Josh Donaldson's youthful bravado irks opponents and inspires his Blue Jays teammates. The fast-rising all-star third baseman has finally smoothed his rough edges, Robert MacLeod reports
Josh Donaldson has always had a love-hate relationship with his competitors, a none-too-subtle trait that boiled over in May during a game against the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.
The Toronto Blue Jays’ new third baseman had just returned to his team’s dugout at Rogers Centre when he took umbrage with disparaging comments emanating from the Angels’ side. Never one for subtleties, Donaldson responded with a couple of lurid suggestions that were caught on video – even non-professional lip readers could easily catch the message.
“I’m not here to try to throw anybody under the bus, but there was obviously something said to me,” he told reporters after the game. “I don’t just kind of banter … like that for nothing.”
Donaldson can be brash and, when provoked, prickly. His youthful bravado frequently made him the most hated player on the field – at least to opponents – while he was growing up in Florida and then Alabama. But that same drive has led him to athletic stardom and endears him to teammates, who describe him as a firebrand in the clubhouse and a win-at-all-costs ballplayer.
Last Sunday, Major League Baseball announced that the 29-year-old had finished first in fan voting to select the starters for Tuesday’s all-star game in Cincinnati, garnering close to 14.1 million votes. The tally established a record for total all-star votes, and Donaldson will become the first Blue Jay third baseman, and just the fourth infielder in the club’s history, to be elected to the game. On Monday night he will compete in the Home Run Derby.
“In my opinion he’s the best third baseman in the game,” said Pat Neshek, a relief pitcher with the Houston Astros who played with Donaldson on the Oakland Athletics. “They would tell him, go get every ball that’s hit to short, get every ball that’s in the stands and man, I’ve never seen anybody who plays so hard. I loved having him as a teammate and knowing he was at third base for me.”
This is the second consecutive season that Donaldson has been selected an all-star. And he is still coming to grips with the fan voting, which effectively christened him the game’s most popular player.
“Five years ago I probably wouldn’t have believed [it],” he said. “Did I think I had the capabilities? Sure. But if we’re talking reality, that’s a pretty big accomplishment.”
After joining the Blue Jays in the off-season in a multiplayer trade with the A’s – in which Toronto gave up popular third baseman and Canadian Brett Lawrie, among others – Donaldson has more than fulfilled expectations.
He has been a standout defender, diving headlong into the stands to catch a foul ball, spearing line drives with perfectly timed leaps and grabbing ground balls with his bare hand and then firing to first for the out. Offensively, his bloated numbers across the board make him one of the game’s most feared – and clutch – hitters. Of the 21 home runs he has slugged this season, two have lifted Toronto to walk-off victories at home, and 14 have either tied the score or given the Blue Jays the lead.
“I don’t know where we’d be without him,” said Toronto manager John Gibbons, whose team remains in the thick of the playoff hunt in the American League East.
Devon Travis, the rookie Toronto second baseman, has a locker right beside Donaldson in the Blue Jays clubhouse, providing a prime vantage point to study the habits of his fellow infielder.
“He’s one of my favourite guys to watch and see how he goes about his business,” Travis said. “In the locker room he’s all happy-go-lucky, joking around and keeping guys loose. But when that first pitch comes he is locked in. I call him ‘video game’ because of the way he plays the game, the things he does. It’s stuff I can only imagine doing in a video game.”
Less known about Donaldson is the difficult childhood he endured on the path to baseball stardom, where his unbridled competitive nature often invited derision from his peers. It was an intensity born of a demanding adolescence, a defence mechanism for a boy whose parents divorced before he reached grade school.
His father, Levon Donaldson, would wind up going to prison for 15 years for drug-related offences and domestic violence. “I had to grow up pretty fast,” Josh once admitted.
He was asked what role his childhood circumstances played in the brash behaviour. “I think it was just one of those things where, I had success when I was younger in sports, and really loved competing,” he said, measuring his words carefully. “As a 10-year-old when you’re better than a lot of players, I think I rubbed people the wrong way. I wasn’t scared to be a little bit flashier. As the years go on, you try to go about your business in a professional manner, also being yourself at the same time.”
An only child, Josh was raised almost exclusively by the stern hand of his mother, Lisa French. French, a single parent, made her mission to surround her son with as many positive male role models as possible.
It was one of the reasons why Donaldson, after attending the local high school in Pensacola, Fla., in Grade 9, was enrolled the following year at Faith Academy, a private Catholic institution in Mobile, Ala., about 80 kilometres to the northwest.
Faith has a well-regarded baseball program and Lloyd Skoda, who stepped down as the school’s coach after 38 years on the job in 2013, is a state sports legend. Skoda quickly became a father figure to young Donaldson, who was obviously a gifted athlete but was struggling emotionally.
“Josh’s momma is a phenomenal person,” Skoda said. “She was both a mom and a dad to her son. That was one reason why she put Josh with me, to have a good solid figure in his life. Me and Josh would sit around and talk, and it wasn’t just about baseball stuff. We’d talk about life stuff.”
In that first year at Faith, Skoda said Donaldson confided that he felt he didn’t have a friend in the world, and that it was his own fault.
“With Josh, it was kind of like the best defence is a good offence,” Skoda said. “He was fun to coach, a great guy, but he had some issues with his personality. He wasn’t really abrasive, but he would go on the offensive, so if you got his feelings hurt a little bit he was always ready to fight. He was a tough kid, but a good kid at the same time.”
In an attempt to smooth Donaldson’s rough edges, Skoda said he elicited the help of James Daw, Faith’s starting shortstop and a senior at the school, to act as a mentor to the younger player. Daw, who would become a close friend of Donaldson’s, said the newcomer would drive him crazy over the next year.
“Back then I wouldn’t have described Josh very nicely,” Daw said. “To be honest, he kind of came off as a bit of a jerk. He was very guarded. He obviously had a lot going on in his life, and I think that’s how he tried to protect himself, by trying to act tough. I just tried to show Josh how we did things around Faith.”
“He was one of the guys who was really tough on me coming in,” Donaldson said of Daw. “I love competition and stuff like that, but he definitely took it to another level while he was there.”
P.J. Walters, now a pitcher in the Washington Nationals organization, also played at Faith that season, and the school won the Alabama state championship. “If you’ve been around Josh, he’s kind of a loose cannon,” Walters said. “He gets worked up. But he’s a good person.”
Donaldson would go on to earn a scholarship at Alabama’s Auburn University, and from there he was drafted by the Chicago Cubs – the 48th pick overall – in 2007.
The following year, the Cubs traded him to Oakland, where in 2013 and 2014 he came into his own, earning consideration as the American League’s most valuable player award both seasons. He played a huge role in leading the A’s into the playoffs last year, slugging 29 home runs over the regular season.
But the run came to an abrupt end when Oakland was dispatched by the Kansas City Royals in the wildcard playoff, a loss that prompted A’s general manager Billy Beane to shake up the roster. Although Donaldson was a fan favourite in Oakland, Beane traded him to the Blue Jays in a four-for-one deal. Along with Lawrie, the A’s also acquired prospects Kendall Graveman, Sean Nolin and Franklin Barreto.
While Toronto has prospered by Donaldson’s presence in a lineup that also features the heavy-hitting duo of Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion, the A’s have fallen on hard times and are mired in last place in the AL West division standing.
“I was kind of surprised when Oakland got rid of him,” Neshek said of Donaldson. “I thought they could have built that team around him for many years. I definitely think Toronto is a great thing for him and he fits right in with the rest of the guys, hitting home runs. With Bautista and Encarnacion, I think Toronto has the toughest three right-handed batters in the league.”
Donaldson, while at first expressing shock over the trade, has accepted coming to a new team, a new country.
“My job’s not really to look into that kind of stuff,” he said. “At the end of the day it’s a business. Billy [Beane] and those guys, they feel like it was the best business move. I’ve come to terms with it and really haven’t tried to look back too much on it.”
Gibbons, the Toronto manager, said he knew Donaldson was good, but not as good as he has shown this season.
“He’s one of the best in the game,” Gibbons said. “You learn little bits of different things being around him – his intensity, things like that. Another thing he’s got going, he’s not afraid to fail. If he fails it doesn’t eat him alive. Some guys it eats them alive. So he goes out there and lays it out and gives it his best effort. … And usually the great ones, that’s the way they are.”
Donaldson, who also excelled at football in high school, can still dunk a basketball and is a scratch golfer, said he relishes the moments when he can affect the outcome of the game.
“Do I want to fail? No,” he said. “The important thing about baseball is understanding that failure is part of the game. But there’s also another thing that I think is kind of inside some guys that, when the game’s on the line, certain guys just seem to get the job done.
“Ever since I was a little kid, I always wanted the ball at the end of the game, whether we were playing basketball, football or baseball. I always wanted to be able to have the last say if I could. And whether I was successful or not, I was happy for that opportunity.”
Back during the 2013 season, when Donaldson was still with the A’s, his father – recently released from jail – came to see him play baseball for the first time. Afterward they went for dinner.
The son said he has not seen or spoken with his father since, noting that life moves on. Donaldson’s certainly has, taking him from a troubled boyhood to the top of his profession.