McDonald's Father's Day tribute one to savor
Infielder homers days after his dad passes away from cancer
There is not a day that goes by for John McDonald that does not include thoughts of his dad. That includes this Christmas, his first without his father, Jack, the man who pushed John hard and helped mold him into the disciplined ballplayer and person he is today.
John McDonald and his wife recently welcomed their own son, Anthony, into the world, bringing a great sense of joy to a family that experienced a tremendous loss earlier this year. Five days before Father's Day in June, Jack lost an eight-month battle with liver cancer.
"Things do happen for a reason," said John McDonald, a veteran infielder for the Blue Jays. "You don't always have to question why. You just be really thankful for what you have."
What John McDonald's family has is an incredible moment that has helped them through the grieving process. His voice still cracks with emotion as he discusses that day in June. During an at-bat in the ninth inning on Father's Day, McDonald belted an improbable home run against the Giants in Toronto.
While recalling the events that led up to a swing of a bat that changed everything, "Johnny Mac" returns to one thought.
"I don't know how much help my dad had in that," McDonald said. "It really makes you sit and wonder."
That ninth-inning at-bat had its roots prior to the 2010 season, when John and his dad talked about a Father's Day program they wanted to start up again. During John's days with the Cleveland Indians, and once previously while he was with the Blue Jays, he had a Father's Day contest for children.
The winners would have the chance to bring their dads to the ballpark to take in batting practice, meet John McDonald and then watch the game. Jack had been there to meet the contest winners in previous years, and he did not want John to miss the event in Toronto.
Even as he was dying, Jack insisted that John return to Toronto.
"My dad told me, 'You need to be back in Toronto for Father's Day,'" McDonald recalled. "No matter what happens, you have to go back for the event. ... He told me two weeks before he passed and a week before he passed and leading up to it."
McDonald paused, emotions catching up with him again.
"Had he hung on another day," he said, "I wouldn't have been able to go."
Jack McDonald passed away on June 15 at the age of 60. John McDonald was able to attend the services later that week before returning to Toronto to rejoin the Blue Jays in time for Father's Day. He was there to meet with the contest winners, fulfilling one of his dad's dying wishes.
On Sunday, June 20, McDonald's teammates presented him with a Blue Jays jersey bearing each of their signatures, Jack's name and No. 25 -- the number he wore throughout his umpiring career in East Lyme, Conn., and neighboring towns.
Jack McDonald had a large group of close friends from his days as an umpire and official for local football and basketball games. A few were in the room, along with John's mom and sister, when Jack, only days away from passing away, had another final request for his son.
Jack wanted Johnny to hit a home run for him.
"We joked about it," McDonald said. "But he was serious."
John McDonald chuckled at the thought. He told his dad it might take a while, considering power is not exactly his trademark. John McDonald -- known for his strong skills as a defender at shortstop -- has only 19 home runs over 2,025 career plate appearances across 12 seasons in the big leagues.
On top of that, McDonald is not a regular part of Toronto's starting lineup. Often used in late-game situations, at-bats are sometimes few and far between for McDonald. Beyond that, the Blue Jays were very supportive during Jack's fight with cancer, giving John McDonald plenty of time to be at home in Connecticut by his father's side.
"I hadn't had an at-bat in so long," McDonald said. "I hadn't really even taken batting practice but once or twice. I hadn't picked up a bat in three-plus weeks."
With the Blue Jays trailing the Giants, 9-3, heading into the ninth inning on Father's Day, manager Cito Gaston sent McDonald into the game as a defensive replacement at second base. His last plate appearance had been on May 23, but McDonald was guaranteed one in the home half of the final frame.
"I just wanted to get a good pitch and hit it hard," McDonald said.
McDonald thought he missed his chance when San Francisco's Jeremy Affeldt fired a first-pitch fastball and the Blue Jays infielder watched it sail by for a strike. Affeldt's next pitch was a hanging breaking ball, one that McDonald was not about to waste.
The baseball rocketed off McDonald's bat and cleared the left-field wall at Rogers Centre, falling into the Blue Jays' bullpen. Reliever Scott Downs retrieved the ball and delivered it to McDonald after the game.
"It just barely got over," McDonald said with a laugh.
While running around the bases, McDonald pumped his fist at first base and pointed to the sky after touching home plate. Those reactions were not characteristic of McDonald, never one to celebrate personal success. This was different, though.
The emotions of the moment were overwhelming. So much so, McDonald -- fighting back tears -- left the dugout and headed into the tunnel behind the Blue Jays' bench. Halfway to the clubhouse, McDonald was met by teammates Vernon Wells and Aaron Hill. They embraced and cried together.
"All that kind of coming together at one moment up in the tunnel," McDonald said, "yeah, I think I needed somebody to cry with at that point. My teammates, the guys we have on our club, they've been fantastic. They made it really easy not to have to go through that grieving process by myself."
On July 9, prior to a game against the Red Sox, McDonald did a few radio and TV interviews to talk about his dad and the Boston-based Jimmy Fund, an organization supporting the fight against cancer. Then in the sixth inning that night, McDonald's next home run came against Jon Lester, a cancer survivor.
"It really makes you sit and wonder," McDonald said, "whether my dad had a hand in helping me in some of those at-bats."
John McDonald has the baseball and the bat used to hit the Father's Day home run. He also has his jersey from that day, as well as the lineup card and the blue wristbands he wore in recognition of prostate cancer awareness. McDonald also has a framed photo of the moment he crossed the plate.
He plans on putting up a display in his home at some point.
"Not yet," he said. "It's still a little fresh for me."
The home run's biggest impact has been changing tears of sadness to tears of joy. The Father's Day blast has provided his family and close friends with a moment to celebrate and a way to discuss Jack's passing in terms of honoring his life, rather than dwelling on his death.
"It was so much easier to look people in the eye," McDonald said. "When you're around a lot of people that have gone through what I've gone through, it's tough to start a conversation. You say, 'I'm sorry about your loss,' but sometimes it's tough. It's a short conversation and you walk away.
"I had a lot of those conversations in the weeks leading up to my dad's passing and after. It seems after the day I hit the home run, it was more of a celebration: 'What a way to celebrate your father's life.' You just got to talk about so many positive things, so many good things that my dad did."
John believes the Father's Day home run was just another example.
"I feel like he helped me do that," McDonald said. "He helped my mom through that, because I really felt that it helped her and my sister, and people close to my dad, to be able to reflect on something else and be like, 'Wow.'
"My dad managed to do one last good thing."