Darnell McDonald conditioned himself to never stop dreaming, 13 years after signing his first professional contract with the Baltimore Orioles. So when he showed up at Fenway Park on Tuesday, homered in his first Red Sox at-bat and an inning later hit a walk-off wall-ball that got him mobbed by a bunch of guys with World Series rings, he said: "This is what you dream about, what I've dreamed about all these years."
McDonald is 31 years old now, with nearly 1,400 Minor League at-bats in his rearview mirror, and so it meant something that his dream moment came in front of Nelson Cruz.
"Guys like Nelson, who have battled all these years through adversity and made it to The Show," said McDonald, "keep a lot of guys going." In the next 48 hours, McDonald got hundreds of text messages from ex-teammates "and, best of all, from guys I've played against all these years who know what it's like to never give up, to never stop dreaming of moments like this."
McDonald has played in the Baltimore, Cleveland, Tampa Bay, Minnesota, Washington and Cincinnati organizations on the road to the dream moment, with 68 games and 147 at-bats in coffee stops with the Twins, Orioles and Reds. As Cruz serves as one of his role models, so McDonald stands as a reminder to all those Johnny Five Star prospects that are dreaming of being first-rounders in June that promises aren't guarantees. Being a Baseball America sure thing doesn't guarantee big league bling or Octobers; in Darnell McDonald's case it meant, as the Boston Globe's John Powers pointed out, running a race in Rochester against a horse named Zippy Chippy, the last race Zippy Chippy won before heading off to the glue factory.
In the fall of 1996, McDonald was everyone's All-American at Cherry Creek High School in Colorado. He gained 6,000 yards in his football career. He visited the University of Texas and was hosted by Ricky Williams. He was so good that if he wasn't going to sign a baseball contract, Cedric Benson was going to go to Texas Tech, but when the Orioles took McDonald in the first round and gave him a $1.9 million bonus, he signed, and Benson became a 'Horn.
The day after the Draft, one national story criticized Blue Jays scouting director Tim Wilken for selecting Vernon Wells instead of McDonald. We know how that worked out. Oh, there were glimpses of the tools equaling performance in the lower levels of the Minors, but after sustaining a torn labrum in his right shoulder in 2003, he became what's known in the baseball business as a 4A player -- good in Triple-A, OK in a big league role, but not good enough to start in the Majors. In 2009, he opened the season with the Reds and got seven starts before being outrighted on May 22.
"I never stopped trying to make adjustments and improve, because I always believed I could play in the big leagues," says McDonald. "I think I have made improvements in hitting left-handed pitching, in plate discipline -- a lot of ways."
When Jacoby Ellsbury and Mike Cameron were both hurt, Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein reached to Pawtucket for the 31-year-old McDonald.
"He can hit left-handed pitching, and in Spring Training," Epstein said, "everyone -- players, coaches, front office -- were very impressed with the way he worked, how hard he tries to make adjustments and what a good teammate he is."
Tuesday was the first three-RBI game of McDonald's career. The next night, he homered again, and again the Red Sox came back and won in extra innings. One local news station led its broadcast with "We're Lovin' It" on a night when the Bruins won in double overtime and the Celtics were in the playoffs.
"What an experience," McDonald said, "to play in this environment."
Across the field, Cruz was among the league leaders in homers and RBIs -- the same Nelson Cruz who signed with the Mets in 1998, was traded to Oakland and Milwaukee for Jorge Velandia and Keith Ginter and ended up thrown into the Texas deal for Carlos Lee.
"I played well in winter ball, and I believed that if I got the opportunity, I could make it," Cruz said. "So I never quit."
Cruz hit .300 in four different Minor League seasons. He was picked to play in the Futures Game in 2003.
Cruz was hitting .352 with a 1.126 OPS for Oklahoma City in 2007, but when the Rangers called him up, he batted .235. His on-base percentage was .287.
At the end of Spring Training in 2008, the Rangers put Cruz on waivers to outright him to the Minors. GM Jon Daniels recalls that the Red Sox called assistant Rangers GM Thad Levine and told him they thought about putting in a claim, and then would put him back on waivers to try to get him to Pawtucket.
"We had people who really liked Cruz," said one Boston official. "But if we claimed him and kept him, we'd have had to option Jacoby Ellsbury back to the Minors. After what he did in winning the World Series, that wouldn't have worked."
So Cruz passed through waivers and went back to Oklahoma City, where he hit .342 with a 1.124 OPS. He was brought up to play 31 games, batted .332, and in 2009 was in the All-Star Game.
"I made some adjustments that spring I got sent back," said Cruz.
One thing Cruz did was open up his stance, which allowed him to directly faced the pitcher in his set. As it turned out, that allowed Cruz's right eye -- his good eye -- to give him improved vision toward the pitcher. Two years later, he is one of the most feared sluggers in the American League.
Cruz is not alone in passing through waivers, then proving everyone wrong.
"Do you know how many players in the Minors look at someone like Cruz and say, 'I could be him?'" asked McDonald.
Casey Blake is the leader of the Dodgers. He passed through waivers. Boston claimed Bronson Arroyo off outright waivers. Carlos Pena passed through. So did Shane Victorino, Raul Ibanez and Marlon Byrd. And Brian Fuentes, Marco Scutaro, Heath Bell, Mark DeRosa, Manny Ramirez, Ryan Franklin, Ryan Ludwick, Doug Davis, Reed Johnson, Rafael Betancourt and Chad Durbin.
"You go through that list and realize that you should never stop trying to find players," said Daniels. "We were fortunate on Byrd and Cruz. "Then when it happens to a Cruz, you feel really good for them because they never stopped believing or trying. Usually, they really appreciate what they've earned."
Ask Darnell McDonald. The days when Cedric Benson had to wait to see what McDonald was going to do before he knew where he was going to college are long gone. So are the days when McDonald was one of Baseball America's top 100 prospects.
McDonald may never be atop the leaders board like Cruz. "But," said McDonald, "how many people get to experience what I did [Tuesday night]?"
Peter Gammons is a columnist for MLB.com and analyst for MLB Network. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.