Appreciating Johnny Mac
It was Spring Training in 2006. I had interned in Toronto with MLB.com during the previous season, but I had just been handed the keys to the full-time beat reporting job and was in Florida for the start of camp.
In the prior summer, I kept mostly quiet as a rookie part-timer, staying in the back of scrums and sticking mainly to follow-up questions out of respect to the main beat guys. So, in my new role, I wanted to make sure I introduced myself to the players one by one. When John McDonald walked out of the clubhouse, heading home for the day, I stuck out my hand and began, “Hey, John. I just wanted to re-introduce myself and say that …”
Johnny Mac shook my hand, but cut me off.
“I know who you are,” he said with a smile. “Walk with me to my car.”
It was a two-minute walk — nothing significant. Mac asked about my background, about my family. He let me know that players do, in fact, read what I write. And, he offered to help me out if any situations arose where I felt a veteran player could lend some advice for a young, learning reporter. It was a short conversation, but it said a lot about the kind of person John McDonald strove to be during his playing days. He was the consummate professional and class act.
This week, one day after the 2015 Hall-of-Fame class was revealed, Johnny Mac quietly announced his retirement after 16 years in the big leagues. The timing struck me, because for all the bickering and complaining about the system in place for the Hall voting, and all the griping over the way some reporters went about their ballots, here was an example of what is so great about baseball. John McDonald, who could very well have seen his career end as a Minor Leaguer, carved out a career that spanned the better part of two decades, and he did so by sharpening one specific skill-set and by being one of the nicest people you would ever encounter.
Over his 16 seasons, McDonald had stints with the Indians, Blue Jays, D-backs, Pirates, Phillies, Red Sox, Angels and Tigers. He hit .233 with a .596 OPS over 1,100 games, averaging only 68-plus games per season. He posted a 6.6 WAR for his entire career. For comparison, Cleveland’s Michael Brantley posted a 7.0 WAR in 2014. McDonald also has the rare distinction of having been traded for himself (sent to Detroit by Toronto on July 22, 2005, for a player to be named later. And then shipped back to the Blue Jays by Tigers on Nov. 10, 2005.).
So, how on earth did this guy last for 16 years?
For starters, being a terrific human being goes a long way. You can’t quantify what having a player such as McDonald in the clubhouse can do for a team. I have no doubt that — if McDonald wants to stay in the game — he’ll have plenty of options in the way of coaching, and might have the potential to be a future manager. All of that said, it also helped that McDonald was a versatile, plus defender in the infield (especially at shortstop).
McDonald’s career dWAR was 11.0, according to baseball-reference.com. Over the 2002-14 seasons, among players with at least 3,500 innings at short, McDonald ranks eighth with a 6.3 UZR/150. Two spots above him on that list is Omar Vizquel, who played with Johnny Mac in Cleveland. McDonald will tell you that he learned a lot by working alongside Omar during his early Tribe days.
During the 2013 season, Cleveland re-acquired McDonald via trade when the club was thin at shortstop. We chatted at length about how he managed to stay in the Majors for so long and McDonald shared the advice he gives many young players. Identify your strengths as a player and practice those areas until your skill reaches a point where it becomes a valuable asset for a team. For McDonald, it was defense. He knew he would never be an elite hitter, but he knew if he could play above-average defense consistently, the jobs would be easier to come by. Of course, that’s only a theory if a player doesn’t put in the work. It’d be hard to find a player who worked harder than Mac did in his career.
All of that combined is why McDonald is worthy of the praise and appreciation that has flowed in articles and on Twitter over the past couple of days. Fellow MLB.com writer and Clevelander Anthony Castrovince wrote a great column (CLICK HERE)on McDonald, too. It spoke volumes that the Indians, Blue Jays, Angels and D-backs wanted to announce his retirement in unison.
A few Johnny Mac memories…
- Fans will often ask for my favorite moment that I’ve covered as a reporter. Without hesitation, I always point to John McDonald’s incredible Father’s Day home run in 2010. His dad passed away a few days before McDonald was back in Toronto for Father’s Day and, in his first at-bat back with the Blue Jays, he hit a home run. There are so many more layers to the story, which I detailed in this Christmas Day tribute that offseason: CLICK HERE.
- The postgame interview with McDonald after that June game is the first and only time I’ve teared up during an interview. I don’t think there was a dry eye among reporters as we tried to interview Johnny Mac about the special moment, which I would wager will be more memorable than any playoff or All-Star Game I will cover in my career. Here is the game story from that day: CLICK HERE.
- One of my favorite quotes, and a great sentiment to apply to everyday life, came from McDonald in the wake of his father’s passing and his memorable home run and everything that followed: “Things do happen for a reason. You don’t always have to question why. You just be really thankful for what you have.”
- Any time Johnny Mac hit a home run, it was special. He had 28 long balls for his career. Another that stands out was the one hit hit off Matt Garza at the Metrodome on Aug. 11, 2006. It stands out because after the game, McDonald quipped that they must have turned the air conditioner on full blast. That was his only explanation for how he got that one out of there.
- Not surprisingly, one of the best defensive plays I’ve seen came courtesy of McDonald. On May 12, 2006, Tampa Bay’s Jonny Gomes hit a towering fly ball that rattled into the “B” catwalk at Tropicana Field. Gomes sprinted around the bases, while McDonald drifted into shallow left field, his eyes focused on the catwalk, where the ball was still rolling. It eventually fell from the “B” ring and knuckled back toward the turf, where Johnny Mac made an unexpected and improbable diving catch. Gomes was nearly to home plate at the time of the catch. Rays manager Joe Maddon argued that it should’ve been ruled a ground-rule double, but the umpires called it an out and it held as such. Here’s a notebook item I did on the catch. I wish I had video of it, too. CLICK HERE
- McDonald’s defensive abilities stood the test of time, too. Just last year, in his 16th and final season, he made one of the best plays of the season: a 720-degree spin-and-throw to get an out at first base. CLICK HERE to check it out. McDonald will always rank among the best I’ve seen ranging to the right. His ability to pluck balls from the hole while sliding on one knee — and then quickly popping up with bullet of a throw — was uncanny.
I stopped by the Angels clubhouse last year to chat with former Tribe reliever Joe Smith, who had been giving me a hard time (through other reporters) for not coming over to say hello right away. When I finally had a moment to walk over to the Angels’ clubhouse, McDonald was right by Smith, so I sandwiched myself between them, put my back to Smith and stuck out my hand. “Johnny Mac! It’s great to see you,” I said, as Smith groaned and laughed.
After catching up, McDonald headed off to go through his pregame routine and I quipped, “I can’t believe you’re still playing.” He laughed and shrugged. “Me neither,” McDonald said. “I keep fooling people.”
No fooling. McDonald turned in a remarkable career.
Well done, Johnny Mac. Enjoy retirement.