Darnell McDonald, or as teammate David Ortiz calls him, "D-Mac," was hardly a household name before he joined the Red Sox in April. He was perhaps best known for racing and losing to the horse Zippy Chippy in a minor league promotion. So even the most ardent card-carrying member of Red Sox Nation would have been hard pressed to know who the man wearing 54 was when he stepped to the plate that first night on April 20.
ESPNBoston.com asked McDonald 10 questions to get to know him better. Among other things, McDonald talks about why he feels he was in the minors for so long, being pulled over by the police recently and why he has a tattoo of a Walter Payton quotes.
1. How would you describe yourself?
“Probably people would say I'm laidback. I would say, yeah, laidback, happy and, you know, I have a tattoo on my chest that I got from Walter Payton that says, 'Tough times don’t last. Tough people do.' I try and carry that. That's what I live by. There's going to be storms. There's going to be adversity that you go through and you just got to know those are things that are temporary. It's all a mental state. We can get through anything. You can't let things hold you back. There may be roadblocks but they're things you can learn from. That's what I try to do each year -- learn from the things I did the year before and try to improve those things. Life, life is a journey. Baseball is like life in a lot of ways. It's a journey and every day is different. You just try and learn from it and enjoy it."
2. A dozen years in the minors. What's your best minor league story?
"By now everyone has heard the Zippy Chippy story, where I raced a horse in a 50-yard dash and lost. When Zippy got the win, he had lost 100 races in a row. I said I hope he got a lot of carrots and things like that to make him feel good. Definitely would love to get a rematch with Zippy. But my best story is my first year in professional baseball, we were in Delmarva in the South Atlantic League and we had a 15-hour bus trip to Savannah, Georgia. Right when we got on the bus, the AC went out. So we don't have any AC and this is like in July. By the time we get to Savannah, everybody is pretty much in their boxers on the bus trying to stay cool for that 15-hour trip. The best way to kill time on a long bus ride is, hopefully, you didn't get any rest the night before so you can sleep on the bus, maybe read a book, or play some cards or listen to a lot of music."
3. Your mother passed away 11 years ago. How did she influence your life?
"I have a tattoo of my mother on my right arm. She was a great person. I don't think she had any enemies. Very motivational, inspiring, always uplifting. I try to live my life through her every day. I know that she's watching me every day. One of the biggest reasons that motivated me to keep going and keep persevering and follow my dreams is that I could always hear her every day telling me, 'Let's go. You've got to work hard. Pick it up.' She was always that person. When she first passed, that was the toughest part. When things were going bad, she was always there to lean on and give me some motivation and encouraging words. She effected a lot of people's lives. That's the biggest thing for me, the lessons she taught me. I try and live every day asking how can I help other people and put a smile on somebody's face."
4. The Green Monster isn't the only monster you've faced?
"When I played for the Durham Bulls in 2005, they have a Blue Monster in left field. I think it might be a little shorter but they also have a bull sitting on top of it in left field. If you can hit a home run off the bull, someone wins a free steak. I think that's the biggest difference. That adds to the excitement and makes things fun. We'd try to hit it in batting practice. Both the Blue and the Green Monsters are tempting to swing for. As a hitter, you see that short wall in left field. You've got to try and block it out a little bit because sometimes it tempts you a little too much. You've got to try and stay within yourself. It makes the game a lot more fun playing with the Monster out there."
5. On April 20, you hit the game-tying home run in your first at-bat and then the game-winning hit, becoming the first Red Sox player to end a game with an RBI in their debut for the team. But you don't stop there, as the next night, in your very next at-bat, you hit another home run. What were those two days like?
"It was like a movie script. Everything couldn't have gone any better. I came over late to the field. You try not to hype yourself up. This call up was definitely unexpected. It was kind of good that it happened that way because you don't have much time to think about it. You just get thrown right in there. It's like, ‘Let's go.’ God is good. It was a great moment in my career -- probably the most memorable moment. When you play this game so long, to have moments like that and be able to bring some excitement because any type of walk-off win, man, is just exciting and lifts everybody up. It was a great feeling for everybody and most definitely for me. I feel like there is no better place to do something like that than Fenway Park. I didn't really take any batting practice, just a couple swings in the cage. Tito said if Varitek got on second you'll be hitting. The rest is kind of like history. It's something you dream about as a little kid playing baseball being in situations like that. It's like being in a zone. Man, I'm trying to figure it out. I really wish I could bottle that feeling. When things happen fast and you really don't have time to think, that's the biggest key to playing this game is not thinking too much. A lot of times we tend to overanalyze things. Everything happened so fast that I was definitely in a zone. It's like when Michael [Jordan] was sick and he went for like 60-something points and they asked him how he did it and he's like, ‘I don't know, I don't know.’ That's sort of the feeling I had. Everything just worked out perfect. It's something I'm definitely going to remember the rest of my life."
6. Are Red Sox fans recognizing you now away from the field?
"About a week or two ago, I got pulled over for speeding in Boston. I gave the officer my license and he told me that this zone I was in the police are here a lot and watch out. But he told me to go ahead and have a good game tonight. So no ticket. It was one of those things where I was like, this is Boston. Being out a little bit, people recognize me here and there, but this is why I signed over here. To play in an atmosphere like this. I told myself when I signed over here, if I could play just one game here at Fenway, I'd be satisfied. This is definitely a place when you're not here and on other teams, you're kind of envious of the Red Sox Nation and the atmosphere they have over here."
7. What took so long to get to the big leagues, as you were in the minors for the better part of 12 seasons after being drafted number 26 overall by the Orioles in 1997?
"I believe everything happens for a reason. I definitely had some years in the minor leagues where I felt that warranted a call-up. I don't worry about those things. I know that the things that I went through prepared me for this situation now. That's all that I worry about it. Baseball has a lot of variables that go into getting to the big leagues and being in the right place at the right time. Like I said, I'm here now and I try not to think about the past."
Do you think being African American had anything to do with why it took so long to be called up?
"The numbers don't lie. That's all I'm going to say on that one. It's disappointing. At the same time, baseball has individuals that are trying to change it. The numbers, it is what it is. It's sad."
8. In 2005, you were suspended for violating the Minor League Drug Prevention and Treatment Program. What happened?
"That was a learning lesson for myself. There's no substitute for hard work. I got caught up in doing some things that I shouldn't have been doing. It was definitely a learning lesson for me. You've got to learn that there's no substitute for working hard. That was the biggest thing that I took out of that situation. I thought maybe I had blown my chance. You always think like that. You never know when it’s going to be our last day here on earth. Over the years, I've learned you can't worry about the past and you can't worry about the future, you've got to focus on today, the now. That's one of the biggest things baseball has taught me over the years and that's what I try and do every day. I come to the field every day, work hard and enjoy."
9. What's the best part of big leagues?
"I can enjoy it now. You work that hard for that long. The things that you have to go through to get to this point and then when you get to this point, you appreciate it. Maybe the first time when I went to the big leagues in '04, you take it for granted. You come out of high school . You're a first-round pick. You take a lot of things for granted. Now going through the things that I've been through, man, I've just learned to appreciate every day and enjoy it. This is a dream come true to be playing a game I've dreamed of playing since I was a little boy. It's definitely been worth the wait. A little longer than I wanted, but I'm a firm believer everything happens for a reason. For the experience that I had the first night that I was here was definitely worth the wait."
10. What would be the happy ending to the Darnell McDonald story?
"Be here, go to the playoffs, win a World Series, get a World Series ring. I enjoy life. I enjoy being here every day, being around my teammates, just playing baseball. If it ended right now, I'd be happy. I'm really just trying to hold it down until the big guys [Ellsbury and Cameron] come back. We definitely need them here. In the meantime, I'm just trying to hold it down for them. But, definitely winning a World Series would be a cherry on top."