DENVER—The long trip took 12 seasons, wound its way through more places than Darnell McDonald cares to remember and finally brought him home. He played a major league game in Denver for the first time Monday.
"This is where it all began, and to be able to come back, it's very special," McDonald said, "something I'll remember for the rest of my life. It's something that really words can't even explain how good it feels."
McDonald—a product of nearby Cherry Creek High in Englewood, Colo.—will turn 31 in November. He has played the game long enough to be typecast as one of those close-but-not-quite types—1,328 games in the minor leagues, including 877 at the Triple-A level. Monday, McDonald played just his 57th game in the majors, and 36 have come this season with the Reds.
Indeed, 2004, when McDonald played 17 games with the Orioles, and 2008, four games with the Twins, were the only other seasons McDonald spent any time in the majors. He played his first professional game in 1998 and entered 2009 with 55 days of service time in the big leagues. It's not hyperbole to say there are no run-of-the-mill days in the majors for McDonald, least of all Monday at Coors Field.
"If I was writing a script, this is how I'd write it up," he said, "to come here and play or to come back and be able to play for the Rockies. This is the next best thing, being able to play in your hometown."
Right Place, Wrong Swings
McDonald was speaking before the Reds, winners of seven straight, fell 4-3 to the Rockies. The game ended when McDonald, batting when a bizarre play on the bases unfolded that cost the Reds a precious out, struck out with the tying run on third base.
"I wish the outcome was different, but it was good to be able to come back here and experience this," McDonald said.
Mindful of McDonald's return, Reds manager Dusty Baker started him in right field, batting him seventh.
"I try to play guys at home," Baker said before the game. "Plus the match-up I think is more favorable for him than anybody else I got here."
The match-up pitted the righthanded-hitting McDonald against righthander Ubaldo Jimenez, Colorado's ace who entered the game 7-1, 2.44 in 10 starts since the all-star break.
During that break, McDonald was trying to get back to the big leagues. He began the season with the Reds and started in center field on opening day in place of injured Willy Taveras. But in 24 games, including seven starts, McDonald hit .175 and was designated for assignment May 22.
"I think he was pressing," Baker said, "really put some pressure on himself. He wanted to really make his mark and show people what he can do. And he was spot playing, which was new to him.
"But it was something that he was going to have to do in order to make it here. There wasn't a (regular) spot for him."
McDonald cleared waivers and accepted his assignment to Triple-A Louisville, where in 73 games, he hit .314/.349/.539 with 22 doubles, seven triples, nine home runs, 40 RBI and eight stolen bases.
"I told him, 'Go down there, play your butt off, earn your way back and there's a good chance you'll get back,' " Baker said. "And he went down and actually played as well as anybody down there."
McDonald was promoted to the Reds on Aug. 25 when outfielder Chris Dickerson went on the disabled list.
Will McDonald ever find a niche in the big leagues? Painting with a broad brush, Baker said, "Things happen to some guys," and cited Ross Gload, a first baseman-outfielder seemingly destined who has logged 588 big league games, after spending parts of five seasons alone in Triple-A. Gload is now in the second year of a two-year, $3.2 million contract.
"I've seen a lot of guys figure it out and make it," Baker said, "or get a shot and capitalize on it. That's what I'm trying to tell him. 'Hey, man. You got another shot. Let's do the best you can and capitalize on this thing here.' "
The Reds are McDonald's sixth organization. The Orioles finally let him go after the 2004 season, his third full year at Triple-A, when he hit .234/.294/.368 for Ottawa. He's spent no more than two years in the same place since then, with stops in Durham, Buffalo, Columbus and Rochester before Louisville this season. Rockies hitting coach Don Baylor glanced at McDonald's vagabond playing record before Monday's series opener and said, "He's been everywhere."
Baylor had reason to be curious about McDonald. He was managing the Rockies in 1997, when the Orioles took McDonald in the first round, the 26th player selected in the draft but one who slipped because of questions about how much it would take to sign him.
McDonald grew up in Denver and went to Cherry Creek High, which produced the likes of Brad Lidge, David Aardsma and Josh Bard, and as a senior was chosen Baseball America's High School Player of the Year. McDonald led Cherry Creek to three state titles in baseball and three in football. He was an acclaimed running back and turned down a scholarship to play football and baseball at Texas to sign with the Orioles for $1.9 million. It was the fourth-highest bonus given to a player drafted that year (behind Rick Ankiel, Troy Glaus and Ryan Anderson) and more than double the $885,000 the Orioles gave to Jayson Werth, who was then a catcher and was the 22nd player taken overall that year.
McDonald signed too late to play that year and began his professional career at low Class A Delmarva in 1998. That was an eon ago for the persevering McDonald. He arrived at Coors Field on Monday, having played 11 games since returning to the Reds and going 8-for-24 with one home run and five RBI.
"He's been playing pretty good," Baker said. "He's still pressing a bit, swinging at a few bad pitches. That's what I talked to him about today, 'Hey man, just relax and get a good pitch to hit.' "
Labor Day Blues
That proved to be easier said than done. McDonald, batting in the second with two out and a runner on third, struck out on four pitches against Jimenez, the final pitch a 96 mph fastball.
After Jonny Gomes hit a two-run homer to put the Reds ahead 3-1 with two out in the fourth, McDonald again faced Jimenez. After falling into an 0-2 hole, McDonald worked the count to 2-2. He tried to check his swing on Jimenez's fifth pitch but was called out by home plate umpire Mark Wegner.
McDonald led off the seventh against reliever Matt Daley and grounded to shortstop on the second pitch.
McDonald did make a nice running catch in right-center on a ball Todd Helton hit with one out and a runner on second in the fifth. And in the sixth, McDonald saved a run when he tracked down pitcher Homer Bailey's errant throw to first on a single tapped near him and quickly threw the ball in, preventing Brad Hawpe, who was on second to begin the play, from scoring.
The Rockies took a 4-3 lead in the eighth when Ian Stewart homered. On came closer Franklin Morales, a lefthander who moved into that role last week when Huston Street was sidelined with biceps tendinitis.
Consecutive singles by Brandon Phillips and Scott Rolen gave the Reds hope to start the ninth. With one out, McDonald came up, and with the count 2-2, the runners took off. Catcher Chris Iannetta threw out Rolen.
"It wasn't a steal sign," Baker said, "but Brandon has the green light and Scotty had a big lead and he was following Brandon. And they went and got the trail runner, which was very astute on their part."
McDonald said, "It seemed like a lot of things happened in that one at-bat with a double steal and the runner getting thrown out. I was just up there trying to battle, and he threw me a 3-2 curveball and he got me today."
The strikeout was McDonald's 13th in 28 at-bats since he rejoined the Reds and his 22nd in 68 at-bats overall this season. Morales was a complete unknown to McDonald, who dissected his at-bat and saw a missed opportunity.
"He threw me a fastball that would have been the best pitch to hit that I took for strike zone," McDonald said, referring to Morales' 1-0 pitch. "If I had anything to do over again, I would've jumped on that fastball.
"I didn't get the job done today. Come back tomorrow. That's how this game is. It won't be the first time or the last time that happens."
The promise of tomorrow? McDonald strongly believes in it. Otherwise, he wouldn't have endured the journey that finally brought him to Coors Field.