Cam McDonald speaks on his baseball journey, personal growth during COVID-19 pandemic

Cam+McDonald+takes+batting+practice+during+Illinois%27+team+practice+on+Jan.+29.+

Photo Courtesy of David Craan // FIghting Illini Athletics

Cam McDonald takes batting practice during Illinois’ team practice on Jan. 29.

By Gabby Hajduk, Sports Editor

It’s a brisk March morning in Ladd, Illinois. The majority of the small rural town, just two hours west of Champaign, is still sleeping as the whole country is in lockdown due to the surge of the COVID-19 pandemic. Cam McDonald sits down for a quick breakfast of a bagel with peanut butter, some yogurt and a coffee. Still groggy, he silently finishes his meal, occasionally hearing a sly remark from his father if he was out too late the night before. 

At this point of quarantine, those late nights were rare, as Cam pushed his social life to the back burner — seeing only the people he trained with — in favor of the grind. 

After finishing his breakfast, Cam got ready for his daily 8 a.m. workout in the garage-turned-gym of Brant Vanaman — a childhood friend who plays baseball for Parkland College. Following a Karch Kowalczyk workout, Cam would make the 10-minute drive home to refuel, usually with chicken and rice or steak and potatoes, before sitting down to study hitting videos of his own swing or those in the MLB with a similar body type as him like Christian Yelich or J.D. Martinez. 

When his father, Matt McDonald, was still working in-person, Cam would wait for him at home before the pair would head to the fields to hit, take ground balls and discuss potential in-game situations. By the time his personal practice wrapped up, Cam would go back home, read a chapter out of “Mind Gym” by Gary Mack then head to bed, ready to do it all over again. 

Cam had always been more dedicated to the sport of baseball than the average player. That was apparent to Matt since his son was eight years old. But when Illinois baseball’s season was cut short due to the pandemic and Cam had nothing but a .149 batting average on seven hits and two doubles to show for his sophomore season, a switch flipped. 

“We don’t have to sugarcoat it, I sucked last year,” Cam said. “I think I put a little too much pressure on myself. I went to Los Angeles to work with a hitting instructor and ended up changing a bunch of stuff, just tried to learn more about my swing. I kinda started overthinking a lot and was doing a bunch of different things.”

He threw his all into finding his freshman year mentality — the one that led him to a team-best 34 RBIs, a second-best 63 hits and an All-Big Ten freshman team outfielder honor.

“My freshman year I didn’t really think about anything. That’s why I had success,” Cam said. “That’s definitely the correlation as to why I was good, I didn’t think. Once I started slow, it kinda came down on me. I was putting a lot of pressure on myself to do really well. I was on whatever draft boards and just wanted to continue that success. 

“I just got away from what made me successful freshman year. And once the season got banged I had to go in and reevaluate the way I was thinking throughout the season.”

———————————————————————-

Champaign is no stranger to the McDonald family. In fact, the town is where Matt’s pro pitching career was brought to fruition. Matt grew up playing baseball and basketball, the latter earning him a scholarship at Parkland. But the southpaw didn’t want to give up baseball, so he played both all while being a full-time student. It was a taxing couple of years, but well worth it.

Matt figured an NBA career was out of reach at this point, so he threw himself into baseball. He started gaining velocity which attracted national scouts and in 1994 Matt was drafted by the Oakland Athletics in the 16th round of the MLB draft.

The next five years for Matt were spent bouncing around the minor leagues, spending a couple seasons with the A’s then finishing his career with the Los Angeles Dodgers. Matt’s next big baseball venture was his most important — teaching and coaching Cam from little league to high school. 

Like Matt, Cam grew up playing multiple sports. First, Cam tried out junior football as a running back but he was a long, lanky kid, so Matt knew his son wasn’t the next Walter Payton. So Cam took up basketball and excelled, but it was never the priority. 

“He played basketball up through sophomore year of high school,” Matt said. “He was a pretty good basketball player. He was long, more of like a defender. Like he was pretty athletic. Just long. But he just didn’t put a lot of time into basketball. He was always wanting to hit or throw or so I kind of knew I would say about eight that I knew he was like he had the passion for baseball.”

Passion was always the indicator for Matt that his son was going to have success past high school ball. Knowing the amount of work and sacrifice it took to just be drafted, let alone succeed at the highest level, Matt never let up on Cam, something he isn’t always proud of. 

“It was rocky at times when he was young,” Matt said of his relationship with Cam. “I saw immediately that he had passion for the game. That was like the main thing, probably at times, I might have pushed him too much when he was young. But also just kind of seeing that passion and his competitive drive, but I’m sure at times, it was probably a little bit overboard when he was younger.”

Laziness was never an option in the McDonald house. If Cam wasn’t up early enough to practice or workout, Matt would make sure he didn’t forget about it. When Cam was younger, that constant chirping was bothersome, but that was no different than any teenager-parent relationship.

“He picks and chooses when to get on me,” Cam said. “He makes sure I’m not lazy. He’s always awake so if I ever come home past 11 and I’m not up in the morning when he’s up, because he’s up at like 6 a.m., he’ll be like ‘Oh you’re sleepin’ in now, we’re not working hard anymore.’”

What was different about their relationship was Cam knew the subtle jabs came from a place of love and understanding. Cam will even admit all the long days and heated arguments with his father were well worth it as it pushed him to success at a Power-5 program. And now the two have both matured, finding a balance with tough love. 

“He still has his little comments to get under my skin but now he’s let me go,” Cam said. “I always have him. He’s always there if I get lazy at all. It’s good for me. And he knows what it takes to make it at the highest level and be successful.”

———————————————————————-

When Cam returned to Ladd at the end of March, his mental strength was suffering. From a stellar freshman campaign at Illinois to a brutal 13-game sophomore stretch, he had hit the highest and lowest points of his career in a matter of nine months. 

“At that point last year, he was just mentally beat,” Illinois hitting coach Adam Christ said. “He had a pretty good freshman year, played a lot as a freshman, then came back, in a sense, and tried to do too much. Instead of being himself and kind of letting the maturity happen, he tried to force it a little bit, and just got some things out of whack.”

Cam’s short downfall began during winter break in 2019 when he went out to Los Angeles to train with a private hitting instructor. After a strong few months of fall ball with the Illini, Cam changed his swing, something that disappointed head coach Dan Hartleb at the time, then headed back to Champaign in hopes of an even more successful second year. 

But after recording just one hit at 11 at-bats in Illinois’ opening weekend at Wake Forest, it was clear to everyone — Cam, Matt, Hartleb, Christ and even Cam’s mother — that things were off. 

“I remember (Cam) saying, ‘I’m caught in between my swing,’ before he went to the first series at Wake,” Matt said. “Then my wife had went to the first series, and she’s not a huge baseball person. And she said, ‘he looks horrible.’ I was like, ‘what does that mean?’ She goes ‘just what I said.’ And then I kind of knew.”

Then right before the team played its final series of 2020, Christ texted Cam something that lit a fire in the sophomore: “We’re gonna work sun up to sun down to get back to where you were.”

Unfortunately, that work wouldn’t happen in Champaign as the pandemic sent college athletics into a shutdown and Cam would have to figure out a way to crawl out of the slump on his own.

Between working tirelessly on his own and sending Christ daily texts or videos about his physical and mental progression, Cam slowly started to feel like his freshman year self when his “only goal was to go in and play” rather than setting unrealistic expectations.

“You knew one thing is that he was going to work there, there’s no questions asked. The texts, the videos that he sends of him hitting, there’s no question that he’s going to work,” Christ said. “He’s an extremely hard-working kid. He cares so much about the game of baseball and his teammates, and just a great, great human. And anytime you see guys like that, that want to work and get after it, struggle like that, you feel for them.”

That daily routine of eat, workout, eat, practice, eat, sleep allowed Cam to regain his footing with the mental side of the game, something Matt had stressed to him since he was young. Cam started reading sports-based books and doing yoga almost daily to help center himself. 

“Every day I was just more disciplined than I’ve ever been before. Once quarantine started, I put everything into baseball. It almost became an obsession.”

Quarantine was not only a time for Cam to revamp his relationship with baseball but also his relationship with Matt. While the two always loved and respected each other, from tee-ball to high school the main focus was baseball and finding a way to get Cam to a Division I program. 

But the long days at the field taking batting practice, fielding ground balls and talking through in-game situations strengthened their relationship away from baseball. 

Sure, they still had random screaming-matches, like the one right when Cam got home from school and Matt immediately brought up his batting average from the season which caused a two-day radio silence. But those arguments were nothing compared to the quality time they were able to spend together while Cam did school from home and Matt worked from home. 

“Without the game and the pressure of performing and stuff, I got a chance to coach him again,” Matt said of their time together in quarantine. “That was just more or less talking to him, like making sure that he stayed with it. 

“And that failure was a huge part of this if you’re going to play after college and have success at a high level.”

And now Cam knows his father holds the number one spot in his corner. While they try not to talk about baseball too much anymore, especially during the season, Cam knows Matt is a phone call away when things do get hard. 

“When I’m struggling I can call him now and talk to him because he knows I have done everything I can to be ready. So if I’m struggling or something’s not going well, he’s the first person I can call and talk to. And I know he’s not going to tell me that I look really good when I don’t. He’s going to give me the honest truth.”

———————————————————————-

Cam will have his first chance to showcase his quarantine success on Friday as the Illinois baseball team plays its first set of games since last March with a four-game series against Ohio State. 

While Cam hasn’t played with the Illini in a year, the junior was able to kick some of the rust off playing a limited summer ball schedule in Rockford. By the time Cam finished his near 80 at-bat summer, he felt he was in a “good spot with (his) swing” and felt comfortable at the plate again.

“This summer helped him out with his confidence,” said Illini junior Branden Comia. “Just talking to him every day, Cam’s one of my best friends and has been since we were 12 years old, by the middle or end of the season last year, Cam would’ve just figured it out. He always does. I don’t think he got the opportunity to show that last spring but I definitely think he’ll bounce back this year.”

Since being back on campus this fall, Cam’s coaches and teammates have all noticed his flipped mentality. With finding the swing that makes him comfortable, the mental aspect of his game swiftly followed. And that’s all Hartleb needed to see to know Cam will once again be a key contributor to his team.

“This year (Cam’s) doing things that will allow him to have success and it’s much easier to have a strong state of mind. And he’s a year more mature. He learned a lot from that,” Hartleb said. “Sometimes you have to struggle and hit rock bottom before you really start taking off as a person, as an athlete. I think from an athletic standpoint, him having all that success, thinking he had it all figured out, hitting the bottom for a while, it’s a blessing long-term for him.”

But for now, Cam’s focus is off himself and solely on the team. Growing up playing with or against more than half the guys on the team, Cam said the chemistry has never been better since his time at Illinois. 

Between a first-game exit in the NCAA Regional freshman year and a canceled season sophomore year, the class of juniors has a lot of unfinished business. 

Still living in a COVID-19 world, Cam and the Illini have taken each day in stride and learned to appreciate the small moments together, even if that means setting aside their individual aspirations.

“A goal since I’ve been a little kid and a dream is to get drafted,” Cam said. “But if that happens this year, next year, or the year after that, it doesn’t matter to me. I’ll still get the chance to play baseball. I think quarantine really changed that for me like not being able to get the chance to play. As long as I’m getting the chance to play baseball with my team, my best friends, getting drafted doesn’t really matter. 

“So, I don’t get drafted at the end of this year, I get to come back and play at the University of Illinois with my best friends? That doesn’t sound too bad to me.”

@gabby_h11

[email protected]