McDonald ready for anything
Blue Jays utility man helps younger players understand roles
A rookie infielder on the same team as a future Hall of Fame second baseman and a potential Hall of Fame shortstop is bound to learn some things about how the game is played. If he stays around long enough, he can evolve from student to teacher.
Such is the role of Blue Jays infielder John McDonald, whose principal office is the bench when he's not on the field fulfilling his role as Toronto's dependable utility man.
"When kids are coming up [from the Minors] you're trying to make sure everybody's ready, knowing their role sitting on the bench, how to prepare," McDonald said. "It's something we talk about an awful lot.
"Even with guys who have been everyday players for five or six years but haven't played off the bench before, they need to learn to trick their mind into being prepared -- putting their ego aside a little bit, taking it as a challenge that they're going to be put in the game no matter what the score is."
A pretty good job for a guy who was Cleveland's 12th-round pick (363rd overall) in the 1996 MLB First-Year Player Draft, who never imagined he was good enough to be a Major Leaguer and now, at age 36, is in his 13th season.
Not many players want to wear the "utility" label, but each one of them wants a spot on the 25-man roster -- and each one would be happier in McDonald's job than playing every day in Triple-A.
When McDonald got called up in July 1999, he got to hang out with second baseman Roberto Alomar and shortstop Omar Vizquel every day -- Alomar an eventual 12-time All-Star with 10 Gold Gloves; Vizquel, the oldest active Major Leaguer, a three-time All-Star with 11 Gold Gloves.
"There was never an expectation that, 'Oh, I'm the next ...'" McDonald paused. "What was I going to be the next? I was always coached that whatever role you're in, whatever position they ask you to play, that's what you do.
"If your position is helping guys get prepared for the game each day and playing when we're up by 10 runs, that's what you try and excel at. That was my focus."
McDonald played 1993-94 at the University of Connecticut at Avery Point and 1995-96 at Providence College.
"I felt like it was going to be a coin flip whether I got drafted or not," he said.
"When I went to rookie ball I wanted to get to A ball, then I wanted to get to Double-A. When you get to Double-A you start thinking, 'Wow it's actually a real possibility that I could get called up."
In the Minor Leagues, McDonald was an everyday shortstop with an occasional game at second or third. But he averaged about 47 games in his six seasons with the Indians and since 2005 has averaged nearly 78 in seven seasons with the Blue Jays.
"John's always prepared and ready to go on moment's notice," Blue Jays manager John Farrell said. "Along the way he's not only learned the game, but he's continued to improve as he's gotten older.
"He's been such a student of the game since Day 1 that he's learned multiple positions. In a lot of ways, he's his own coach, and yet he has the ability to make others better around him, which speaks volumes when you talk about a utility-type player," Farrell said.
McDonald calls being in the occasional Blue Jays starting lineup "a bonus," but not being an everyday player has been more valuable. It taught him how to move into his current role.
"It's the mentality of wanting to play when we're down by eight or if somebody gets hurt and I have to go right into the game, to be ready every day for that," McDonald said. "It's something I've mentally prepared myself for a long time."
Bruce Lowitt is a freelance writer based in Tampa, Fla.
This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.