There was a time when James McDonald knew that shagging fly balls in the outfield during batting practice at Dodger Stadium meant that he had achieved his childhood dream.
It meant he was pitching for the Los Angeles Dodgers, chasing down fly balls on days when he wasn’t scheduled to start.
“I grew up in Long Beach dreaming of one day being a Dodger,” McDonald recalls.
And for a while, he was.
Drafted by the Dodgers in the 11th round of the June 2002 MLB draft, the former Long Beach Poly multi-sport athlete was converted from a first-baseman to a pitcher, becoming the Dodgers' Minor League Pitcher of the Year in 2007 and called up to the Dodgers on Sept. 1, 2008.
McDonald made his major league debut that September, working a scoreless inning in relief.
The team against whom he debuted? The Pirates.
This weekend, in a bit of childhood baseball dreams coming true but with an ironic twist, McDonald finds himself shagging pre-game batting practice fly balls in Dodger Stadium again – a Major League pitcher, no less – but doing it in a Pittsburgh Pirates visiting uniform.
Unable to hold the starting rotation position the Dodgers gave him in 2009, McDonald in mid-season 2010 was part of a three-player trade to the Pirates for reliever Octavio Dotel and $500,000 cash.
It became what some call among the worst trades the Dodgers have ever made. Dotel pitched all of 18 innings for the Dodgers over the following month-and-a-half before they traded him to the Rockies in a September deal.
Essentially, the Dodgers got nothing for McDonald who is now a Major League starter while Dotel nears the end of his career in the Detroit Tiger bullpen.
Of course, there was the half-million-dollar cash into the Dodgers pockets. It was the McCourt ownership era, after all.
Now 28, McDonald is at a career crossroads, still young enough to achieve those boyhood dreams, though struggling to overcome a nightmarish second half of the 2012 season.
McDonald is trying to hold a starting rotation spot with the Bucs, something that appeared to be solidly his through the first half of 2012 when he compiled a 9-3 record with a 2.37 ERA in his first 17 starts into the All-Star break.
Then it unraveled in the second half of the season, as did Pittsburgh’s surprising above-.500 campaign. McDonald completed the year with a disappointing 3-5 over his last dozen starts with a 7.52 ERA and dropped from the rotation.
"I think in the second half I tried to do too much," says McDonald. "I tried to put it 'here,' instead of saying, here it is. If it's not right on the black, it didn't matter to me. The aggressiveness on the mound and the mentality on the mound was completely different."
McDonald, who thinks he’s corrected that problem, won’t face his former team on this trip. But he is off to another good start, hoping this is the season he can go start to finish and fulfill the early promise.
No one argues about the potential.
“He’s one of the best to ever come out of Southern California,” says veteran scout Phil Pote.
Certainly the lineage is there.
McDonald's father, who is also named James, was a tight end at USC and played for five seasons in the mid-1980s with the Los Angeles Rams. His uncle Ben McDonald played in the NBA with the Golden State Warriors. Three cousins have played major league baseball.
And there are times when the 6-5 McDonald has looked almost untouchable on the mound, most recently in his season debut Thursday in a tough 3-2 loss to the Chicago Cubs in which he gave up only a run on two hits in seven innings.
“I'm happy he was able to go out and do what I believe he's able to do and what we've seen him do,” says Pirates skipper Clint Hurdle.
“Big picture, you want your team to win. If you can't win, for James to go throw seven and (allow) one run, we couldn't have hoped for much more than that. He was very, very good.”
All-Star and Pirates team leader Andrew McCutcheon says he senses McDonald has finally come into his own, unbothered about what others think or say about him.
“He knows himself the best,” says McCutcheon. “He went out and pitched a gem. You hate for guys to go seven innings and get the loss.”
Pirates beat writer Ron Cook of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette says much of any chance the team has to be a contender rests with McDonald, assuming staff ace A. J. Burnett pitches up to his expectations:
“McDonald proved in the early months last season that he is capable of this kind of dominance. But can he do it consistently? Can he do it all season? I believe McDonald is the biggest key to the Pirates' season, at least the biggest pitching key.”
McDonald couldn’t be any happier, unless Thursday’s game had been a win, especially after the post-game talk he had with Burnett.
"He told me he saw a big difference in my mound presence,” says McDonald. “That means a lot coming from him because he's the first guy to get on me when he sees me doing something wrong. That's why he's such a good friend and why he means so much to our pitching staff.”
McDonald may also have an extra bit of motivation now that he hasn’t had in the past. With McDonald about to become arbitration eligible for the first time, Pirates this season have signed him to a $3.025 million contract.
“This was good for my confidence,” he said looking back on his season debut outing. “It gives me some good momentum going into my next start. I was happy with the way I competed. Every pitch meant something to me. I went right after them and did OK.”