RIP to Walt McKeel, a former catcher and first baseman who waited six years between his MLB debut and hit first MLB hit. He died on January 1 at the age of 46. No cause of death was immediately available. McKeel played for the Boston Red Sox (1996-7) and Colorado Rockies (2002).
McKeel was born on January 17, 1972 in Wilson, N.C. He was a star catcher for Greene Central High School in Snow Hill, N.C. The Rams were two-time state champs during his time there, in 1987 and 1990. He was also a great pitcher, recalled his high school coach, James Fulghum.
“He was an exceptionally talented player — one of the best two or three to ever come out of Greene Central,” Fulghum said in an article on Neuse News.
After graduating in ’90, McKeel was drafted by the Sox in the 3rd Round of the 1990 Amateur Draft. He started playing professionally later that year with the Gulf Coast League Red Sox.
During a slow, steady rise through the minors, McKeel had a great season in 1996 with the AA Trenton Thunder of the Eastern League. He hit .302 with 16 home runs and earned a September call-up with the Red Sox before ever seeing a game in AAA. He appeared in just one game, playing behind the plate for 2/3 of an inning on September 14, 1996 against the White Sox. He got into that game after catcher Bill Haselman was ejected by umpire Tim Welke for arguing balls and strikes after Dave Martinez walked. The next hitter, Frank Thomas, lined into a double play, meaning that McKeel’s debut lasted 3 pitches.
McKeel returned to the Red Sox for 5 games in 1997, going 0-for-3, but he spent the season primarily in AAA Pawtucket and AA Trenton. He was granted free agency at the end of 1998 and was signed/released by the Blue Jays and Tigers before signing with the Rockies in 2000. After a couple seasons in the Rockies’ system, McKeel made a return to the majors in 2002 when catcher Bobby Estalella went on the 15-day DL.
McKeel was the starting catcher against the Padres on July 16 in San Diego. In the 5th inning, he singled to left off of Jake Peavy for his first major-league hit, almost six years after breaking into the majors. He’d come around to score and added another hit later that game for good measure.
McKeel did pretty great as a backup catcher, appearing in 5 games and getting 4 hits in 13 at-bats for a .308 batting average. He went back to AAA after Estalella was healthy again, leaving his MLB totals as 4 hits in 16 at-bats for a .250 batting average.
McKeel joined the Mets for Spring Training in 2003 but did not make the team and retired from pro ball. In 13 seasons in the minors, he slashed .251/ .331/.390 with 734 hits, 80 homers and 390 RBIs.