FORT MYERS, Fla. - Darnell McDonald arrived at Red Sox training camp in 2010 with few expectations, only the scattered hopes of a once-promising player who had drifted from team to team for six years.
A first-round pick of the Orioles out of high school in 1997, McDonald was released in 2004, then logged time with the Indians, Rays, Nationals, Twins, and Reds. But something clicked with the Sox. Now, two years later, McDonald sits at a locker at JetBlue Park with David Ortiz on one side and Kevin Youkilis on the other.
“It’s nice to feel like you have a home in the game,’’ McDonald said Friday before going 2 for 2 with a double and a homer in the Red Sox’ 7-4 loss to the Pirates. “I had gotten used to going someplace new every year and having to adjust. Now I come in and the people are familiar and there are established relationships. That bond means a lot to me. It feels good.’’
But there is no connection to the new manager. Terry Francona was a fan of the righthanded-hitting McDonald, using him in 196 games over the last two seasons. In 2010 especially, McDonald was a valuable player off the bench.
With Bobby Valentine, McDonald is starting all over again.
Valentine spent much of the winter reviewing the 2011 season and there were aspects of McDonald’s game he found appealing. This is a manager, after all, who started Jay Payton, Benny Agbayani, and Timo Perez in the outfield for Game 1 of the 2000 World Series.
McDonald hits lefthanders well, has some power, and is arguably the best bunter on the roster. He also can steal a base. Those are qualities Valentine can do a lot with.
“I’m hoping to see those things.’’ Valentine said. “I’ve seen him get a couple of hits and make a couple of plays and he’s had good games when he’s played. But that stuff I haven’t seen, the ability to steal or bunt, I’d like to see how complete he is.’’
Valentine also wants to see attention to detail. McDonald committed three errors last season and made several mistakes running the bases. The most egregious was in Cleveland on April 7.
In a game the Sox were trailing 1-0, McDonald slipped rounding second in the ninth inning and was thrown out as he scrambled back to the bag. His mistake ended the game and left the Red Sox 0-6.
“What I saw [of McDonald] I liked, what I heard [about him] last year, I didn’t like,’’ Valentine said. “I’m trying to figure out what he is with this team.
“There were things when you hear about, the pickoffs, that were going on last year. We talked about it and he says they’re behind him. That’s cool. But you have to see it.’’
McDonald had a poor 2011 overall, hitting .236 with a .303 on-base percentage. The spark he provided in 2010 wasn’t there.
“You always have to show people what you can do,’’ McDonald said. “I know that’s the case now because that’s always the case for me. I have something to prove every day I put the uniform on.
“Bobby has a National League background and he knows how to use his bench. I think that can help me out. He is very creative and has a lot of ideas. I trust him to put me in a position to be successful.’’
McDonald has no guarantees. Jacoby Ellsbury is set in center field and Carl Crawford will be in left once healthy. Ryan Sweeney and Cody Ross are expected to split time in right field.
Can the Sox carry five outfielders? Ryan Kalish, who is recovering from shoulder surgery, could push for a roster spot later in the season. The Sox also are intrigued with the defensive ability of Che-Hsuan Lin.
Two minor league free agents - Jason Repko and Josh Kroeger - are in the mix, too.
“I can’t worry about other guys. My job is to prepare myself the best I can. If I start breaking down the roster instead of watching video or working in the cage, I’m not helping myself,’’ McDonald said. “One of the things I’ve learned here is how hard you have to work. Even if you’re a superstar, you have to work at your craft.’’
The 33-year-old McDonald and his wife, Synara, have two children and another on the way. He said playing with the Sox has changed his life, making things more comfortable for his family and bringing him a level of fame - however modest - he never imagined.
“It’s funny when I go on Twitter and there are people asking me questions,’’ said McDonald, who has nearly 8,500 followers for his @MacDime54 account. “We have such great fans. I’m always amazed, no matter where I am, how many people say something or wish me luck. I love the passion of the fans.
“I made some money in the game when I was younger, but now I really appreciate it more. I treasure what I have here.’’
Now it’s a matter of finding a way to stay.
“You can’t ride the roller coaster and worry about the ups and downs,’’ McDonald said. “I want to be consistent every day and show them what I can do. I proved myself before and I’ll do it again.’’