It took a while, but by midsummer this season, John McDonald, at age 32, had finally became an everyday player in the Major Leagues. Chosen by the Cleveland Indians in the 12th round of the 1996 First Year-Player Draft, McDonald struggled to get out from under the "versatile utility player" label. He was used in a platoon in April, May and most of June this season with Royce Clayton, but he opened eyes with his scrappy, hard-nosed approach and won the shortstop job outright. Now the Jays have moved away from the idea of switching second baseman Aaron Hill to short in 2008 and earlier this month signed McDonald to a two-year deal.
"He looks like the old-time shortstop," said Blue Jays manager John Gibbons. "He's not going to drive in a lot of runs, but he's going to save you runs and he's going to save some pitchers some pitches. He's made a big difference for us defensively. He's had to earn everything he's ever gotten, and that won't change. He stays on top of things and doesn't take anything for granted."
McDonald may be creating his reputation with the glove, but he's also made noise with his bat in 2007 by establishing career highs in games, at-bats, hits, doubles and RBIs. The native of New London, Conn., recently answered some questions from MLBPLAYERS.com:
MLBPLAYERS.com: Has this past season been the most satisfying of your career?
McDonald: I think the first one (1999) was the most satisfying, actually getting up here. But now I'm starting to establish myself more as somebody who can play more games than just being a utility guy. That's definitely more satisfying, being out there more.
MLBPLAYERS.com: Why did you stay in Toronto when you could have explored some options as a free agent?
McDonald: The opportunity to play and the guys on the team. The fit here was really good for me with our pitching staff, which has a lot of ground-ball pitchers and handling that turf up in Toronto. It was a fit for somebody who's more of a defensive-minded shortstop and I like that. I like the team, I like the guys, I enjoy the city and I enjoy the American League East.
MLBPLAYERS.com: J.P. Ricciardi said you've been an underdog your whole career and also that you're not the typical bonus baby. How do you think you fit the profile of an "underdog?"
McDonald: I think more the role of somebody who's been given the opportunity and you want to make the most of it. I wouldn't say underdog because there are only so many players who get to this level, and you have to be pretty lucky to be able to get through the Minor League system, come from college, get drafted and get to where I am. I'd say it's a product of hard work and opportunity coming together.
MLBPLAYERS.com: It gets better -- fans voted you the most popular Blue Jay, beating Roy Halladay.
McDonald: I think that it's nice that the fans appreciate what I do, but what it comes down to, I think, if they have to choose who they want on the field, they're going to want Roy out there pitching every night (laughs).
MLBPLAYERS.com: Gibbons says middle infielders have to be "tough dudes." Has that hard-nosed approach been innate since your days playing as a child?
McDonald: I think it's more of mentally feeling you have to work and prepare harder. In my situation, I know I'm not a power hitter, so you try to do a lot of the other things to prepare: hustle and try to get the most out of some of my limited abilities.
MLBPLAYERS.com: Does that come from being a 12th-round pick of the Indians in 1996 and knowing how hard you had to work to prove wrong all those teams that let you drop that far?
McDonald: I think you always feel like you have to prove yourself because there's so many guys in every Minor League system that want to come up and take your job. When you're not one of the top 15-20 guys on the roster, when you're down there and the 24th-25th man on the roster, you always feel like that's interchangeable parts. There are a lot of other guys who would love to come up and take my spot, so you always approach it more that way. It can be taken away from you in a heartbeat.
MLBPLAYERS.com: Your apprenticeship with and admiration for Omar Vizquel has been well-documented. From the intricacies of playing defense, to being aware of your surroundings, to knowing and understanding how the game is played, how did Vizquel help develop and hone your skills?
McDonald: By watching his work ethic every day, how he kept himself in shape and how he prepared for the games. He does everything with intelligence. He wants to save his arm for the course of 162 games because he wants to play 162 games, which is something I should have learned from him more. Some days, I'll take too many ground balls and my arm will be sore.
He taught me so many things on how to play the position and being in the right spot and always wanting the ball -- always telling yourself over and over you want the ball.
MLBPLAYERS.com: It eventually didn't work out in Cleveland. What happened?
McDonald: It was more of a case of me not taking advantage of the opportunity that was in Cleveland. I got some opportunities to play and they stuck with me for parts of six years. I needed to play better, so it was more of I'm getting a new opportunity to go some where else. I needed to take advantage of this opportunity.
MLBPLAYERS.com: In other words, it was like, 'I have a second chance, so let me take what I learned in Cleveland and apply it in Toronto.'
McDonald: Yeah, the first two years I played more (2005 and 2006) than I did in the previous three years in Cleveland. I wanted to keep building on that because I knew the more times I was given an opportunity, the more chances I was going to have to be successful.
MLBPLAYERS.com: Toronto's first love has always been hockey. How would you describe it as a baseball town?
McDonald: From where the Blue Jays have been, the World Series in the early '90s, people are gaining more knowledge of the game. If you go to a hockey game and you talk to people about hockey, they're very passionate about it. We want to bring that same thing to baseball and the way people have been this year, they've been great coming out and supporting us. We want to eventually give them what they want and that's leading our division.
MLBPLAYERS.com: So you sense the atmosphere changing? After all, a strike followed those consecutive World Series championships (1992, 1993) and then there was a long lull for baseball in Toronto. Now it seems like the team is taking small steps every year, and certainly the way it finished the season has to give you something to look forward to next year.
McDonald: Yeah, people understand that it took a while to get back after that strike. We feel like we're almost there, and when we get over the hump as a ballclub, then the fans are going to be there for us supporting us.
MLBPLAYERS.com: Your highlight-reel defensive plays have surely earned you a point of two. Do you look at video and ask yourself, 'How did I do that?'
McDonald: I'm going to save that for later on when my playing career is over (laughs).
MLBPLAYERS.com: Is it, "Don't think, just react?"
McDonald: It's putting yourself in the right position to make some of those plays. If you're not in the right position, then you're not quite going to get to the ball. I'm focused on getting the out. Sometimes it's a detriment to me, but I'm going to throw the ball regardless if I think I can get the guy out. Sometimes that will turn into a negative play for our ballclub. I try to be smart and try to eat that ball, but more often than not, I want to try and make the throw to first base.
MLBPLAYERS.com: Playing with a guy like Aaron Hill (second base) must help too.
McDonald: Aaron is fantastic. We really know where each other is. It's made for an easy adjustment (for Hill moving from short to second). Aaron moves around so well out there and we know where we're supposed to be on every hitter. We work off each other.
MLBPLAYERS.com: The day you signed your new deal, you said you'd take your wife out to dinner at a place of her choosing. Where did you go?
McDonald: We went out to sushi, a place called KI in downtown Toronto. It was fantastic!
This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.