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For Fans Who Should Know Better

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Mudville: May 25, 2022 9:50 am PDT
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The years pass by and for most baseball fans outside St. Louis, what Keith McDonald did two decades ago has largely faded into a distant memory, simply a footnote to yet another baseball season.

What McDonald accomplished, though, in his brief Major League career is significant and worth remembering if only because he is the only player in the history to have three home runs as the only three hits he collected in his career.

McDonald, 48, was a 24th round selection by the Cardinals in 1994 and spent the better part of the next seven years making a methodical climb up the organizational ladder. He was a catcher with better than average abilities behind the plate who was stuck in an organization that had all the catching it needed at the Major League level – until one day it didn’t.

When Eli Marrero, St. Louis’ backup catcher injured his left thumb while sliding into second on July 1, 2000, McDonald’s nearly seven-year journey to reach the big leagues was realized. He was called up to backup Mike Matheny, who was in his first year with the Cards after spending five of the previous six seasons in Milwaukee. While no one in St. Louis had any illusions that McDonald would unseat Matheny or even make Marrero expendable, what he accomplished in a brief two-week stay with the parent club became the stuff of legend.

McDonald quickly won the hearts of St. Louis fans when he homered in his first two at-bats and then added a third nearly two weeks later before being banished back to Triple-A Memphis of the Pacific Coast League. He finished that stretch going 3-for-7 and though he added two more at-bats the following season, he would not record another hit, finishing his very brief career with a .333 batting average, a slugging percentage of 1.333 and an OPS of 1.788.

The effort puts McDonald in select company. He is one of only two people to homer in each of his first two Major League at-bats – Bob Nieman did it at Fenway Park while playing for the Browns in 1951. Since McDonald accomplished the feat in 2000, two other players, according to The Elias Sports Bureau, have two homers as both their career hits – current Minnesota pitcher John Gant and former Angels infielder Nolan Fontana. Gant is 2-for-57 with both homers coming in 2018 when he was a Cardinal while Fontana was 2-for-31, hitting one homer in 2017 and 2018, respectively.

“It was such a catching lightning in a bottle thing,” McDonald said. “I was an organizational guy that got called up because Eli Marrero tore some ligaments. When I got called up, there was really no reason for me to be called up. I was pretty good behind the plate and called a good game. And I knew how to work the bat.

“People hardly ever mention it. It bumped up a little recently because it was the 20-year anniversary. Last year I had people in St. Louis calling me and The Sporting News got a hold of me. But other than that, unless [St. Louis announcer] Joe Buck says something, and he talks about it every once in a while, that’s the only time it ever comes up.”

While McDonald remains the answer to a very unusual trivia question, that was not his goal when he set out to reach the Major Leagues.

“I thought, ‘that’s a gapper – get to second base, you fat ass – and I tripped over first base. I looked to see where the ball was and the umpire gave the signal and I thought, holy shit, you hit a home run your first at-bat in the big leagues”

MEET ME IN ST. LOUIE

McDonald was one of the stars at Esperanza High School in Anaheim, making a name for himself as a quarterback on the football team and as a leader on the baseball team. He was among the top players in the Empire League and made the All-CIF Second Team after hitting .415 as a senior. That came on the heels of a junior season in which he hit .308 with homers and 23 RBIs.

He headed to Utah on a football scholarship but red-shirted his freshman year though he did play baseball before transferring to Cypress College for the 1993 season. He hit .353 with eight homers and 37 RBIs at Cypress and that was enough to get him a spot at Pepperdine University, which had won an NCAA title in 1992. McDonald’s effort also got him drafted by Boston in the 18th round of the 1993 First-Year Player Draft though he chose not to sign.

“I was supposedly, at that point, one of the better JUCO catchers in the nation,” said McDonald, whose nickname was Fatty. “I had a full ride opportunity to Miami and a partial to Pepperdine. I had a meeting with Scott Boras [who was not McDonald’s agent] and he basically said getting an education was more important than signing for $30,000 or $40,000 a year. He said if you sign for $100,000 it’s a wash and that stuck in my head. And Boston never came back with a real offer.

“You start getting offers and comparing yourself to other people and you think where you are, that you’re worth $100,000. So, I ended up at Pepperdine and hurt my back. I had no negotiating power. I didn’t have an agent. It wasn’t uncommon for Boras to call local players and talk to them about their future and not sign them, though. Sure, if I had been better, he might have been my agent.”

McDonald played one season for Pepperdine and hit .266 with seven homers and 24 RBIs in 169 at-bats over 45 games before the Cardinals selected him in the 24th round of the 1994 Draft. Then, he began the slow steady climb to his history-making debut.

The Cards assigned McDonald to Johnson City of the Rookie Level Appalachian League, where he hit .246 with six homers and 31 RBIs. Stops at Peoria [Class-A Midwest League, 1995], St. Petersburg [Class-A Florida State League, 1996], Arkansas [Double-A Texas League, 1997] and Memphis [Triple-A Pacific Coast League, 1998] followed. He had some bright moments along the way, hitting .318 in Memphis and collecting a career-high 52 RBIs in St. Petersburg.

McDonald experienced some back issues as the decade drew to a close but got healthy and rebounded with a .304 batting average, seven homers and 41 RBIs in 1999, setting the stage for what would be his record-setting 2000.

LOOK MA, I’M A CULT HERO

McDonald often refers to himself as an organizational guy, the type of player who helps fill out the roster in the lower levels. While those types of players dream about the callup, after spending nearly seven seasons in the minors, McDonald wasn’t necessarily expecting to be headed to St. Louis in early July of 2000.

But when Marrero injured his thumb on a Saturday night McDonald was summoned to St. Louis on Monday, unaware of what would come. He had been hitting .243 with a homer and 17 RBIs for Memphis and had caught some of the Cardinal pitchers as they made their way through the system. The Memphis coaching staff suggested McDonald over veteran Rick Wilkins and St. Louis general manager Walt Jocketty obliged.

“We saw him [McDonald] quite a bit in spring training,” St. Louis manager Tony LaRussa told The Alton Telegraph on July 3. “He’s got a nice stroke and he has a nice rapport with the pitchers.”

McDonald would put that stroke on display in a July 4 matinee against the Reds. The Cardinals were comfortably ahead, 13-3, when McDonald was sent to the plate to pinch-hit with one out for shortstop Edgar Renteria. He worked the count to 2-2 before sending the ball over the fence in left center to become, at the time, the 79th player in Major League history to homer in his first big-league at-bat.

“All my dreams had come to fruition,” McDonald said. “I was 27 so I was a little older but it was the only goal [reaching the Majors] I ever set that I reached. The first pitch was strike one and I’m thinking now what? I foul off the second pitch and it’s 0-2. I’m thinking, God I need to get it together and put together a good at-bat.

“He looked like he was tipping pitches and I figured that out. I guessed fastball and I hit it off the end of the bat. I thought, ‘that’s a gapper – get to second base, you fat ass – and I tripped over first base. I looked to see where the ball was and the umpire gave the signal and I thought, holy shit, you hit a home run your first at-bat in the big leagues.’ It was completely surreal. When I got back to the dugout I was thinking I have to go talk to the pitcher about the hitters. This has been fun but let’s get a win.”

McDonald stayed in the game and caught Mike Matthews in the top of the ninth. Two days later he would make his first career start, once again facing the Reds at Busch Stadium. McDonald led off the bottom of the second inning by sending Osvaldo Fernandez’s 1-0 pitch deep over the wall in left, allowing him to share a spot with Nieman in baseball’s history books. He would later drive in a run with a groundout to first in the fifth inning.

Nieman’s sister wrote to McDonald after he broke the mark and told him how proud her brother was of the mark and that it was nice to see the record stay in St. Louis.

“My wife had left two days later [after July 4] so I was walking around downtown St. Louis when my agent called,” McDonald said. “He said ‘you know only one other guy hit two’. I was laughing, I just told him I’m lucky to be here. You know, I had no thoughts about hitting another home run.

“I was also using my roommate’s [Rick Heiserman] bat from Triple-A. When I went through the bat room I said oh there’s my roommate’s bat, I’ll use his. So, his bat with my signature on it is in the Hall of Fame.”

The first bat McDonald used is in the Cardinals’ Hall of Fame while the second bat resides in Cooperstown.

McDonald would get into games on July 8 against the Giants and on July 13th at Comiskey Park. He would get into his fifth Major League game on July 15, also at Comiskey, as a pinch-hitter in the ninth inning. The Cards were trailing 14-5 when McDonald hammered Jesus Pena’s 3-1 offering to left for a two-run homer.

Three hits, three home runs. Cult hero status attained.

“Eddie [Eduardo Perez] was hitting in front of me and Pena hit him,” McDonald said. “It looked like he did that on purpose. I had a 3-1 count and he tried to throw a fastball by me but that one I knew was gone. An ex-teammate, Sean Lowe, caught it in the White Sox bullpen and threw it in the stands. I asked him what he did with the ball and he said oh *#&%. I do have the first two balls, though. Someone in Chicago was playing streetball with the other one; it’s long gone by now.

“Oh God, the fandom of St. Louis was great. I’d been there 10 minutes and I was getting recognized places. The people who I work with now that have family who are diehard Cardinal fans they say yeah, I remember that. I did it and I barely remember it.”

McDonald’s day[s] in the spotlight didn’t last long. He had an unsuccessful pinch-hit at-bat the following day in Minnesota and was then dispatched back to Memphis, where he would stay for the remainder of the season. In fact, he wouldn’t return to the Majors until September of 2001, when he would go 0-for-2 [a strikeout and a double play] in his final Major League appearances.

“I never thought it would be my last time,” McDonald said. “I thought I had a chance of getting back at one point. That strikeout and the double play sucked. It could be worse, though. I guess I could have hit into two double plays.”

McDonald stayed with the Cardinals through 2002 and then began a search for a “perfect organization that was invested in me”. He signed with the Cubs and found out quickly that they weren’t invested in him. He then went from Pittsburgh to Texas to the Yankees, for whom he played 11 Triple-A games in 2006 before calling it a career.

He did, however, explore playing in Japan. His father, Bill McDonald, was stationed there during the Vietnam War and Keith McDonald was born there. It wasn’t meant to be, though.

“I had my agent look into it,” said McDonald, who moved to the United States two months after he was born following his father’s discharge from the service. “But because I couldn’t communicate with the pitchers, that would have been an issue. I would have had to learn the language better than I could have in a couple of month crash course. That’s what my agent told me. Whether that was true or not, I don’t know but I believed him.”

LIFE AFTER BASEBALL

McDonald said that he considered staying in the game as a coach and that he actually had several conversations about specific positions. He had been, after all, a solid catcher in the minor leagues for a dozen years but when it became apparent that he would have to start at the lower levels and not step right into a coordinator’s job, he balked.

“I was told about Rookie Ball and bus rides and you got to pay your dues,” he said. “I said what are you talking about. I rode buses for 12 years. I paid my dues for 12 years I’m not paying for 12 more. So, I got into the food business and it’s been pretty good.”

He also had a chance to play in Italy shortly after entering the food industry but said he couldn’t step away after spending only four months on that career path. He’s been in the business ever since and still lives in California with his wife, Beth, whom he met in high school.

McDonald doesn’t talk about his baseball exploits much unless someone brings it up. And, if a co-worker does happen to mention it, he tells them that if he were any better [as a ballplayer] they never would have met. Overall, though, he says he never let his two weeks of glory define who he is.

“I really enjoy the record and it’s nice to talk about now that I am 48 versus 27 when it happened,” he said. “Looking back on it, it’s a little rosy and I had a great time. I have some aches and pains but I had a great time. And, every time someone does it [hits a homer in their first at-bat], I root for them not to hit a second one. It’s like the 72 Dolphins popping champagne an undefeated team loses.”

Covered a Mets-Astros doubleheader in 1987 and never looked back. Spent eight years at MLB.com, more than half of that as the Mets beat writer. Had one beat writer from another newspaper threaten to kill him in an elevator at the winter meetings. The other half was as MiLB.com’s staff historian. Worked three years in Philly at Comcast covering the Phillies’ minor leagues and doing weekly TV spots. Author of the popular blog The Bobblist, which covers everything A to Z in the world of bobbleheads. Really.

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