The right place, the right time
The Sox needed a spark, McDonald needed a chance, and the rest is history
BOSTON -- He was stashed in a safe house, or whatever the baseball equivalent is called.
"It's a secret spot,'' Darnell McDonald said of where he was waiting on call before being summoned to the Red Sox clubhouse a little more than an hour before the first pitch Tuesday night, when the Sox elected after batting practice to place outfielder Jacoby Ellsbury on the disabled list. "I can't divulge the spot. They have a fast way of getting you here when they do make the decision.''
Was it stocked with supplies, something to eat and drink?
"There's some vending machines,'' said McDonald, who had begun the day in Rochester, N.Y., where Triple-A Pawtucket was scheduled to play. 'You've got to pay for it. I kept my receipts.''
Even afterward, after McDonald had made the transition from last-minute house guest to toast of the town with a two-run, game-tying home run in the eighth and walkoff single off the Monster in the ninth inning of a 7-6 win over the Texas Rangers, he maintained his cover.
"The Red Sox got me here in a G4,'' he deadpanned, referring to the BMW sports car. "It got me here real quick.''
It got him here just in time for a team that badly needed the catharsis of a ninth-inning dog pile, one in which McDonald happily found himself at the bottom after ending Boston's five-game losing streak.
"Hopefully, I'll be able to play tomorrow -- they beat me up pretty good,'' said McDonald, who as a former running back who led his Colorado high school team to three state championships knows how to take a hit. "When I saw [Jonathan] Papelbon running out there, I tried running away.
"Somebody got a hold of me. I haven't been beat up like that in a long time.''
"Was it Youk?'' McDonald said. "I'll take that kind of beating any day. But they got me pretty good. My lip is busted up.''
For much of the night, the Red Sox were taking their licks from the Rangers, who ran wild on the basepaths in opening a 6-2 lead in the first five innings. Texas stole a club-record nine bases, including five in the third inning when the Rangers had time to send out for pizza against Sox knuckleballer Tim Wakefield and the beleaguered Victor Martinez, who has thrown out just one baserunner in 25 attempts this season.
But the Sox had trimmed the deficit to 6-4 when McDonald was sent to hit for Josh Reddick, another import from Pawtucket called up to replace the disabled Mike Cameron (abdominal tear) against left-hander Darren Oliver.
McDonald remained in the game in center field, and after Youkilis' single, a passed ball, sacrifice bunt and two walks, came to the plate again, this time against right-hander Francisco. Thirteen years after being drafted No. 1 by the Baltimore Orioles, and after thousands of miles of bus rides for minor league teams in seven organizations, he experienced the kind of moment for which he'd waited a baseball lifetime.
"I couldn't write a script any better than this,'' said McDonald, who on his right shoulder wears the tattooed face of his mother, Nina, who died 11 years ago of a heart attack at age 42. "A lot happened real quick tonight. A dream come true.''
According to the Elias Sports Bureau, McDonald became the first player to deliver a game-winning hit in his Red Sox debut since 1920, when the RBI became an official stat. He was the first player since Orlando Cabrera (Aug. 1, 2004) to homer in his first Sox at-bat, and first to do so as a pinch hitter since Curtis Pride (Sept. 19, 1997).
"Man, I wanted to be the hero tonight,'' he said. "I wanted to come through. The team has been struggling a little bit, and any opportunity I got, I wanted to be a spark. Like I said before, I didn't think it was going to happen like this, but I'll definitely take it.''
Before Tuesday night, McDonald had played in just 68 big league games. He didn't hit his first big league home run until last season, when he appeared in 47 games for the Reds. He said it was a no-brainer when the Red Sox offered him a minor league contract in the offseason, and considered his oblique muscle injury this spring a temporary, albeit frustrating, setback.
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"Early in the spring he was hurt and unable to play,'' manager Terry Francona said. "He'd gone back to minor league camp. We gave him the speech, 'Go to Triple-A, play well and we'll call you up.' And he did.''
McDonald comes from impressive athletic bloodlines. His father, Donzell, played in the Pirates' organization. His brother, Donzell Jr., made a cameo appearance in the big leagues for the Yankees and Royals in 2001 and 2002. He had an uncle, Ben, who played in the NBA, and another uncle, James, who played in the NFL.
He is 31 now, and has hung in there a lot longer than many first-round draft picks who never achieved stardom. What has kept him going?
"Believing in myself, that I could play at this level,'' he said. "For me, there's always that light at the end of the tunnel. Every year, I'm trying to get better, trying to improve over the year before. When hard work meets opportunity, things like this happen.''
There were 37,614 in Fenway Park on Tuesday night. McDonald was asked how many knew who No. 54 was.
"Probably not a whole lot,'' he said. "That's the beautiful thing about it. Hopefully, they'll know who 54 is now.''
Gordon Edes is ESPNBoston.com's Red Sox reporter. He covered the Red Sox for 12 years and has reported on baseball for 25 years. Ask a question for his next mailbag here.