It was my third or fourth time down at the Rogers Centre with a media pass. I had somehow convinced theScore to let me try to rip off Craig Kilborn’s 5 Questions, but with baseball players, and the results were … awkward. Forget about a camera adding ten pounds. For me, it magnified how horribly unnatural and self-conscious I am.
My very first experience involved asking Aaron Hill a question about the Eric Clapton song Layla. We included it in the list of questions because in a Blue Jays player profile, the team’s second baseman at the time had said that it was his favorite song to play on guitar. In reality, he hadn’t even heard of it, and the segment only got worse from there.
Nevertheless, I soldiered on, and on this specific day, I approached fan-favorite, back up infielder John McDonald to answer questions about whose jock he’d least like to wear if he forgot his own (Rod Barajas).
Throughout these interviews — and I use that term so incredibly loosely — I was never really nervous. However, even approaching McDonald to ask him to play along with us for two minutes gave me trepidation. We were two years removed from 2007, when Johnny Mac was the team’s starting shortstop and his playing time was dwindling.
It seemed that every single year he was a part of the team, the season would start with someone else as the starting shortstop — Russ Adams, Royce Clayton, David Eckstein — but by season’s end, McDonald would be getting the majority of playing time. In 2009, Cito Gaston was in charge, and he had seemingly little use for a player whose batting numbers had more in common with a starting pitcher’s than a real Major League position player.
McDonald’s value was never found at the plate, and if it was found in his defense, it was never so much above average as to justify a starting job. What made McDonald such a valuable player was that he was spectacular with his glove. There are few highlights more awe-inspiring on a baseball diamond than defensive ones, and if given the chance, McDonald would supply something amazing with every start he got.
By the time Blue Jays games got meaningless later in the year — and there were a lot of meaningless late August/September games then — the chance of seeing McDonald do something remarkable in the field was the only reason to buy a ticket and come to the game. Unfortunately, he wasn’t getting that chance anymore, and my reverence for the player — stirred by memories of his throwing runners out at first from his knees after a diving stab at the ball brought him closer to third base than second — seemed out of place.
He agreed to talk to us, and as my cameraman/producer began setting up, McDonald spotted the George Hamilton bronzed Pat Tabler walk by. McDonald politely excused himself for a minute, and spoke with Tabler within earshot. It seemed that the Blue Jays television analyst had brought a group of kids from a local hospital by the Dome the previous day. McDonald was asking Tabler if he had a way to get in touch with one of these kids. He explained that he was really touched by the child’s story, and he and his wife wanted to help him out in any way they could.
McDonald came back to talk to me, and actually apologized for interrupting the set up. I resisted the urge to hug him, began the segment by asking him about farts in the locker room and proceeded to feel like a tremendous asshole.
It’s rare that a cog in the wheel gets celebrated in baseball. The contribution of the gritty grinders isn’t as tangible as it is in basketball, hockey or football. Occasionally, a fan base is lucky enough to be brought a non-superstar player worth celebrating. For a group of supporters often maligned for the misguided targets of their scorn, the timing of their interactive wave, the douchey drunkenness of the 500 Level and a general ignorance of baseball, Blue Jays fans did extremely well to recognize McDonald as not only a player for whom to cheer, but also a person worth supporting.
As he winds down his career with the Los Angeles Angels — visiting Toronto this weekend — it’s worth remembering John McDonald, not only as a player who made it worthwhile to be a Blue Jays fan, but also as a person who you could be proud to know was on your favorite team.