Darnell McDonald used to get into the heads of pitchers.
The 16-year veteran and former major leaguer is now helping shape the minds of some of baseball’s young prospects.
After retiring from baseball last year, McDonald jumped on board with the Chicago Cubs and president of baseball operations Theo Epstein to become the coordinator of a newly-founded mental skills program at the major and minor league levels.
“It’s exciting and just working with the players and being around baseball – something I’ve done all my life – and having the opportunity to learn some new things on the mental side and recognizing how important that is, it’s cool,” McDonald said during a recent trip to Myrtle Beach to work with the Pelicans. “I like kind of being the separator, man. You know, using my experience from my career and being able to help other guys fulfill their dreams is really what is fulfilling for me.”
McDonald had a journeyman career in baseball. He spent part of eight seasons in the majors and during his lengthy career, each year he played included a stint with a minor league team.
In his new job, McDonald visits minor league affiliates and helps the prospects and coaching staffs focus more on the mental aspects of the game.
“It’s always good any time you get a guy in the clubhouse that’s been around and has played the game in the big leagues and has been through the [grind] of the minor leagues,” Pelicans manager Mark Johnson said of McDonald, who also scouts amateur players before the draft and coaches during instructional league.
“To have a relationship with a guy like that – who comes in and these guys can relate to – he can talk to the guys and he’s got a great feel because he was a player and these guys get a lot from that. They pick his brain, he picks their brain and helps out a lot with that mental side of the game.”
The Cubs have always been good about getting their players and prospects physically and fundamentally sharp, Epstein said, and he also explained he felt like it would be a blatant omission to just ignore the mental aspect of baseball.
“I don’t think it is that bold of a move,” Epstein said to The Associated Press in February. “It’s just keeping up with the Joneses and trying to get an edge. Twenty-four years ago, or whenever I started, it was a real stigma if you approached a player about working with someone about the mental game. Players are more proactive and acknowledging that’s an area they can get an edge.”
16Years Darnell McDonald spent as a pro baseball player
6MLB teams McDonald played for during career
331Career MLB games McDonald played
So, by incorporating a mental skills program, the Cubs hope to strengthen all facets of their game.
It’s a four-man program headed by director Josh Lifrak, who spent the last 10 years as the senior mental conditioning consultant at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla. Dr. Ken Ravizza – a professor of applied sport psychology at Cal-State Fullerton who has served as a consultant to the U.S. Olympics team for more than 20 years – is the program’s consultant. Rounding out the staff are McDonald and Rey Fuentes, who is the Latin coordinator.
“We’ve been doing a lot for these guys with the team that we have in place with [myself], Josh Lifrak, Ken Ravizza and Rey Fuentes,” McDonald said. “Baseball is like life and the mental side is the thing that separates good from great and being able to win championships and things like that. For the Cubs to recognize how important it is and develop this program is key; it’s really cool, man.”
McDonald understood from the get-go that Epstein and the front office had set the bar high.
“I love the direction we’re going and just being able to work with this amazing, young talent we have here is awesome,” McDonald said. “Everyone is on the same page and has the same goal of trying to bring a World Series to Chicago.”
While it’s something the Cubs haven’t done in 108 years, it’s an attainable goal as Chicago is in the hunt for a playoff spot.
And the Cubs have one of baseball’s best farm systems – ranked No. 1 by Baseball America – which has produced a group of young and talented players such as Kris Bryant, Jorge Soler, Addison Russell and Kyle Schwarber, who are all performing well in the majors.
Many more are on the rise in the farm system – including some who started the season in Myrtle Beach – and the prospects have already benefited from the mental skills program with many players praising its efficiency.
Pelicans catcher Cael Brockmeyer said he’s noticed himself looking at the game from different perspectives and is always looking for someone to bounce ideas off of, which is exactly where McDonald and the program fit in.
“He’s been with us kind of roving around for a little while now and it’s definitely a nice added bonus to have a guy like that,” Brockmeyer said of McDonald. “He has that big league experience and he understands that grind of a full baseball season so he’s one of those guys that’s good to talk to. We talk about things that are going well, things that aren’t going well and he can offer his opinions and help with that; it’s good to have someone like [McDonald].”
Said Myrtle Beach reliever and former Coastal Carolina pitcher Josh Conway: “It’s cool. Any time a former big league guy comes in here and you can talk to him about any aspect of the game, it’s definitely nice to have. He’s here helping with the mental side and it’s nice to get some knowledge about the game and apply it; we’re all growing as players [because of it].”
And McDonald has personal experience that can relate.
He said all the grinding through the minors paid off when he got his big shot with the Boston Red Sox in 2010. McDonald had perhaps his best season that year as he played in 117 games and batted .270 with nine home runs, 40 runs scored and 34 RBIs. While he played part of two seasons for the New York Yankees and the Cubs after his tenure in Boston, McDonald said he will be forever grateful for the opportunities he had and hopes to pass along as much advice he can to players hoping to one day reach the majors.
“It’s called ‘The Show’ for a reason and there’s no better place to be than the major leagues,” McDonald said. “I’ve had the opportunity to play with so many great players and [learned] from them and had the opportunity to put on uniforms from some historic franchises. It made every bus ride, all the long trips and all the years [in the minors] worthwhile being able to have that opportunity. It’s something I’m very grateful for and those things you don’t take for granted because you always remember moments and that’s all you have in life are these moments. So being able to experience some of the moments that I have and [to go to] some of these places is definitely something I’ll never forget.”
And he’s not done yet.
When the opportunity presented itself and Epstein offered him the job, McDonald jumped at the chance to stay in the sport he grew up loving.
“Last year, I kind of did a little bit of everything and got exposed to a little bit of everything and just went this route,” McDonald said. “Fortunately for me, I played 16 years professionally and spent, you know, over 10 years in the minor leagues. With the experience I gained from my career, I [understand] how tough this game is, not only physically but also mentally.”
In the second phase of his baseball career, he’s just getting started.
“This is what I know. Baseball is what I have my degree in. I’ve been doing it all my life and I love the game,” McDonald said. “I cherish the opportunity to have this experience to continue being in the game and being able to help these guys in this way as far as the mental side. So you don’t know where this life is going to take you, but this is my first love: baseball.”
McDonald focuses on the present, and preaches to the players that they should, too.
“You never know where life can take you and what you could be doing. I just try to live every 24 hours and go to the next 24 hours,” McDonald said. “The biggest thing that I teach these guys is never giving up; you can only fail if you give up. I think the biggest thing I learned along the way is that we do everything better where we’re present, when we’re here and focused on right now and really, that’s what we have control over. I just remind the guys about just being here, worrying about this game today.”
McDonald doesn’t dwell on the what-ifs, either. He was one of the best high school running backs in Colorado history as he led Cherry Creek High School to three straight state titles and finished his career with 6,121 yards, the most in Colorado's top classification when he graduated in 1997. McDonald even had a full-ride scholarship to play football at the University of Texas, but opted to pursue a career in baseball instead.
He has no regrets.
“It was a long journey. It’s one of those things where people ask, ‘Would you rather have gone and played football?’ I wouldn’t trade my experience for anything,” McDonald said. “Understanding things along my journey that I went through has put me in a position to be able to do what I do now.”