Before Soler/Baez, Darnell McDonald was the next big thing

Before Soler/Baez, Darnell McDonald was the next big thing

February 25, 2013, 11:15 pm
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MESA, Ariz. – Darnell McDonald’s locker is in between Jorge Soler and Javier Baez, which puts him at ground zero for all the wild optimism shared by desperate Cubs fans.

Walking up the tunnel from the dugout and into the HoHoKam Stadium clubhouse, Starlin Castro’s locker begins the row on your left. Sipping a cup of coffee on Monday morning, McDonald sat down in the chair in front of Baez’ locker, because the kids had taken over this space.

A few minutes earlier, Baez had his feet up, showing Soler and Castro a video on his phone. Junior Lake stopped by to see what everyone was laughing about. Baez then stuffed himself into Soler’s locker, while Castro reclined inside his own locker and Welington Castillo sat down to join the conversation.

Together they are supposed to be The Future. Do they have any idea that McDonald was once supposed to be The Next Big Thing?

[MORE: Soler shows off his power]

This was before the explosion of information all across the Internet. Baseball America once rated McDonald as the best high school position player in the 1997 draft – and that might not have even been his best sport.

At Cherry Creek High School in suburban Denver, McDonald ran for more than 6,000 yards, scored 80-plus touchdowns, won three state football titles and signed a letter of intent to play at the University of Texas.

That college-football threat left McDonald still available when the Baltimore Orioles were up at No. 26, four slots after they made another first-round pick.

The Orioles were still buzzing about Camden Yards, their beautiful new ballpark, and putting together a 98-win season and a second straight trip to the ALCS. At No. 22, Baltimore had taken a tall, skinny high-school kid from downstate Illinois – Jayson Werth.

McDonald is 34 years old now and speaks thoughtfully in a low, slow voice. He remembered what it was like showing up at the Orioles complex in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

“I was sitting in a far, far corner not talking, not saying a word,” McDonald recalled. “Being a first-round pick, you get a lot of money at a young age. Having the option between football and baseball, it’s kind of like you’re a target when you first walk into a big-league clubhouse, because they already know about you.

“When I came up, the whole dynamic of the clubhouse was different. I was star-struck, to be honest with you. You got Cal Ripken, Brady Anderson and Eric Davis, these guys you watched growing up. So it was fun, but at the same time, you already knew that you were to be seen and not heard.”

[RELATED: Cubs challenging Welington Castillo to raise his game]

McDonald smiled at the scene. He has a laid-back way about him, no get-off-my-lawn edge. The two blue-chip prospects have impressed teammates and coaches with their poise during their first big-league camp.

Remember that Baez was born in Puerto Rico on Dec. 1, 1992. Soler, the $30 million Cuban defector, turned 21 on Monday, which brought another list of top prospects into cyberspace.

Baseball Prospectus featured four Cubs on its Top 101 “Prospects Will Break Your Heart” rankings: outfielder Albert Almora (No. 18); the shortstop Baez (No. 20); the outfielder Soler (No. 36); and right-hander Arodys Vizcaino (No. 54).  

“These young guys, they’re working hard,” McDonald said. “They’re asking questions. It seems like they’re eager to learn, and that’s the main thing.

“They want to get better every day. You don’t have to (tell them). These guys are getting here early and leaving late. That’s what you want to see. For me, I kind of had to learn the hard way.”

McDonald laughed at that last line. Sports Illustrated profiled him in its Feb. 17, 1997 issue as part of a larger story on potential two-sport stars.

Super-agent Scott Boras is quoted in the article talking about McDonald: “He's not a football player trying to play baseball. This young man is a franchise-type player. He has the speed, the power, the arm and the instincts.”

Jeff Moorad – the agent who would deliver Manny Ramirez to the Boston Red Sox on an eight-year, $160 million megadeal before becoming CEO of the Arizona Diamondbacks and San Diego Padres – got McDonald a signing bonus worth almost $2 million.

Baltimore recognized McDonald as its minor-league player of the year in 2002. He made his big-league debut in 2004 but has spent time on the Triple-A level in each of the last 12 seasons. That gives him a unique perspective and an appreciation for the time he spent at Fenway Park the last three years.

McDonald generated a spark for the Red Sox in 2010, hitting .270 with nine homers, 34 RBI and nine stolen bases in 117 games. He hopes the National League will be a better fit for his skills off the bench.

McDonald had to shave and cut his dreadlocks after the New York Yankees claimed him on waivers last summer. That definitely came up when he spoke with Cubs president Theo Epstein before signing a minor-league deal.

“I asked Theo if he had any policy on that,” McDonald said. “The main thing he said was: ‘Man, I want you to be yourself.’”

McDonald chose the Cubs because of those Red Sox connections, as well as the chance to compete for a job in a crowded outfield and play for another historic franchise.

Another connection almost brought McDonald back to football when he was struggling in the minors. Cleveland Browns coach Butch Davis – who tried to recruit him to the University of Miami – twice asked if he wanted an NFL shot as a running back and kick returner.  

McDonald came close to accepting the offer, but realized he’d lose money the Orioles still owed him. He understands the NFL is a brutal business. At least he won’t have to wonder whether he’ll be able to walk 10 years from now or worry about how concussions could destroy his life and his family.

And McDonald must enjoy the grind. He hammered an inside fastball from Los Angeles Dodgers lefty Chris Capuano on Monday and it soared over the left-field wall at Camelback Ranch for a no-doubt, three-run homer in a 7-6 loss.

You can feel paralyzed playing what-if. Soler and Baez are never going to have it like this ever again, when everything seems in front of them. No one knows if they’re going to live up to the hype. But McDonald is happy to draw from that energy.   

[RELATED: Cubs eager to take a longer look at Soler, Baez]

“It’s a new journey,” McDonald said. “It feels refreshing to be over here, with so many young guys. It brings out the fountain of youth in you.”