Howie Mooney
FiredUp Network Sports Writer


Sunday, August 20, 2023



John Joseph McDonald was one of those guys whose baseball card was never one of the gems for which  collectors might have scrambled. His offensive career numbers were never overwhelming. Ever. On the plus side, the utility infielder played parts of sixteen seasons in the majors, but in only two of those years did he get into more than 100 games. His career batting average was .233 and in 1,100 games, he hit a total of 28 home runs. 

Out of those sixteen years, he spent parts of seven seasons in Toronto. And despite his part-time status, his grit, persistence and his willingness to run through a wall to make a play endeared him to Blue Jays’ fans and his teammates alike. His stay in ‘Hogtown’ lasted from 2004 to 2011 and over that time, his team enjoyed varying degrees of success. 

John Gibbons was the Blue Jays’ manager when McDonald arrived with the team in December of 2004. He had taken over the reins from Carlos Tosca to run the team over the last fifty games in 2004. Gibbons’ first iteration with the Jays lasted until June of 2008, when Cito Gaston took over until the end of the 2010 season. Gaston’s strength was, famously, as a manager not just of a ball team but of personalities. 

He had won back-to-back World Series in 1992 and 1993 after taking over the Jays in 1989 from Jimy Williams a little over a month into that campaign. Williams got the club off to a 12-24 start that year. Gaston finished the season taking the Jays to a 77-49 finish. His ability to relate to people was unquestioned. So, in 2008, at the age of 64, he came back to a team with a record of 35-39. They went 51-37 the rest of the way and finished in fourth place in the five-team American League East. 

2009 was not as good a year in Toronto. The Jays finished in fourth place again, but they were twelve games below .500 (75-87) when all was said and done. There were rumours of issues in the clubhouse and J.P Ricciardi was let go at the end of the season. In 2010, the Jays went along treading water and trying to keep themselves above that mark. They finished that season at 85-77. Gaston was done and John Farrell would take over in 2011. 

On November 25, 2009, John McDonald signed a two-year, $3 million deal with the team. In December of 2009, the Jays engaged in one of their most monumental trades ever. Nine days before Christmas, December 16, Alex Anthopoulos traded Roy Halladay to the Philadelphia Phillies for Kyle Drabek, Travis d’Arnaud and Michael Taylor. Taylor was then traded to the Oakland Athletics for Brett Wallace. That set the stage for the team in 2010. 

McDonald’s road with the Jays was interesting. As I stated earlier, McDonald got to Toronto in December of 2004. In the first part of 2005, he was mainly used as a backup for Russ Adams at shortstop. In 37 games, he had a batting average of .290 with twelve RBI over that span. On July 22, he was traded to the Detroit Tigers for future considerations. In the offseason following 2005, he was traded back to the Jays for…….himself. 

In 2006, he spent a lot of time as the starting shortstop for Toronto. He played over 100 games in a season for the first time in his career. He was 32 years old at the end of that season. In 2007, he played 123 games. It felt like John McDonald had finally begun to gain some real traction in his career. But before the 2007 season, the Jays would acquire Royce Clayton to be their everyday shortstop. By the end of that year, McDonald was starting there. 

He was getting consideration for the Gold Glove by the end of 2007. And, given that his name was John McDonald, similar to Canada’s first prime minister, Sir John A. MacDonald, fans had anointed him with the moniker ‘The Prime Minister of Defense’! But in the off season, Toronto acquired David Eckstein to be their shortstop. Eckstein had been an all-star in preceding years. He never took hold of the position with the Jays, though, and was dealt at the August 31 deadline. The starting job fell back to McDonald once again. 

2009 saw the Blue Jays again try to upgrade their shortstop spot when they picked up Marco Scutaro. Injuries took him out of the picture though and McDonald again found himself in that starting position. While his numbers – four home runs, an on-base percentage of .271 and a slugging percentage of .384 – may seem meagre compared to other players, for McDonald, they were all career highs. 

2010 dawned with the arrival of a new starting shortstop – Yunel Escobar – for the Jays. McDonald found himself, again, playing the backup role. As June came, McDonald had to leave the team. His father, Jack, had liver cancer and his condition had begun to deteriorate. By the first weekend of June, McDonald left the team. According to league rules, time would tell how his roster spot would be handled. 

Jack was back in Connecticut and John McDonald would be gone from the team for a few weeks. On June 15, a Tuesday, Jack McDonald lost his battle with the despicable cancer. He was 60. John, his sister Denise and his mother Joanne were left to cope. One of the last things Jack said to John was, “Hit your next home run for me.” John was never a heavy hitter – he didn’t have one to this point in 2010 and he had just thirteen in his previous six seasons – but those words stayed with him.  

McDonald gave the eulogy at his father’s funeral and returned to Toronto on June 19, a Saturday. When he got to the stadium, he had a brief meeting with Cito Gaston. Leaving Gaston’s office, he was approached by pitcher Shaun Marcum. Marcum greeted his teammate with a hearty “Come here and give me a hug, big fella!” 

He rejoined his team that day but did not play. His dad had been an umpire and wore the number 25. The Blue Jays players presented John with a team jersey with his father’s name on it and that number 25 on it as well. It was signed by everyone on the team. Vernon Wells, upon presenting it to him said, “Just a sign we’re with you.” 

On the Sunday, Father’s Day, McDonald was not in the starting lineup. Alex Gonzalez started the game at shortstop. Aaron Hill was the starting second baseman. The visitors were the San Francisco Giants. The Jays had defeated the Giants by a 3-2 score on the Friday night, and Jesse Litsch pitched seven scoreless innings in a 3-0 Jays win on the Saturday afternoon. That win put the team five games over .500 at 37-32.  

On the Sunday, Marcum would be on the mound for Toronto against Jonathan Sanchez for the Giants. The Jays chased Sanchez while building a 3-1 lead after three innings. Marcum left the game after five frames with his Jays holding a slim 3-2 lead. Brian Tallet came in to pitch the sixth, but he didn’t make it out of that inning. By the middle of the sixth, the Giants held a 7-3 lead. They added a couple more runs in the eighth and held a 9-3 lead as the patrons were heading for the exits in the ninth. 

The people who stayed, though, were about to witness something special. 

David Purcey had allowed those two Giants runs in the eighth and was back out to pitch to ‘Frisco in the ninth. Shortstop Edgar Renteria led the inning off by hammering a double off Purcey. Gaston left his pitcher out there. Center fielder Aaron Rowand grounded out to the right side advancing Renteria to third base. But catcher Eli Whiteside popped up to Nick Green, who had taken over at short for Gonzalez. Left fielder Andres Torres then popped up to Lyle Overbay at first. 

Down 9-3, the Blue Jays were scheduled to send left fielder Fred Lewis, second baseman Aaron Hill and designated hitter Adam Lind to the plate. To start things off, Lewis singled through second. Hill was called back and, in his place, Cito sent John McDonald to the plate to hit for him. The first pitch from Jeremy Affeldt was fouled back for a strike.  

Affeldt’s next pitch to McDonald came in over the plate and the right-handed pinch-hitter swung at it. He made contact and the ball sailed toward deep left field. It carried and it carried and it flew over the wall for a home run. When the ball cleared the fence and disappeared into the bullpen, McDonald gave a strong fist pump. As he was doing that, fans were chanting “Johnny Mac! Johnny Mac!” 

After stepping on the plate and before he got back to the dugout, Pat Tabler, who was doing colour commentary for the TV broadcast of the game talked about the fact that he had goosebumps at that moment. Scott Carson, who was doing stats for the broadcast that day commented on Twitter, years after, “Our entire crew choked up. Unforgettable human moment.” 

When he got to the dugout, his emotions and those of his teammates poured out. He got enthusiastic high-fives and shared long hugs with Wells, Hill, Marcum and Casey Janssen in the tunnel to the clubhouse. Wells told reporters after the game that “we cried on each other’s shoulders for a good thirty seconds.” Cito told the Canadian Press, “I think it brought tears to just about everyone’s eyes.” 

That homer made the score 9-5 for the Giants. A Jose Bautista double scored Adam Lind and the game ended 9-6. After the game though, the only Blue Jay anyone wanted to speak with was McDonald. 

His face was an open book as he stood through his scrum with reporters from Toronto and national media outlets. When asked his thoughts as he was rounding the bases, McDonald’s lip quivered and he was candid. “Probably the fact that I couldn’t call my dad after the game.” As he was saying that, tears were welling in his eyes. 

The fact that the ball cleared the fence in left field may have been a little bit of a surprise to him, but when someone asked him if that shot was for his father, he said, “I think it was for both of us. The fact that I got it out of the way quick was nice. I told him (his father) they’re not that easy to hit”  

“I’m pretty happy though, too. I hadn’t swung a bat in a while. I decided to try to hit something hard. It’s still bittersweet. I think, if we had one more guy on, we could have tied the game. That would have been nice too.” 

He felt that it was important for him to be back with the club for this weekend. “My dad wanted me to be here for Father’s Day. I’m not usually happy or excited post-game after a loss, but it was a special moment for our family.” 

It was certainly special for his teammates as well. Vernon Wells put it this way, “When it went out, it was instant goosebumps. Wins and losses don’t really matter at that point. That was one of the most special moments I’ve gotten to see in this game. I think it’s the happiest loss any of us have encountered in our professional careers.” 

John McDonald finished the 2010 season with Toronto. He played part of 2011 with the Jays as well. But at the end of August, he was dealt to the Arizona Diamondbacks with Aaron Hill for Kelly Johnson. He re-signed with the D-Backs in the offseason. In the spring of 2013, he was traded to Pittsburgh. Then, in June, he was traded to Cleveland. Later that month, Cleveland sent him to Philadelphia. Before the August deadline in 2013, he was dealt to Boston. His career ended in Anaheim with the Angels at the end of 2014. 

On Wednesday, January 7, 2015, he announced his retirement from the game. He will always be remembered for his stellar defensive abilities and his tremendous heart. While he was never a great hitter at the major league level, defensively he was an elite player. And fans, not just in Toronto, loved him for the way he played the game. Pete Rose once said that he would walk through hell in a gasoline suit to play baseball. 

John McDonald lived that way every time he played in a ball game. His home run on Father’s Day, less than a week after the loss of his own father, will never be forgotten.  

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Get Howie’s great book Crazy Days & Wild Nights on Amazon. 19 different, outlandish stories taken from the pages of sports history! It makes a great Father’s Day gift! You can hear Howie and his co-host Shawn Lavigne on The Sports Lunatics Show, a sports history podcast, right here on the FiredUp Network or on 212 different platforms, including Spotify, iHeart Radio and TuneIn Radio or wherever you find your podcasts.