The strange story of Darnell McDonald and the challenges of drafting two-sport stars
|06.06.11 at 8:22 am ET|
Judging whether or not a young man has enough potential for a future in Major League Baseball is hard enough. Judging whether or not he has the desire to pursue it and dealing with his family and agents takes it to a whole other level.
That’s what amateur scouts and big league executives get paid to judge this week as they deal with thousands of high school and college-age athletes and their representatives. The challenge of understanding a player’s makeup is viewed as almost as important — sometimes more important — than scrutinizing his tools on the field.
“It’s a huge factor. I remember when I first started in the draft room in San Diego in 1998, I was shocked how much of the conversation was about makeup and personality and a player’s background, talking about what his parents did for a living, if his parents were still together, what his guidance counselor thought, what this kid did off the field,” Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein said. “It was at least 50 percent of the conversation and it still is.
“You have to think about, you’re drafting a high school kid and you’re making him a professional. He’s never been away from home before. So, you’re dealing with homesickness, and you’re dealing with how disciplined and independent an individual this person is, and whether he can survive off the field to put himself in a position to let his baseball ability manifest. You’re projecting a 17-year-old kid from a small town in the middle of nowhere and how he’s going to be 10 years later when he’s 27, pitching in a pennant race at Fenway Park with 40,000 people looking at him. You really have to figure out what makes a kid tick.”
That challenge is significant enough in its own right. It becomes even greater when it comes to the question of multisport stars who have scholarship offers to pursue a path in other sports.
The Sox have made such multisport talents a staple of their recent drafts. In 2006, they signed Ryan Kalish away from a football commitment at the University of Virginia. In 2007, one of their top prospects, Will Middlebrooks, passed on a two-sport scholarship at Texas A&M to begin his career with the Sox. In 2008, Casey Kelly walked away from the opportunity to quarterback at the University of Tennessee to sign with Boston. The following year, powerful running back Brandon Jacobs passed on a chance to play football at Auburn to start his pro career. And in 2010, the team signed Kendrick Perkins away from a football scholarship at Texas A&M to begin the long process of honing his baseball skills as a minor leaguer.
There is a concern about giving a player money to pull him away from a second sport only to have him second-guess the decision when he finds life in the minor leagues challenging.
“You want to get these kids to the sport that they love,” Sox amateur scouting director Amiel Sawdaye said. “Buying them out of a different sport like football, where that’s the one they love, a lot of these kids, when they start to struggle, they say, ‘Shoot, I need to go back and play that other sport. That’s the sport I love.’ You need to make sure the kid’s on board first.”
That is no small task. Making sure that a player is motivated not merely by money but also by a genuine love for the baseball diamond can be a terrifically complex undertaking. And sometimes, as in 1997 for scouts Logan White and John Green, teams are merely caught in the crossfire.
At the time, both worked in the Orioles organization. Among the very talented prospects they had their eyes on was a slender, strong and extraordinarily speedy athlete at a high school in Colorado that would produce names including Brad Lidge, David Aardsma and Josh Bard.
That gifted athlete was Cherry Creek schoolboy Darnell McDonald.
“I first learned about Darnell when he was about 14 or 15 because he had an older brother, Donzell, that played a little bit in the big leagues with the Yankees and I was their area scout back then,” White said. “Donzell could really run. He couldn’t throw, but he could really run and was athletic. But he wasn’t nearly the athlete in football or anything that Darnell was.
“I remember talking to his father back then and he said, ‘I’ve got a younger son that’s even better. That’s the first time I heard of Darnell.”
Green has been in baseball all his life, as his father, Dallas Green, managed the Phillies, Cubs and Yankees. Dallas was the skipper who led the Phillies to their first World Series title in 1980. Green, as the East Coast amateur supervisor for the Dodgers, works for White, who is the club’s assistant GM in charge of scouting.
“He was obviously, what we thought at the time, was a five-tool athlete,” Green said. “We thought this guy could really run, 4.0 [seconds] flat down the line. And Darnell, believe it or not, at one time had a cannon for an arm. In high school, he’d be 94-95 off the mound. He wasn’t a pitcher, but he was a thrower, had a heck of an arm. But we thought, he could hit and hit for power. He’d play center field, hit 20 homers, hit .285 and steal about 40 bags. He was a tremendous athlete with great skills.
“He’d played so much football, he wasn’t as skilled a baseball player as you’d see today.”
But did McDonald want to play baseball?
“I posed the question to him before the draft,” Green said. “He told me he loved baseball and we took him at his word. And I think that’s proven itself out because you don’t hang around as long as he has if you don’t love the game. He’s proven that. I’m proud of that. And Darnell should be proud of that. He had all those tools but it took all those minor league at-bats to become a big league hitter.”
“My gut instinct was — early on — he wanted to play baseball over football,” White added. “It was a very difficult sign. He had [agent] Jeff Moorad at the time. We flew in and they wouldn’t let us meet with them and his dad. We couldn’t talk to Darnell at all.”
In 1997, the Orioles were highly successful — winning the AL East that season before losing to the Indians in the ALCS. They drafted No. 26 that June. That year, there was another player many scouts had their eyes on, a player like McDonald with a full five-tool complement of skills, the first-ever 30-30 player in Division 1 college baseball history.
But Drew was at Florida State and figured to be much closer to major league-ready than McDonald.
“He wasn’t expected to get to get to us,” White said. “Where we picked, he was supposed to go in the first five picks. It was J.D. Drew and Darnell, and J.D. was a college guy and Darnell was a high school guy and Jeff was trying to compete with Boras.”
Boras, of course, is Scott Boras. And, as it turned out, Drew was selected second overall by the Phillies but elected not to sign, instead playing independent-league ball before re-entering the draft the following year. J.D. Drew was picked fifth overall in the first round by the Cardinals in 1998, and received a then-record $3 million bonus.
“J.D. was a college guy and Darnell was a high school guy,” White said. “So, I think Moorad [through McDonald] was trying to compete with Boras. Jeff didn’t want us to have any contact with him at all. We knew all along this kid wanted to play baseball. This kid wanted to play baseball.
“He was a really good football player, probably more advanced as a football player than a baseball player, by far.”
But convinced that McDonald’s heart was in baseball, White and Green then had to find a way to get McDonald away from influences that might have him hold out.
“When you go back to the signing of Darnell, it took a lot of guts on his part,” White said. “His mom passed not too long after he signed, he had to basically let Jeff Moorad go and ignore his father, and we actually sequestered him up to Seattle, with the mom’s permission, and started the signing process up there and finished it up in Denver.
“He actually had to go against his father and Jeff Moorad at the time to sign. He showed a tremendous desire to play pro baseball back then and that he had some guts to him because a lot of guys wouldn’t have done that but he wanted to play that bad and he suggested that. It doesn’t surprise me that he’s hung around and played.”
McDonald ended up signing with the Orioles for a $1.9 million bonus. While the projections of his stardom did not come to fruition, he represents in many ways a scouting success story, someone whose makeup led him to do everything in his power to translate his potential into a big league career.
The fact that McDonald was willing to toil primarily in the minors for 13 years before finally spending nearly a full season in the big leagues with the Red Sox in 2010 served as an indicator that White and Green had come to read the player’s personality accurately, despite numerous obstacles.
But McDonald — who remains in close touch with the men who first believed in him — offered another more important reminder about his makeup earlier this year. When McDonald heard of the Tucson shootings in January that claimed the life of Green’s 9-year-old daughter Christina, he made his way to the funeral service on Jan. 13 to pay his respects.
Alex Speier contributed to this report.
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