EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

April 22, 2010

McDonald a star long before Fenway

On Pro Baseball
Jeff Hamrick

In this age of Ponzi schemes, bank-executive bonuses and high-finance fraud, it's hard to find people who get what they deserve. Even rarer are people who deserve what they receive.

But anyone watching the final two innings of Boston's 7-6 victory over the Texas Rangers Monday night, and again last night, witnessed one of the rarest spectacles of all: someone earning what they receive.

Following more than a decade of minor-league whistle stops with an occasional call up to the big leagues, Darnell McDonald not only powered the Red Sox to a much-needed victory, the 31-year-old journeyman walked off the field with the kind of satisfaction every young boy dreams of.

The kind of satisfaction that comes with hitting a game-tying, two-run homer in the bottom of the eighth and a game-winning, ninth-inning single off the Green Monster. That all on a day in which McDonald woke up in Rochester, N.Y.

It was a night McDonald, who homered again last night, will never forget, and the kind of night I thought he was destined for when he graduated from high school in 1997 and signed a blockbuster contract with the Baltimore Orioles.

In the past dozen years, however, McDonald played just 68 games in the majors — 47 of them last year with Cincinnati — hitting .231 with two homers and 11 RBIs. He's had to work like few others to find his way to Fenway Park. Before beginning this season with Boston's Triple-A affiliate in Pawtucket, McDonald had played 1,328 games in the minor leagues, including 877 at Triple-A.

I've been fortunate in my career to have covered some exceptional players. Guys like NBA star Chauncey Billups — who I said during his sophomore year at George Washington High School would turn into a lottery pick — and 2003 American League Cy Young winner Roy Halladay.

But Darnell McDonald simply was the greatest high school athlete I've been privileged to witness. He played on three state championship football and baseball teams while at Cherry Creek High School in Colorado, where he was tutored by one of the country's best baseball coaches in Marc Johnson.

"He's a special young man," Johnson said by phone yesterday. "He's wanted so badly to be something special. I've been (at Cherry Creek) 38 years and have never seen a better athlete."

McDonald was something special long before Monday night. In his 1996 senior football season, he ran for 333 yards and five touchdowns on 28 carries in a 48-33 victory over Arvada West. In his three championship-game appearances, McDonald had 651 yards and seven scores on 71 attempts (9.2 yards per carry).

In his prep career, he finished with 6,121 yards — at the time a state record — and 83 touchdowns and was named to the Parade All-America team as a senior. In fact, McDonald was offered a scholarship to play football and baseball at the University of Texas.

On the diamond, McDonald was the first three-time All-Colorado selection. He not only was the state's player of the year his final two seasons, but chosen the nation's player of the year by Baseball America following his senior season.

While at Cherry Creek, where he became only the second freshman to start, he played on a team that included current major leaguers Brad Lidge and Josh Bard.

But despite the talent around him, McDonald was the star. As a junior, he hit two-run homers in the first and second innings and went six innings on the mound for the victory in a championship-game win over Greeley Central. In his four high school years, he never hit lower than .456 and hit 15 homers his junior season.

The Orioles then made him the 26th pick overall in the MLB draft. McDonald's love of the game and a $1.9 million contract offer — the fourth highest bonus given to a player that year — swayed his career choice.

"He had the offer to play football for Texas," Johnson said. "But when the Orioles came in and offered him nearly $2 million he couldn't say no. He had the passion for football, but he thought 'How can I turn that kind of money down?' "

No one who watched him play could have thought it would be seven years before McDonald saw big-league action, let alone 12 years before he opened the season on a major-league roster.

Perseverance, however, runs in the McDonald family. Older brother Donzell has spent 16 years in the minors, including 11 at Triple-A, while playing a total of 16 major league games with the Yankees in 2001 and Royals in 2002.

"I know there were thoughts that crept in over the years," Johnson said of Darnell. "But his love for baseball always won out. He felt he had to prove he had the talent to play Major League Baseball."

I have no idea what the future holds, and the last two days may be as good as it gets for the unassuming, but determined McDonald. All I know is the night earned a spot in my heart that never will fade.

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Jeff Hamrick is a freelance sportswriter who covered Red Sox outfielder Darnell McDonald in high school.