Through McKenzie’s mentorship, Cleveland youth find ‘big brother’

June 4th, 2024

CLEVELAND — When the Guardians had a game postponed by rain one night last season, Triston McKenzie didn’t use his unexpected Friday evening off to hit the bars or the club or the hay. Instead, McKenzie arranged a last-minute hang with a friend of his.

An eighth grader.

Jarmaine Miller is one of the many kids McKenzie has mentored in the Cleveland Metropolitan School District (CMSD) and one of the many he has befriended. That night, McKenzie and teammate Xzavion Curry took Miller and a classmate out to dinner, then they watched a Cavaliers game and played some “Call of Duty” with them. Most importantly, McKenzie delivered on a promise he had made to Miller.

“We made a bet,” the 16-year-old Miller said. “If I got straight A’s, he’d give me a camera. And I actually won the bet.”

For the past three school years, McKenzie has been participating in CMSD’s True2U, a volunteer mentoring program that helps eighth graders in the district prepare for high school by exploring their interests and building their core values. The volunteers are people in the community who have wisdom to pass along from their successful career paths.

McKenzie, a right-handed starter now in his fifth season with the Guardians, was the first True2U participant who just so happens to suit up for an MLB team. It’s next-level community involvement, which is why we wanted to tell the 26-year-old McKenzie’s story in a new MLB Network feature that premiered on Tuesday.

“[McKenzie is] like a big brother [to the students],” says Erin Moses, who taught Miller’s eighth-grade class at Valley View Boys Leadership Academy. “He does a phenomenal job of really getting to know them as individuals.”

When McKenzie mentored Miller’s class during the 2022-23 school year, Miller and a classmate told the pitcher about their passion for sports photography.

That’s how the bet came about.

“Win-win for me,” is how McKenzie says he saw it. “I tried to entice them to get good grades.”

They got the grades, and McKenzie got them each a Sony A7 digital camera.

“It actually motivated me a lot, through the whole school year,” Miller says. “I knew I had to work for something and stay on top of my work and keep track of everything so I could get that camera.”

McKenzie, of course, has not dangled expensive carrots in front of all the kids he’s mentored. But he’s tried to give all of them a sense of what it takes to pursue your passions.

As he’s experienced the highs of a breakout 2022 season in which he was one of the best young starters in baseball, a disappointing ’23 in which he was limited to four starts by injuries and now a demanding ’24 in which he’s serving a vital role for an injury-ravaged Guardians rotation while pitching with a tear in his right ulnar collateral ligament, McKenzie is also showing these kids the adversity one must endure and overcome even after attaining a certain level of success.

McKenzie has a natural ease, poise and rapport with the students, making him a tremendous ambassador for MLB.

“Baseball,” McKenzie says, “is just a platform that allows me to spread a positive influence.”

The son of physical therapists who attended NYU, McKenzie recognizes he had an upbringing that many of the kids in Cleveland’s inner-city schools cannot relate to.

He and his parents, Stan and Shereene, and his brother, T.J., call themselves “The Crew.” When there is a major family decision to be made, the members of that Crew convene to feel each other out, bounce around ideas and come to a conclusion. It was that way, for instance, when McKenzie decided to go pro out of Royal Palm Beach (Fla.) High School (rather than play ball and pursue an education in medicine at Vanderbilt) after Cleveland took him with the 42nd overall pick in the 2015 Draft.

That was also the case last year, when McKenzie opted to rest and rehab his injured elbow rather than have major surgery.

“I have strong family ties,” McKenzie says. “I’ve come to realize how pivotal my parents and my family were in the majority of the decisions that I made, leading to me becoming a professional baseball player. So I try to provide support for other people.”

Moses says McKenzie’s positive influence was particularly important at the all-male Valley View school (this school year, McKenzie worked with an eighth-grade class at the coed Miles School).

“The boys do find a comfort level in someone that genuinely cares for them,” Moses says. “Not that their family doesn’t care for them, but their families are different. Their families are working and busy, and they have a couple jobs to make ends meet. A lot of their parents didn’t graduate from high school. A lot of the boys don’t know their dad or [don’t] have a relationship with their dad. So to have a positive young person who looks like them and takes an interest in them is so important, because it’s lacking in their lives.”

CMSD eighth graders are faced with a life-shaping — and, therefore, daunting — decision with the School Choice Portal, in which students submit their top five choices among the district’s 30 high schools. Some of the schools accommodate all curriculums, but many are tailored to specific programming that focuses on areas like theater, engineering, health care, digital arts and technical-education programs.

It’s a big decision and a big deal. McKenzie tries to be for these kids what his Crew is for him — a sounding board.

“He’s very funny,” says Miller, who is now finishing up his freshman year at the John Hay School of Science & Medicine. “But he can also be serious at times, when he’s telling you stuff, so that you’re not sucked into a bad situation or something you can’t get out of.”

In reporting on this piece, we discovered that some kids from the eighth-grade classes McKenzie has mentored have encountered — or put themselves into — some awful situations. Fights. Failed classes. Gun violence. Some of the stories we heard are heartbreaking.

Like any pitcher, McKenzie knows there are limits to his impact, to what he can control. But he’s there, between the lines and outside of them, trying to represent his team, his city, his league and his Crew to the best of his abilities.

His mission is spreading.

Last school year, teammates Curry and Steven Kwan tagged along for some of the mentoring sessions with the Valley View class. This school year, Curry and Kwan, inspired by McKenzie, took on their own classes (with Curry assuming the mentorship role for Moses’ class at Valley View).

Steven Kwan, Jarmaine Miller and Triston McKenzie

“We wear Cleveland on our chests,” McKenzie says. “Being able to show the community that we mean more than what we wear on our chest, that we’re actually entrenched in the community, is something that’s super valued.”

Every five days, we watch McKenzie post up and pitch with a compromised elbow to do his part for the surprising first-place Guardians. But as Miller and other CMSD students can attest, his value goes far beyond that.

“He motivates us,” says Miller, “to do what we need to do to move on to the next chapter in our lives.”