John McDonald: Jays fan favourite

John McDonald fields the ball and makes the play at first base to get the out against Rays base...

John McDonald fields the ball and makes the play at first base to get the out against Rays base runner Matt Joyce in St. Petersburg, Fla., May 5, 2011. (BRIAN BLANCO/Reuters)

BOB ELLIOTT, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 10:07 PM ET

PHOENIX, ARIZ. - The mother had been without her husband for less than a week. Still at that awkward, painful stage where widows are known to make dinner and yell into the living room to their husband, as has been the routine for years ... only to realize that she was alone. The mom had been watching the Blue Jays game. When her favourite player was not in the lineup, the mother went into the other room to answer e-mails on the computer in New London, Conn. That’s when the phone rang. “Joanne! Turn on the TV right now,” said her sister-in-law Gail. • • • In another country, 536 miles away, roughly a 10-hour drive from New London the Jays were playing a Sunday interleague matinee against the San Francisco Giants. The Father’s Day crowd on June 20, 2010, consisted of 21,431 fans at the Rogers Centre. How many fathers took their sons to their first game? How many sons took their fathers to the game remembering their first trip to Exhibition Stadium? Shaun Marcum was gone after five innings leaving with a 3-2 lead. Lefty Brian Tallet took over and seven hitters later the Giants, who would win the World Series four months later, had scored four times against Tallet and Casey Janssen. The Jays were down 9-3 going into the ninth of the blow out manager Cito Gaston inserted Nick Green at short and John McDonald at second, in his first game after his father’s death. Giants reliever Jeremy Affeldt allowed a leadoff single to Fred Lewis and then McDonald stepped to the plate. McDonald hit his first homer, a Father’s Day homer, a tribute to Jack, his late father. It was his 13th career homer in 1,909 plate appearances. He was congratulated as he walked the length of the dugout and stepped down the stairs into the tunnel. There he was hugged by Vernon Wells, Hill, Shaun Marcum and Casey Janssen. “We cried on each other’s shoulders for 30 seconds,” said Wells. “When it went out it was instant goose bumps. That was one of the most special moments I’ve seen in this game. That’s the happiest loss any of us encountered in our pro careers.” • • • Joanne enters her living room in time to see the replay. There was her son, making contact, sprinting to first, the ball clearing the left-field fence, thrusting his fist in the air. “It was exciting to say the least,” Joanne said. “I sat in my chair for the replay. I was very happy. It’s good memories only good. “At times I am emotional. Other times I surprise myself. It’s tough when I see someone for the first time and they give condolences.” The mother was there when her husband Jack said to her son “hit your next home run for me.” Joanne can’t remember whether Jack was at Mass General in Boston or Lawrence Memorial Hospital in New London when the request was made. Hospital stays, rooms that look the same and nurse shifts all blur together. “I don’t think my mother saw the homer, but she sure has watched it a few times since,” McDonald said last week from Phoenix. The mom explains how she had been watching, but when John wasn’t playing, decided to multi- task. “The home run was on TV a lot, our Channel 8 did a story a few months later, I have a copy of that,” Joanna says. “I’ve watched it a few times.” • • • And now McDonald, a Jay from opening day 2005 until this Aug. 23, aside from the final two months of 2005 with the Detroit Tigers, is in post-season play with the Arizona Diamondbacks, a reason why you can see the caps on the streets of southern Ontario. Dealt to the desert with second baseman Aaron Hill for second baseman Kelly Johnson, McDonald attempted to talk his mother into flying into Milwaukee for Games 1 and 2 of the National League division series. But Joanne still works at Met Life five days a week. “They’d give me time off, I don’t think I’ll go but I might wake up Saturday and get on a plane,” Joanne said late Thursday. Earlier this season Joanne came to Toronto and visited her son when the Jays were in New York. “It’s different travelling by myself, I told John we would have been there in Washington for his first game after the trade to Arizona.” After the deal the mother watched the Diamondbacks on MLB package with a 10 p.m. start time for games in Phoenix, admits she doesn’t always go nine, but is “on the boxscore,” the next day. “If Jack was still here, we’d be there.” • • • “Happy or excited? It’s post game after a loss,” McDonald told reporters post-game in a video posted on You Tube by the legendary John Lott. The video (youtube.com/watch?v=lV5AYkvGpD8) has been viewed 17,520 times, almost as many people at the Rogers Centre. At times McDonald’s bottom lip quivers. Others times his eyes fill up. He never loses control. “It was a special moment for our family,” he says. The son had given his mother a reason to smile ... on Father’s Day. • • • McDonald is without a doubt the most popular player not to play regularly for the Jays and was more popular than most every day players. Why is that? It’s partially because McDonald is a good person, an honest-to-goodness, good person. Not everyone in the 500 level knows that or has met him at an autograph signing. Fans appreciate his effort, dirty uniform, busting his butt on a routine grounder or diving in an acrobatic manner. “Fans in Toronto and the Blue Jays organization were so good to John,” Joanne said. When Jack felt ill in spring training the Jays allowed John to return home. Again in June they gave permission for him to be with his father. “I don’t know if another team would have done that, they were supportive of John and to me indirectly,” Joanne said. • • • Reporter in the scrum: “John talk about what was going through your mind running around the bases?” “Probably that I couldn’t call my dad after the game. Pretty happy though, I hadn’t swung the bat in a while too. Decided to try to hit something hard. If we had one more guy on, we might have tied the game.” Where does McDonald get his fiery, combative nature? “I don’t like to lose, he doesn’t like to lose, he might get that from me,” says Joanne who tells about ping pong, badminton and whiffle ball game. “I didn’t let him beat me, no I didn’t spot him any points.” When did she realize her son was a good player? No one knows better than baseball mothers, they aren’t blinded by the rose-coloured glasses baseball fathers wear sometime. Joanne said her son was always very quick, “it’s amazing how he thinks ahead on plays, his instincts are very good. You can’t teach it, either you have it or you don’t.” He seemed to get better every year, although his batting average never impressed scouts. “They had to see him for a few days to appreciate him,” Joanne said. “I know that’s how he got where he was, doing little things. It’s luck, it’s skill, it’s the whole package that makes a good ball player.” When he was with the Cleveland Indians, McDonald bought a house in West Lake, Ohio. McDonald and his wife Maura moved to Boston suburbs a year ago. Joanne makes a two-hour drive to visit her grand children Jackie, three and Anthony nine months old. “He’s 37, I don’t know how much longer he’ll do this, it involves a lot of sacrifices, he missed Jackie’s first day of pre-school.” • • • Our Ken Fidlin in the post-game scrum: “You gave it a little fist pump going around first, was that for your dad?” “I think it was for both of us. I’m not known to hit too many home runs. It was nice. I was trying to hit one good. We had talked, about the type of player I am before I came back that I don’t hit many home runs and he said: ‘Hit your next one for me.’ The fact I got it out of the way quick was nice. I told him: ‘They’re not that easy to hit.’ ” • • • In New York, Yanks manager Joe Girardi came over complimenting the mother on her son. So, has Jose Bautista and coach Brian Butterfield among others. “I’m very proud, there’s not a time a coach or a player has not come up and said something nice about John,” Joanne said. “You can tell they’re sincere. They could just ignore me.” Joanne has been the model of composure during this half-hour phone interview, her first interview ever, to someone she has never met, discussing a very difficult subject. One last question “what’s the nicest thing anyone ever said about your son?” Silence. More silence. Joanne’s voice returned, cracked as she said again “I’m very proud.”

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