McDonald molded by courageous father
Toronto shortstop raised to become player, person he is
John McDonald has earned a reputation as one of baseball's premier defensive shortstops. The veteran infielder has a knack for spectacular grabs and pinpoint throws, helping him evolve into a favorite for Blue Jays fans over the past few seasons.
Each baseball that McDonald fires across the diamond with precision carries with it memories of the backyard of his childhood home in Connecticut. That is where McDonald's father, Jack, began to mold his son into the type of player and person that he is today.
"The backyard," McDonald said with a smile. "When I started really liking to play baseball, he would make me hit him in the chest with every throw. He'd reach for it a little bit, but he wouldn't jump for it. If I didn't throw it to him, I'd have to go get the ball, give it to him and I'd have to run a lap around the house.
"Then, we'd keep going. I was maybe seven years old."
As Father's Day approaches this year, McDonald's mind has filled with thoughts of his dad, and the shortstop's heart has been heavy in light of a battle that Jack could not win. The man who taught John McDonald how to get the most out of his abilities on a baseball field passed away Tuesday of advanced liver cancer.
McDonald rejoined the Jays on Saturday after spending two weeks at home to be at his father's side. It has been a difficult period for McDonald's family, but it is also an appropriate time to celebrate Jack's part in his son's success on and off the field. A main concept that Jack McDonald stressed was practicing with purpose.
It is a lesson John McDonald has carried with him all the way to the big leagues.
"He talked about the things that you can control," McDonald said. "Sometimes you can't control going 0-for-4, because you can hit four balls good and have it be right at somebody. And, you're going to make errors -- it's a part of the game and a part of life -- but you can always control your effort."
That meant running out every ball, whether it was a hit or a weak chopper back to the pitcher. It meant hustling after grounders and focusing on having sound mechanics. Otherwise, there were always laps ready to be run around the house, or parents waiting inside to remind John to give everything he had in every game.
"I remember him and my mom being disappointed in me one day," McDonald said. "They didn't feel I played as hard as I could. They were sad about it. I don't remember exactly what happened. I probably didn't get any hits. I probably didn't run as hard as I could have. I might have been lazy going after a baseball.
"They wanted to talk to me about why I didn't play as hard as I could have. They were disappointed and I was disappointed and I never wanted that to happen again."
It might sound like a militant existence, but McDonald does not see it that way.
McDonald's dad and his mom, Joanne, were his biggest supporters. Jack coached John's teams in Little League and Babe Ruth baseball and was there for his son's American Legion games. When McDonald suited up for University of Connecticut at Avery Point and then Providence College, his parents were along for the ride.
Once John McDonald turned pro -- he was selected in the 12th round by the Indians in the 1996 First-Year Player Draft -- his parents went to as many Minor League games as they could as well. Whether it meant road trips or cross-country flights, Jack did what he could to be in the stands for his son as often as possible.
"Their biggest fear was that my manager would give me a day off when they traveled to come see me," McDonald said with a laugh. "I remember one time my parents were there, and I was supposed to be out of the lineup. I told the manager, 'No, no, no. My dad's here. I've got to play. I want him to watch me play. It's important to me."
Jack McDonald played baseball in high school and then worked as a fireman throughout John's childhood. When he was not coaching, Jack took up serving as a referee or umpire for local sporting events in East Lyme, Connecticut, and other area towns. Along the way, Jack was always keeping an eye on his son's games and offering advice.
More than anything, though, Jack always posed one question.
"'Are you having fun?' He used to ask me that a lot," McDonald said. "He would ask me that when I got to the Minor Leagues: 'Are you having fun?' Then I got to the big leagues: ' Are you having fun?' Even a couple years ago. There's been some times in the big leagues where I haven't played a lot of my time has been sitting on the bench.
"He'd still ask me, ' Are you having fun?' I'd tell him, 'Yeah. I don't want to be anywhere else. I get to go on these fields to practice every day to get ready for these games. It's a blast. I don't want to do anything else. I think he likes hearing that. He wants me to play."
And, to play hard.
John McDonald has never been made an All-Star team or earned a Gold Glove Award, despite his reputation with the glove. Still, McDonald is in his 12th season in the Major Leagues. A main reason for McDonald's prolonged big league career has been his ability to get the most out his talents on the field.
That was Jack's lesson and it is one John McDonald relays to younger players.
"I was to go out and be the very best player that I can be that day," McDonald said. "That's really stayed with me. I've passed that on to a lot of different people over the years, because we get caught up in this game trying to match other people's numbers and trying to make plays that somebody else makes.
"I want to be more concerned with making the plays that I should make and being the type of player that I need to be to be successful."
Jack probably delivered a similar speech to his son in their backyard years ago.
Those are memories that John will always cherish.
"Deep down, he's a Yankees fan," McDonald said with a smile. "More importantly, he's a fan of mine, which is really cool."
Jordan Bastian is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.