

Moments after the ensuing celebration, Gore was presented with his third state finals most valuable player trophy, destined to sit in his room along with the recently presented – by famed pitcher Kerry Wood, the fourth pick overall in the 1995 draft – Gatorade National Player of the Year Award.

Gore accepted the award, which he earlier had told Harwood should go to a teammate. Then Gore walked to Harwood’s son, Jake, who pitched the final four innings of the title-clinching game and drove in the winning run with a single. Gore presented the trophy to the freshman Harwood.

Earlier in the season, the elder Harwood had told Gore that no player would ever again wear his No. 1 jersey, at least as long as he coached at Whiteville High. So, Gore shed his jersey on the field for the final time and handed it to his head coach, a man whom he had grown to respect immensely over the past four seasons.

The emotions were raw. The two embraced. Harwood burst into tears.

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