When Josh Donaldson erupted during the rough early going of last season, it was a surprise on two counts. First, that he was speaking hard truths. Second, that he was speaking at all.
For the first few months after he'd arrived in Toronto, Donaldson said very little on any subject. He'd talk if you talked to him, but he didn't show much need to be heard.
When he gave his "this isn't the 'try' league, it's the 'get-it-done' league" speech after another dispiriting loss in May, even in that moment, it felt like a turning point.
On Thursday – the last day for all players to report – that feeling came full circle. After several days spent turning the Jose Bautista contract situation around in the organization's collective mouth and finding it unpleasantly tart, it's now clear this has become Donaldson's room for as long as he wants it.
He rolled into camp unchanged after an MVP season – same Panhandle drawl, same flat gaze, same weird hair. Some guys get big-league. Donaldson was probably born that way.
He said all the right things about the team, but with an edge.
Asked about the Jays' prospects, he didn't give the usual answer – "We feel good and have high hopes and yadda yadda yadda." Instead, he criss-crossed the field, position by position. He was detailed and occasionally barbed in his assessments.
Newcomer Jesse Chavez "is going to be a completely different guy than what Toronto probably remembers of him." Presumably, he means the 8.44 ERA.
The team's most notable free-agent signing, starter J.A. Happ, "seems like he might've figured something out toward the second half of the season." Thanks. Also, ouch.
Donaldson sounded less like one of the gang and more like a first among equals. It was an unusually assertive performance, and one that's difficult to imagine him giving at any point last year.
One thing in particular that stuck out: He extended his embrace beyond the clubhouse into the executive suites.
The players read the news. They must, since they seem to spend roughly 60 per cent of the workday staring at their phones. They know the incoming regime isn't super popular back home. Most have confined themselves to polite, distant remarks.
Donaldson is the first to talk about the Mark Shapiro court as if it's composed of people and not animatronic calculators shaped like men.
"This morning, I talked to Mark a little bit," Donaldson said, and here you expected him to drift into one of those "seems like a smart guy" non-quote quotes.
Instead: "I was giving him a hard time about his football [playing] days at Princeton. I told him I probably could've played there when I was a sophomore in high school. He can read well, so they said, 'Here's some shoulder pads.' I think a few guys here [meaning the schlubs in the media scrum] could do that."
Shortly after, Shapiro made the mistake of wandering by and was asked to talk. He looked as if someone had handed him a noose and asked him to get up on a ladder. Considering the way the Bautista contract guessing game has been progressing, you couldn't blame him.
As he settled in uncomfortably, someone said, "Josh took a friendly shot at you about Princeton."
For the first time since putting on the Darth Vader helmet for the Rogers Empire, Shapiro lit up.
"He takes a lot of friendly shots!" Shapiro said. "Compared to the level of football he's used to watching, Princeton probably doesn't qualify."
There was an unmistakable hint of gratitude in the tone. By kicking him where it doesn't hurt, Donaldson had given his boss permission to be one of the guys.
It was a little thing, as most significant things are, and a nice example of effective leadership – being kind when there's nothing in it for you.
It's also notable given that off-season contract talks between Donaldson and the new Jays regime were occasionally fraught. Nothing was publicly made of it, and it all turned out fine, but there was a considerable amount of bickering to begin with.
Over a lengthy disquisition, Donaldson only seemed wrong-footed when Bautista's shotgun negotiation came up. He fumbled about for a bit, then settled on, "I don't really have a comment as far as Bautista. I think he's one of the best players in the game."
Bautista and Donaldson are close. Bautista will see that as a message of support. If you consider it closely, it isn't. It's stating a fact. Donaldson could've gone a lot further.
It's the smart play since it appears there is zero chance Bautista re-signs in Toronto. It's the choice of someone who plans on being here for a while.
At their core, players know they are interchangeable widgets. The smart ones understand that while they live in the locker room, people who work several floors up control their livelihoods.
As Bautista begins to cut himself out of the Blue Jays' future, more and more of them will begin to insert a little bit of distance between themselves and a disruptive force. That's human nature.
That leaves Donaldson in control, both because he's the team's best player and because he's the one concerned about everyone who wears the crest. And not only the guys in uniform.
Bottom line: Donaldson's idea of "team" is more generous than Bautista's. Coupled with on-field excellence, that attitude will always win a room.
"[I] wanted to feel like … they wanted to take care of me, and invest in me," Donaldson said of his new contract. "Because I feel like I invested in this organization."
"The personal [part] of it is important," Shapiro said. "Earning their trust, making sure you … learn as much as humanly possible about them, not just as players but as people. You want to know about their families. You want to know what's important to them. You want to know how to help them."
They weren't together when they said it, but it played like call-and-response.
It doesn't guarantee anything on the field of play, but given that each commands a faction within the larger army, it's a hopeful place to start the new campaign.