By Alexis Brudnicki
Canadian Baseball Network
AKRON, Ohio – John McDonald didn’t expect any of it.
He didn’t know when or if he would get his shot in the majors. The 40-year-old had never imagined he would be a big leaguer for the better part of 16 seasons. McDonald certainly didn’t know he’d be afforded an opportunity to stay in the game immediately after his playing career ended, and on his own schedule.
But here he is, one of the fortunate ones.
“Not everyone is going to get to the big leagues because it’s so hard and there are only so many jobs unfortunately,” McDonald said. “And fortunately, because it’s a small fraternity to be proud to have been a part of.”
That’s one of the messages the former Toronto Blue Jays infielder – also formerly of the Cleveland Indians, Detroit Tigers, Arizona Diamondbacks, Pittsburgh Pirates, Philadelphia Phillies, Boston Red Sox and Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim – tries to pass down now, as a mentor to Indians minor leaguers and special assistant to baseball operations for the club. It’s one of the toughest things for him to get across.
“It’s hard to make guys understand that you’re going to get the most out of your ability if you practice and you do things the right way,” McDonald said. “But you still might not get an opportunity to get to the big leagues.”
Even before rejoining the organization that originally selected him in the 12th round of the 1996 draft, the shortstop had long been sharing his knowledge of the game as a player. Amidst his rigorous schedule, often doing early infield work to keep sharp when not playing every day, McDonald would spend time tutoring young up-and-comers in any way he could.
“It’s very similar,” he said, of his job now. “The one thing is, you’re hesitant to actually throw your glove on and show the guys how to do something. You try to verbalize it a little bit better … Working with the young kids, it was fun back then.
“You feel like there are so many things that you try to guide kids through so they don’t make similar mistakes that you made or similar mistakes that you’ve seen other people make. And the mindset – how to have fun and not stress over the little things.”
There are a lot of little things to stress over, of course, especially over a lengthy career, or even during a strenuous game. McDonald remembers those times, but as he’s looked back on his career he finds more and more of those memories fading away.
“I’ve reflected on it a lot,” he said. “There are so many high points. What can your low point be? It’s a game about failure so you know at certain times you’re not going to be very good. The game is really hard. You learn so much from mistakes and missed opportunities, and there’s frustration over [wondering] why him and not me? Or why aren’t I playing? Well, play better.
“There were some frustrating moments where I wish I had done better, but it gets you to another spot. You seem to learn from it and then you end up in a better place, a better spot … There are just so many more positives than anything, and I wouldn’t even really say there were any negatives.”
The best of times were in Toronto, where McDonald spent seven seasons and the vast majority of his career. It wasn’t until eight years after his big-league debut in 1999 that the shortstop really felt he had found a home in the majors, and it happened with the Blue Jays in 2007.
“That year sticks out an awful lot,” the native of Connecticut said. “We had so much talent on that team in Toronto and we competed really hard. I got an opportunity to play a ton. I loved every minute of that season.
“I loved every minute of being in Toronto but that was the year where I felt like I wasn’t just a guy who was getting to play in the big leagues. I’m a big leaguer now. I felt it. I finally felt like I belong. I had been an active, everyday roster guy since 2002 and here we are five-plus years later and I’m finally feeling that way, which was awesome.”
When it comes to specific moments, McDonald’s first and last day as a major-league player were both something special.
“The first day getting called up was awesome, something that you’ll never forget,” he said. “Then my last day in the big leagues was great. I played my last day and my last game, my last at-bat, my [Angels] teammates were awesome. They had a good idea it was my last. I had talked about it a lot, that I might not play if I don’t get an opportunity to play next year.
“After the game we were going to the playoffs and I wasn’t going to be on the playoff roster unless somebody got hurt. And I got a hit in my last at-bat and they were fired up. I was fired up. That’s the way to end it if it ends.”
And then of course, there was the game in Toronto in 2010 against the San Francisco Giants on Father’s Day.
Two weeks after leaving the team to spend time with his ailing dad Jack, and two days after Jack’s funeral, Cito Gaston asked the light-hitting infielder to pinch hit with the Blue Jays trailing by six. Before his passing, Jack had asked his son to dedicate his next home run to him, no matter when it came. At the time, McDonald had 13 long balls over 12 seasons.
When the ball snuck over the left-field wall, McDonald couldn’t help but to celebrate with the slightest fist pump as he rounded the bases.
“My dad passing away and the Father’s Day [game], my teammates during that process were awesome,” he said. “The fans, the people in Toronto, there are so many positive things out of that, if you can take positive from the negative, the way everybody [reacted], what you learn about death and how it affects so many other people.
“I thought wow, I can have a conversation with somebody I’ve never met before and we have something in common. And we’re not talking about baseball.”
It still affects the former player.
“Even now, every time I think about it or talk about it I feel the emotion of that day,” McDonald said. “I remember it like it was yesterday because there were so many people there. You feel like you’re family when you’re around so many people in the baseball community.
“You’re around the guys on your team, the coaching staff, [former Blue Jays third base coach] Brian Butterfield – he was like a second dad to me while I was there, talking me through a lot of things, picking me up and hollering at me. It was great being around those people.
“And then after I hit the homer I was about to lose it on the bench so I thought ah screw it, they’re not going to get this on TV, so I figured I would walk up the tunnel and collect myself. But the camera picked me up going up the tunnel and Vernon [Wells] and [Aaron] Hill were already upstairs. I went up the stairs and thought, ‘Well it’s all coming out now. There’s no holding back.’ So I got to let it out and guys really felt the same way. You feel that sense of, ‘I feel you. I know what you’re going through.’”
McDonald ended his playing career four years and several months later with 28 total home runs over 1,100 games.
He had long been thinking of what might come next, “probably more than I should have,” he said. The 5-foot-9, 185-pound middle infielder even went and finished his degree in Liberal Studies in Toronto in 2010, after leaving the University of Connecticut in 1996, because he figured it might help him later on.
“I didn’t think I would have nearly the career that I did have,” he said. “Even back to my time before I was in Toronto, 10-plus years ago I was thinking what am I going to do when they take this away from me? At some point they’re going to take this away from me, where I was just going to play so bad that no one was going to let me wear a uniform again. I always thought about what was going to make me happy when I was done playing – do I want to stay in the game or do I want to go a whole different route?
“Even back then I was just thinking about what the future was going to be, because you’re going to be a former player a lot longer than you’re going to be a current player. That’s just the reality of it.”
McDonald may not have expected to have the career he did, but many of those who saw him along the way never would have doubted him.
Neal Huntington – currently the GM of the Pittsburgh Pirates – was the assistant farm director in Cleveland when the young player was drafted. The two were reunited in Akron earlier this season, where Huntington once watched McDonald play for the Double-A Aeros, when the GM came to see his current affiliate, the Altoona Curve, and McDonald was roving.
“It would have been 1998 and I was the assistant farm director and Mac was a player in the Indians system,” Huntington said. “I was impressed with him as a person from Day 1, loved his work ethic. He was just a blue-collar grinder. You knew he was going to get the most out of his ability. You could tell he loved to play the game and he worked so hard at the game. That stood out as a genuine guy and somebody who was going to get the most out of his abilities…
“He was a 12th-round pick, so he’s a little bit of a later pick than a guy who typically has the length of career he had. But John, from the first time watching him play, you could tell he was a special defensive player. You could tell he was intelligent and you could tell he was a great worker. And whatever ability he had, he was going to get the most out of it, and he certainly did.”
While the Pirates put in a call to McDonald about working for them after his playing career ended, Huntington making sure to do due diligence with “one of the special guys in the game,” the GM always figured he would end up with the Indians and land back where he started.
McDonald calls his current position with the Indians a “transition job,” because he didn’t know what he wanted to do in baseball, but he knew he wanted to do something.
“I wanted to stay in the game but I couldn’t really tell anybody exactly what I wanted to do,” he said. “My kids are young, I’ve been travelling for so long, I wanted to be home a little bit more. So it’s a job where I get to be home a good bit and then travel a little bit every month.”
The special assistant is away from home for about 10 days each month, working with various Cleveland affiliates down on the farm. Prior to the draft, active Indians affiliates included the Triple-A Columbus Clippers, Double-A Akron RubberDucks, Class-A Lynchburg Hillcats, and the Class-A Lake County Captains.
“I didn’t have any big-league job offers,” McDonald said of the off-season. “In 2014, in the winter before last season I could have gone to play but to really compete for a big-league job there wasn’t really a spot out there until early January when I got an opportunity in Anaheim. I jumped on that it worked out great. I loved it.
“This year, I could have went and played in Triple-A. There were opportunities to do that, but I wanted to compete for a big-league job. And a good part of me was ready to stop playing. So not getting a chance to compete for a big-league job was probably a good thing. I just turned 40, the body doesn’t respond as well as it used to. While I still feel I could have contributed to a team, that made it a little easier.”
McDonald ranks the best players he’s played with, by position:
Pitchers, starter and reliever: “Roy Halladay. Koji Uehara in 2013 – I’ve never seen anything like it. Nobody could hit the guy. He was awesome.”
Catcher: ”Sandy Alomar.”
First base: “As just a defensive first baseman, Lyle Overbay was my favourite. Jim Thome was pretty good too, and Jimmy worked so hard on his defence. He loved taking ground balls every day. He had a great routine. And he could really hit. But for me, throwing to somebody the most, I threw to Lyle and I just threw the ball to an area and never had to worry about anything. The only thing I thought was don’t ever throw it high, and don’t pull him off the bag. That’s why I threw everything low, from his waist down. I let him stretch to catch everything and I let him pick everything. I knew we were going to get a lot of outs. It made it so much easier to play short because of that.”
Second base: “Robbie Alomar. And Aaron Hill in 2009-10, his first year when we got traded to Arizona, and 2011 and 12, I would have put him right there. Robbie’s done it a lot longer. What he did is going to speak for itself but Aaron did have some years when I thought wow, you’re special. Offensively, defensively, he’s great.”
Shortstop: “Omar [Vizquel].”
“Third base would be Scott Rolen. There hasn’t really been anybody better at third in our generation.”
“Left field, Manny Ramirez was pretty awesome as a left fielder. I’ve played with some pretty good left fielders and Manny was pretty good.”
Centre field: “Mike Trout. He’s going to jump ahead. He’s awesome. Kenny Lofton was really good, Vernon was really good, Andrew McCutchen was really good, I played with some great centre fielder, but Trout was great.
“And Bautista in right.”
Designated hitter: “I used to play with [David] Ortiz. He’s special. His preparation and his mindset every time he goes up to the plate – a lot of guys don’t embrace it. He loves being a DH and he loves being prepared to hit. It’s hard to do, and it just doesn’t seem to be hard for him. He embraces it. He wants to be in every big situation and he wants to have success, but beyond that he wills himself to success.”