Johnny Mac looks back

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John McDonald Courtesy: Toronto Blue Jays Baseball Club (Alexis_JohnnyMac)

John McDonald may not be a star with the Toronto Blue Jays, but he is definitely one of the most popular players. And as much as Toronto loves the utility infielder, the feeling is mutual.

Defying the common perception that professional athletes don’t always fully embrace the culture and city in which they play, McDonald and his family enjoy Toronto and what it has to offer.

“We try to get out and do as much as possible when I’m not at the baseball field,” the Connecticut native said. “Saturdays and Sundays when we’re in town we like to go to the Danforth and have dinner at one of the restaurants and then walk around and go to the ice cream shop there.”

Though the Blue Jay and his family live downtown, they enjoy taking time to explore the rest of the city, like the East York community.

“Over the years we’ve been here, we’ve tried to walk everywhere,” McDonald said. “We like the close proximity that everything has when you live downtown.”

McDonald is also close enough that he can walk to work at the Rogers Centre, where he has spent parts of the last six seasons.

“I’ve seen a lot of positive things happen with our club,” McDonald said. “It’s been a lot of fun this year watching our young players grow, become more mature and feel like we belong and can compete in this division.”

On a team with so many young players, the veteran feels like he has a lot to offer.

“I try to give them guidance because there are a lot of things that happen during the course of a season that I needed to be reminded of,” the 36-year-old said. “Sometimes how to act, sometimes situations on the field, little things that younger players take for granted.

“You need a veteran player that’s been around for a little while, that’s made mistakes before, to show the younger players how not to make the same mistakes I’ve made.”

McDonald doesn’t make too many errors on the field, carrying a .972 fielding percentage over 12 seasons in the majors. Though he may not play in every game, he spends time getting prepared every day, whether it be to play at shortstop, second or third base, or anywhere he might be needed.

“It’s a lot of fun taking ground balls at all three spots,” he said. “I look forward to coming to batting practice every day and taking ground balls.

“And if I’m not going to play that day, I have an hour on the field to have fun. I try to make the most of it. Every day I get to come and work and prepare, so when the game comes, I feel like nothing is going to surprise me.”

Being ready at any moment is a quality the infielder credits to his late father, Jack McDonald.

“My father was a big proponent of being prepared and telling yourself that you have to be ready even in situations where you might not always want to go in the game,” he said. “If you’re down 10 runs you should want the at-bat in the blowout game. You should want to run the bases. You should want to get on the field in any way you can.”

The Blue Jays found success in a year in which many predicted they would not have any, finishing fourth in their division with an 85-77 record. For McDonald it was a bittersweet season, as the team’s accomplishments were overshadowed by the loss of his father during the year.

“The baseball part of it has been good therapy for me to keep my mind off things that, in my personal life, I would rather have not dealt with,” he said. “But I don’t think I’ll be able to put this year in perspective until I’m done playing.

“I haven’t been back to Connecticut since my father passed. So I don’t really know what this year has meant to me yet.”

The utility man best known for his spectacular plays and extremely accurate throws has made a name for himself as one of the best defensive shortstops in the game and he credits his father for much of his success, as well as his work ethic.

McDonald was Toronto’s 2010 recipient of the Heart and Hustle Award. Created in 2005, it is given to a player “who demonstrates a passion for the game of baseball and best embodies the values, spirit and traditions of the game.”

McDonald attributes the award to his upbringing.

“It’s definitely an honour when someone puts those two words in the same sentence as your name,” he said. “I was taught a long time ago how to play baseball and the first thing my parents told me to do was to make sure that I played the game as hard as I can, run on and off the field and give it everything I have.

“So in a way you could say that the award is a direct relation to the way I was brought up.”

McDonald took advantage of his opportunities this season, making highlight-reel defensive gems and establishing a career-high in home runs with six. In his 152 at-bats, he also had nine doubles, two triples and 23 RBIs.

His most meaningful home run of the season, though, came on Father’s Day, just two days after the funeral of his father. With the Jays down 9-3, manager Cito Gaston put McDonald into the game as a pinch-hitter.

In his first at-bat back with the club after spending two weeks with his ailing father, McDonald hit a home run, just the 14th in his 12-year career.

“We talked about the type of player I am before I came back, and the fact that I don’t hit a lot of home runs,” McDonald told on Father’s Day. “He said, ‘Hit your next one for me.’ So the fact that I got it out of the way quick was nice. I told him, ‘They’re not that easy to hit.’”