In Praise of the Indispensable “Utility” Player

— this post written jointly with my wife Beth Herst —

At a time when Toronto Blue Jays fans are honoring legendary former second baseman Roberto Alomar’s induction to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, I’d like to celebrate two of Toronto’s so-called utility players, John McDonald and Mike McCoy. Unlike Alomar, they are not stars. They will never receive that call from Cooperstown. Yet in their way they too represent the best of the game.

McDonald, 36, is now a veteran, having been with the Jays since 2005. His fielding is superb, and he is well-known for his diving catches and near-flawless execution. His hitting, however, has never been quite strong enough to hold down a permanent position in the starting line-up.

McCoy, 30, has been with the Jays since 2009, primarily with its Triple A farm team in Las Vegas. Since the beginning of the season, he has been shuttling back and forth as a replacement player, playing nearly every position in the field, including pitcher. (McCoy pitched a perfect last inning for the Jays in a recent 16-4 shellacking by the Red Sox. Given his lack of velocity, and the one-sided nature of the game, one suspects a measure of collusion on the part of the rampaging Sox.)

A personal disclosure: my family has long been huge fans of Johnny Mac, as he’s known. That was our eight-year old son on the Jumbotron on Canada Day, holding a hand-lettered sign reading “John McDonald for Prime Minister – Again”. And we’ve become equally enthusiastic supporters of the cheerfully professional McCoy.

What is it about these two men that draws our admiration? It isn’t just the exemplary work ethic that clearly motivates them both. Not just their loyalty to the team and the “hustle” that is evident in every play. Not even the mental and physical discipline that allows them to summon their best effort, sometimes literally at a moment’s notice.

More than anything, it is their passion for baseball and their abiding desire simply to play the game they love, without star status, or salaries to match. And that’s how they play it, with love, and without ego, or tantrums, or extra-curricular scandals. It is a passion that is manifest in the way both men talk about the game and the privilege of playing in “the Show”.

The legendary manager of the New York Yankees, Casey Stengel, knew that no ball club can consist only of stars. He surrounded luminaries like Mickey Mantle and Yogi Berra with utility players who could be counted on to bring their best to the ball park every game and allow the stars to shine.

The reality of the Blue Jays’ position as a small-market team in the toughest division in the Major League, struggling to play .500 ball, means their corporate owners aren’t willing or able to match the salary bill of the Yankees or the Red Sox. And Jays fans have recognized this fact of life, embracing not only our few high-wattage headliners (the prickly ace Doc Halladay, the pensive and intense late-blooming phenomenon Jose Bautista), but the indispensable, hustling utility players too.

Johnny Mac is tremendously popular with Toronto fans, a testament to his modesty, integrity and commitment to community service in the city, as well as his professional skill. And Mike McCoy too has earned widespread affection and respect. Still, McDonald’s contract finishes this year, and McCoy continues to accumulate those frequent flyer points. Could there be a coaching position in McDonald’s future? It seems an ideal role. And surely the stalwart and versatile McCoy has earned a permanent berth?

With late-breaking news of trades flooding every Major League website, this seems a particularly good time to insist on the importance of players like McDonald and McCoy to the Blue Jays and their fans. Both play baseball with professionalism, modesty, commitment, and love. The team is the better for their presence, and so are we.

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