Darnell McDonald is well acquainted with life on the farm. The 26th-overall pick in the 1997 draft, McDonald is now 31 years old with a resume that includes seven organizations and 1,328 games played at the minor-league level. A two-time Triple-A all-star currently with the Pawtucket Red Sox, he has also seen action in 68 big-league contests, with the Orioles and Reds.
David Laurila: What do most fans not know about the minor leagues?
Darnell McDonald: The biggest things are probably the bus rides, the early wake-up calls, getting into towns at four or five o’clock in the morning and then having to get up and get prepared to play a game. For me, that was the biggest adjustment going into pro ball. And in high school, you’re not playing every day — going from playing four times a week to playing every day is a big adjustment. I was 18 years old and for me that first year was a big learning curve, from getting acclimated to using a wood bat to the travel and having to grind it out every day.
DL: When you were in rookie ball, did pretty much everyone in the clubhouse think, “I’m going to play in the big leagues someday?”
DM: Oh, yeah. Everyone signs and thinks that they’ll be in the minor leagues for a couple of years and then they’ll be in the big leagues. I think that after my first year it was kind of like “Wow, OK” You find out that you have a lot to learn and that it’s a different game. But I do think that when you sign, you tell yourself that you’ll just be in the minor leagues for a couple of years. You see guys like Andruw Jones and Alex Rodriguez who rose up through the minors and got to the big leagues real quick, and that’s what every guy has in their head that they want to do.
DL: Is it hard to watch teammates get promoted ahead of you when you’re putting up equally good, if not better, numbers?
DM: It is, but as you get older, you start learning to only worry about the things that you can control. When you’re younger, I think you tend to worry a lot about the outside things. You see guys getting called up and wonder why it’s not you and you start thinking, “What do I have to do to get called up?” Playing the game is hard enough, and when you start worrying about those other things it gets even harder. That was another thing I had to get used to. Now I try to just worry about the things that I can control each day. Everything else will take care of itself.
DL: How hard is it not to think about your numbers?
DM: It’s very hard. That’s really what you’re judged on. This is a game of numbers. And when you’re coming from high school, you’re not used to dealing with failure — it’s probably the same for college guys — because you’ve had a lot of success. That’s why you got drafted. When you get to pro ball and start getting into those 0-for-12 and 0-for-15 slumps…for me, the biggest thing is learning how not to be on that rollercoaster where you get too high, or too low, during the good and bad times. It’s about finding a way to get out of those slumps, because it’s a game of failure where if you fail seven out of 10 times you’re still a good player. In high school, you’re not used to that.
DL: In the minor leagues, some of your teammates are high-round draft picks who received large bonuses when they signed. Others are low-round picks who got next to nothing. Is it easier to root for the latter?
DM: When you’re given a lot of money, there are obviously high expectations and a lot of people do think that way. It’s human nature to want to root for the underdog. When you’re a bonus baby, you’re supposed to [perform well]. When it doesn’t work out that way, I think…you know, everybody develops at different stages, but when you’re a high pick, you’re expected to develop faster than everybody else. But is it easier to root for the underdog? I think it probably is.