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Path of the Pros: Darnell McDonald02/08/2011 10:00 AM ET
By Robert Emrich / Special to MLB.com
First-round Draft picks usually make their marks in the Major Leagues. It just took Darnell McDonald longer than most.
Called up by the Red Sox an hour before their April 20 game against Texas to replace an injured Jacoby Ellsbury, McDonald hit a two-run homer in his first Boston at-bat. He followed that with a walk-off single an inning later, becoming the first player in franchise history to end the game with an RBI in his debut and earning the nickname "The Microwave" from 2008 American League MVP Dustin Pedroia.
Those heroics heralded the first season in which McDonald played more games in the Majors than in the Minors, where he had logged 1,338 games.
That long and winding road started when he was selected 26th overall by the Orioles in the 1997 Draft after starring as a three-sport athlete at Cherry Creek High School in Colorado. His career got off to a promising start when he batted .260 with seven homers and 37 stolen bases between Class A Delmarva and Class A Advanced Frederick in 1998. But he ended up spending six more unspectacular seasons in the Baltimore organization.
McDonald got his first shot at the Majors in 2004 but hit .156 in 17 games and became a Minor League free agent following the season. Former big league All-Star Andy Etchebarren, who managed McDonald from 1999-2002, felt there was one person responsible for the former first-rounder's lack of time in the Majors.
"The Orioles didn't hold him back, he held himself back," Etchebarren said. "His numbers didn't show that he deserved a shot in Baltimore. Numbers show you if people deserve a shot or not. If you look back at his numbers in Double- and Triple-A, they didn't show that he had a job to lose."
Reflecting on his time in the Orioles organization, McDonald suggested he was dealing with non-baseball factors. Following the death of his mother in 1999, he said he lost his passion for baseball and simply went through the motions for a few years. What happened after the 2004 season served as a wakeup call, however.
"I had gotten designated by Baltimore in 2004. I was talking to my mentor, Ellis Burks, and he was telling me about a report he had gotten from the Indians," McDonald recalled. "It was a negative report and, after I saw it I said, 'You'll never hear a negative report like that again.' I just went all in, 100 percent, towards getting to the big leagues. That was probably the first time where I thought this might be it for my career."
In the seven years McDonald spent in Baltimore's Minor League system, he batted .259 with 41 homers and 332 RBIs, an average of six roundtrippers and 49 RBIs a season.
"For me, he didn't get all out of his tools that he could," Etchebarren said. "Why that is, I don't know, because he worked hard. When you take someone No. 1, they've got really good tools. If you don't have good tools, they are not going to take you No. 1. Somewhere along the line, those tools didn't progress."
McDonald's career took another turn for the worse when, after signing a Minor League deal with the Indians in 2005, he was suspended 15 games for violating the Minor League drug policy.
"To be honest, I was in the Minors, you're sitting there and see yourself getting passed up by guys that are doing other things. I just got caught up in it and made a dumb decision," McDonald recalled. "It was good that it did happen to me, and it taught me that there are no shortcuts."
Over the next five seasons, McDonald played 546 more games in the Minors for five organizations. He earned International League All-Star honors at Durham in 2006, compiling a 27-game hitting streak in the process. Despite his solid play, he never earned a promotion to Tampa Bay.
The closest McDonald came to sticking in the Majors was a 47-game stint with the Reds in 2009 in which he batted .267 and slugged his first big league homer on Aug. 30 off Dodgers left-hander Clayton Kershaw. Despite posting an .825 OPS over his last 19 games with Cincinnati, he wasn't re-signed in the offseason.
"I went to Spring Training with the Reds, and that was my first Spring Training after how many years?" McDonald said. "To make the team, it gave me a lot of confidence. At that point, it was the biggest thrill of my career. I was fortunate enough to be able to start Opening Day -- it was a day I'll never forget."
In January 2010, McDonald signed a Minor League deal with Boston. Four months later, he was experiencing the ultimate thrill of being a big league hero.
"There's really only way to explain it," he said. "It's like when you're a kid and you're in your backyard. You put yourself in a position like that, and it just happened. It's funny that my career came full circle like that. To be honest, I get goosebumps talking about it even now.
"It was unreal. It was a culmination of 13 years of working hard and trying to get to the big leagues. And to have a moment like that in Fenway Park was unbelievable."
Rick Sweet, who managed McDonald with Louisville in 2009, wasn't surprised he was able to make an impact in the Majors.
"I think the biggest thing is that he can play all three outfield positions and play them well," Sweet said. "That versatility he'll bring to a team is important. He's durable and can play every day, but can sit on the bench for a week and still produce. He can throw people out, can steal bases. He's the type of player that has no major weakness. This kid can pretty much do all aspects of the game. All he needed was an opportunity."
Expected to provide the Red Sox with outfield depth, McDonald spent only 10 games at Triple-A. He was almost returned to the Minors at the end of May to make room on the roster for Mike Cameron, but Ellsbury aggravated an injury. McDonald was still at the team hotel and ended up going 2-for-5 with a double and two RBIs in Boston's 11-3 win over Tampa Bay that night.
McDonald proved he wasn't a one-game wonder. He recorded seven assists in only 64 games to rank eighth in the Majors, tied for second on the team with three triples and nine steals while slugging nine homers.
"[Last] year gave me the opportunity to prove to myself and everyone else that I can play in the big leagues," McDonald said. "To be able to do it in a tough division like the American League East helped me as a player to bring out the best in me. Every game was like a playoff game. It's given me an opportunity to see the things I need to work on.
"As a player, you don't know until you get that opportunity. I'm excited for this year coming up. I feel like I'm still in my prime and that I have a lot of things I can improve on to become a better player."
His eye-opening season had an added benefit -- offseason stability.
"Not worrying about where I am going to be, worrying about getting a job, establishing new relationships, it's kind of motivated me to work even harder," McDonald said. "When you get that little taste, you want more. I've just been working hard, and seeing the deals we made in Boston, it's exciting. I can't wait to get to Spring Training and get going.