When she told MacKenzie as they waited at a Bojangles drive-through, he laughed. He didn’t mind. He just didn’t want any details. But when Hammond came over to pick Meredith up, MacKenzie stayed upstairs.
“I remember when I dropped her back off and I came in the house, he never came down,” Hammond said. “It was kind of weird for him — especially his first two years, where he didn’t know what to call me.”
“It was just weird because they would hang out and then I wasn’t going to call him ‘Coach’ when he’s hanging out in my house,” Gore said. “So a lot of times I’d just say, ‘Hey.’ That was his name — ‘Hey.’ I couldn’t call him Fielding. That was the weirdest thing. I didn’t know what to call him.”
Now MacKenzie calls Fielding his brother-in-law. Meredith and Fielding were married in 2020. And through the years, they watched MacKenzie blossom from a skinny freshman into a bona fide high school prospect who is now at the center of the Washington Nationals’ rebuild.
“We were like: ‘Okay, he’s his coach. We don’t want to make things weird,’ ” Meredith said. “But they’re like best friends now. They talk to each other more than me and MacKenzie talk.”
‘She’s a light that’s shining bright’
Meredith remembers being excited to see her little brother after he was born. He arrived a few weeks early, and she recalls seeing him hooked up to tubes in the hospital.
Gore, who landed with Washington as part of the Juan Soto trade last season, grew up in Whiteville, a community with a population of about 4,800. Gore describes his hometown as “the towns you see in the movies.” Everyone knew everyone.
He had his favorite food spots — San Jose Mexican Restaurant and Pizza Village — and he grew up in a close-knit home. The extended family got together around the holidays. He has two sisters: Meredith and their younger sibling, Lexie.
Whiteville also was where he discovered his passion for baseball, though it didn’t happen right away. His friends played the game, so he kept at it, but he admitted he wasn’t very talented early on. But Gore loved the process of getting better. As a kid, he would visit an indoor facility after school and play for hours until it closed. His internal motivation wasn’t the only way he drew inspiration. He also got it from Meredith, who was born with a mild case of cerebral palsy, which can affect the ability to move and maintain balance and posture.
“She doesn’t realize how inspiring she is to people,” Gore said. “She doesn’t want to hear that all the time, but the good Lord blessed her with [a light] that nobody else has, which was very special. Everywhere she goes, she’s a light that’s shining bright. She’s been awesome. She’s not let anything stop her, and that’s just kind of how she tried to be.”
That inspiration worked both ways for the Gore siblings. Meredith remembers her brother wanting to skip family vacations so he could train — he was worried someone was getting better than he was.
Baseball pride was far-reaching in Gore’s small hometown. Whiteville High won state championships in 1983, 1985, 1989, 1991 and 2012 before Gore arrived as a freshman in 2014. Many kids grow up admiring a professional or college team, but Gore’s favorite was the Whiteville varsity squad.
Meredith tried to attend most, if not all, of his games growing up. Her brother joked that she used to yell at the umpires and was just as “fiery” as he was on the field.
“He was kind of shy, but on the baseball field he came alive,” Meredith said. “It was a different person when he stood in between those lines. It was kind of fun to see.”
‘This really might happen’
Gore entered Whiteville High with a chance to make the varsity team. Hammond was in his first year as the pitching coach after coming over from a rival school; he was cautious about making too many changes too soon.
But Whiteville Coach Brett Harwood told Hammond there was a left-hander with a big leg kick and an awkward windup; he wanted Hammond to check him out. Hammond said Gore looked like a 12-year-old batboy when he first saw him. But when he threw off the mound, the ball popped the catcher’s mitt.
“If you’ve been around the game enough and you’ve watched enough pitchers, you can notice when the ball jumps out of somebody’s hand,” Hammond said. “You can just see it. And when you see it, you know.”
He was throwing only in the low to mid-80s, but Gore’s long stride made it feel as if the ball jumped on the hitter quickly. Gore — with fastball command, a strong change-up and a developing curveball — made the team.
Around the same time, Hammond and Meredith met at the team’s first scrimmage. They already followed each other on social media and had exchanged a few messages beforehand, but Hammond realized then that Gore was Meredith’s younger brother.
They eventually started dating. Hammond wasn’t worried about the relationship, but he did think about what parents, students or those in the program might think.
“It didn’t bother me a bit,” Harwood said. “I didn’t change anything — we just kept on going. I just told Fielding [that] he better make sure we won.”
And they did. Whiteville won the Class 1A state championship in 2014, 2015 and 2017, though Gore remembers a loss in the 2016 title game the most. All the while, he became one of baseball’s top high school prospects.
“His last year wasn’t about just coaching him in baseball. It was about managing expectations,” Hammond said. “ ‘You’ll have a lot of eyes on you now’ — making sure that you are behaving like you’re supposed to because there was a lot more publicity around him and also a lot more scrutiny.”
Over the years, the relationship between coach and pitcher grew. Hammond coached Gore harder because he expected more out of him. Gore said they spoke their minds to each other. Off the field, they talked about everything but baseball. That continued after the San Diego Padres drafted Gore third overall in 2017.
“[As a] small-town kid, you never think it’s going to be your brother that’s playing on TV in the major leagues,” Meredith said. “You just never think that. I guess his senior year things started going crazy and I was like, ‘Oh, man, this really might happen.’ . . . And then it did.”
‘The proudest coaching moment I’ve ever had’
Hammond is still there for Gore when the pitcher sends him video to analyze or when he throws a bullpen session back home in the offseason and wants him to watch. But Hammond has taken a back seat. No longer Gore’s coach, he’s just his brother-in-law and his fan.
Watching Gore pitch can be a nerve-racking experience in their home. Meredith sometimes leaves the room if her brother is struggling. He didn’t have any control as his coach, either, but Hammond said he feels he has less while watching from afar. He can still tell when Gore is on early in a game, though.
This season, Gore will be closer to home in Washington. His family hopes to be able to attend more games.
“Watching him make his debut was the proudest coaching moment I’ve ever had,” Hammond said. “Honestly, besides marrying his sister and having our daughter, it’s probably the best moment in my life. I was emotional when I married his sister, and I was almost as emotional watching him pitch that first inning at San Diego. It’s been amazing to see.”