Defense defines McDonald. It is his identity, what makes him unique, what has allowed him to survive for 15 seasons in a cruel profession. And therefore he never disrespects it. He works on it meticulously, perpetually seeking the perfect angle and the quicker first step and the better release and the least wasted movement, because he's nothing without it and special because of it.
He's 39 years old, on his first Minor League contract and coming off a season that saw him play for four different organizations, fighting for a spot in the Angels' Opening Day roster and the chance to fill the backup infield job at which he's spent his entire Major League career.
Mike Scioscia calls him "a magician with his hands," pointing to a release and a transfer that's as fast as any you will ever see, but "the separator," the Angels manager says, "is his head. He has an innate sense of playing this game. It's why he's been able to keep going."
| "We can all catch it. It's about how can I catch it and be quicker? All right, I'm that quick, how can I be quicker? And if I catch it in the right side of the body instead of the middle, I might be quicker. All those things add up over time in practice that kind of had me be able to make the big leagues for as long as I have."
|-- John McDonald
McDonald grew up in Connecticut with a cousin who was a year older and a little more talented, and the two used to beam baseballs at each other to see how quickly they could get it out of their gloves.
"When you don't have a strong arm," McDonald said, "you have to figure out a way to get the ball over there quicker."
At Providence College in Rhode Island, the head coach stressed middle-infield defense, "so we started practice with ground balls and ended it with ground balls," McDonald said.
His rookie ball coach in 1996 was Ted Kubiak, a switch-hitting infielder who carved out a 10-year Major League career doing the job McDonald is battling Andrew Romine and Grant Green for right now. He took McDonald's range to a whole new level with his fungo bat.
"'I'm going to hit it right there, get in front of it. I'll hit it out there, get in front of it. Out there, get in front of it,'" McDonald recalled Kubiak saying. "'How you gonna do it? How hard can you work? How hard can you work on your first step?'"
And so McDonald kept right on working, and felt he had this whole infield defense thing down to a science -- and then he met Omar Vizquel.
For six years, from 1999-2004, McDonald played behind Vizquel. For the first three of those seasons, Roberto Alomar was there as a second baseman. And so when McDonald first came up with the Indians, he'd take ground balls at second base with Alomar, then move to the other side of the bag to take them with Vizquel.
"Can you imagine a better scenario for a young infielder to go through?" McDonald says, and the clear answer is no.
McDonald is still kicking himself for not learning Alomar's backhand toss for starting 4-6-3 double plays. But he owes his career to Vizquel, who was the Angels' infield coordinator last year, currently serves as the Tigers' first-base coach and will one day enter the Hall of Fame because of the way he could pick it.
Vizquel taught him how to read a hitter's swing to project where the ball will go. He taught him how to position himself based on spray charts and the pitcher's game plan. He shoved the importance of footwork down his throat. And he told him the five words that constantly go through his mind in a game: "Hit the ball to me."
"There's a hundred different things that make him a good shortstop," McDonald said of Vizquel. "The ability to read swing paths from the hitter, the anticipation of where the ball is going to go, knowing what the pitcher is going to throw, and putting those things together and moving over a step to the right so when he does dive to his right, he still has time to get up and throw somebody out, rather than some guys who get to a ball but can't throw them out. Omar knows how fast to go, how slow to go, and he's always under control."
McDonald carried that wisdom through a six-year stint in Cleveland, a cup of coffee in Detroit, another six years in Toronto, 1 1/2 seasons in Arizona and a hectic, live-out-of-your-suitcase 2013 that saw him play for the Pirates, Indians, Phillies and Red Sox -- and collect three playoff shares.
"Unfortunately, I've never been an everyday player," McDonald said. "Fortunately, I was able to practice the whole time."
McDonald averaged 171 plate appearances per season -- regulars get somewhere around 700 -- and batted .235/.274/.327 for his career. But he always had a job, because what he does is an art in itself, and there's always a need for those who can play above-average defense at three infield positions, and don't mind the pressure of fielding grounders in crucial situations, and constantly think about the game.
"If a fielder has the ability to read a hitter, he's going to have incredible range," Angels infield coach Alfredo Griffin said in Spanish. "A lot of players who have natural ability don't bother to learn that. Players like him, with some limitations, they dedicate a lot more time to that, because they need help. And that helps them stay in the game."
McDonald has already turned heads this spring, beyond the .462 batting average he carries through a meager 13 at-bats.
On Feb. 28, McDonald slid to his right to backhand a sharp grounder, then made a nifty glove flip in one motion to start a 4-6-3 double play. In the ninth inning on March 7, he fielded a 15-hopper deep in the hole in shallow left field, and before you could blink, the ball was sailing in the air, landing snuggly in the glove of first baseman C.J. Cron. And on March 10, he dove to his left and flipped across his body in a split-second to get a fielder's choice at second base and rob Indians third baseman Carlos Santana of a single.
Defense is a lot more than a job for McDonald; it's an obsession.
"We can all catch it," McDonald said. "It's about how can I catch it and be quicker? All right, I'm that quick, how can I be quicker? And if I catch it in the right side of the body instead of the middle, I might be quicker. All those things add up over time in practice that kind of had me be able to make the big leagues for as long as I have."