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cathal kelly

Josh Donaldson grew up unhappy in Florida.

His father spent the length of Donaldson's childhood in prison for attacking his mother, among other crimes. Donaldson was a multisport star and, by all accounts, a damaged kid and an insufferable braggart. He grew so unpopular with his peers, he was forced to move from the local high school in Pensacola to another, one state over in Alabama. He drove three hours each day to get there and back.

He was a college standout (meaning, not good enough to draft out of high school). He was taken 48th (meaning promising, but no sure thing). He was traded before he'd ever played a big-league game (meaning, roster chum in the making).

He was at that point a catcher. Evidently, not a very good one. After a half-dozen frustrating seasons in the minors, he decided to switch positions. As usual, he didn't ask anyone. He went to winter ball in the Dominican Republic and told coaches there he was a third baseman. So he played at third.

During spring training the following year, Donaldson happened to be standing nearby when Oakland's starting third baseman tore up his knee during a fielding drill.

Donaldson told ESPN.com that while the other guy was being dragged off the field, he turned to the manager and said, "You want me to go over there?"

"Over there" meaning third base. The manager waved him over. And he never left.

That's how bizarre and wonderful baseball can be.

Four years ago, Josh Donaldson was an undersized afterthought, a 26-year-old bantam rooster trying to catch someone's attention.

Today, he is the American League's most valuable player, and one of the top five position players in the game.

When we trace back the season that was – the Jays' best in nearly a quarter-century – the story should begin late on the evening of Nov. 28, 2014. As word began to spread that Donaldson had been traded from Oakland to Toronto for homegrown migraine Brett Lawrie, every long-time watcher of the team was forced jarringly into a state of reconsideration.

For five years, then-GM Alex Anthopoulos had made a series of smart (and, very occasionally, not-so-smart) moves that hadn't really amounted to anything. They were workmanlike, risk-averse and tended to make his team incrementally better. You don't get anywhere in baseball in increments. You take great leaps, either through good luck or out-sized aspiration.

Donaldson was a shift. This was Anthopoulos entering the kamikaze stage of his time in Toronto. In the last year of his contract, he knew he was being fitted for concrete shoes. Turns out, he was right. So he changed his approach.

He gave away three good prospects for Oakland's all-star in order to fill a hole that wasn't really a hole. It was the first signal that Anthopoulos was willing to give away all his minor-league capital for a winning major-league season. There is a dotted line from Donaldson to Troy Tulowitzki to David Price and all the little, indispensable pieces in between.

Had it not worked from the outset, we wouldn't have seen that flurry at the deadline and, at least for a moment, watched Rogers cut the tethers of financial prudence.

Donaldson would say later that it took him weeks to wrap his head around the trade. After two phenomenal seasons, the guy who'd worked so hard to show up all the people who told him he wasn't good enough was being told that again. You can imagine how it might unwind some players, at least for the first while. You half-expected Donaldson to roll into spring training wild-eyed and looking to bury the Oakland A's.

There was none of that. Not a hint. If Donaldson was a bonehead as a kid, you wouldn't know it now. Few Jays, past or present, seem as purposeful and at ease with themselves.

You see him gamboling around the clubhouse in a spaghetti-strap muscle shirt with his hair tied back in a samurai top-knot, swinging his bat like an axe and you think, "This is not the look of a conformist." But it works.

Some people just fit. Donaldson is one of those people.

By May, he was the best player on the team. In June, around the time he went three rows into the stands to preserve a Marco Estrada perfect game, he was everyone's favourite player. In July, it seemed as if his MVP push was going to be the only real point to the season. In August, after everything changed, he had one of the best individual months in team history (.324 batting average, .408 on-base percentage, .724 slugging percentage).

On a purely statistical basis, second-place finisher Mike Trout probably should have won the MVP. Apparently, and to their credit, voters preferred etymology to math. As in, what "valuable" actually means. Donaldson was the man who turned Toronto into a winner, on the field and off. His arrival signalled the shifting tide.

Donaldson is under team control for three more seasons. Apparently, he's happy to go year-to-year through arbitration. It frees the Jays from the difficult decision of whether to sign him long-term right now, considering that, at nearly 30, he's not a young pro.

It still isn't clear where the Blue Jays are headed now. Rental ace David Price (ninth in MVP voting) will go elsewhere through free agency. Without him, the rotation is one blown tire from substandard.

If next season starts to go sideways, there will be pressure to trade one of Jose Bautista (eighth in MVP voting) or Edwin Encarnacion (12th), both of whom will be free agents at year's end. Even if it all works out, it's highly doubtful you can keep both those guys. After the highs of 2015, it could get mediocre in a hurry.

The one thing that will not change is Donaldson.

He is more than just the best Toronto Blue Jays player. He's the one unsullied by the team's past. When we think of Donaldson, all we think of is winning. The MVP award seals it.

Four years after Donaldson asked to go "over there," he ended up here. He changed a franchise. If it has any hopes of staying changed, that will in large part be up to him.