In his first full year with Oakland, Josh Donaldson has shown what he can give the club. Time after time, the third baseman has delivered clutch, run-scoring hits in crucial situations that helped propel the Athletics to first place at the All-Star break.
Donaldson has also shown what he can take, namely, Oakland’s notorious clubhouse antics. The Athletic dressed up in a wrestling costume in a rookie initiation ritual and agreed to photocopy his rear end in a television commercial. In particular, Donaldson has endured in good humor a steady stream of whipped cream pies to the face delivered by teammate Josh Reddick.
“That’s one thing we feel is a part of our success,” Donaldson said of the team’s quirky humor. “We have a lot of guys who enjoy being at the field and enjoy playing the game.”
Donaldson, 27, wasn’t always so comfortable in Oakland’s clubhouse.
“When I first came here, I really wanted to be seen and not heard,” Donaldson said. “The longer I’ve been around these guys, the more comfortable I’ve got with them and the more I’ve been able to open up my personality.”
And the more he opens up his personality, the more he seems to produce for Oakland. Donaldson delivered a torrid first half and led the club in hits, batting average, on-base percentage, homers and RBI at the All-Star break.
Explaining the club’s success so far this year, manager Bob Melvin pointed to Donaldson immediately.
“He’s taken it to a level that I don’t think anybody expected,” the skipper said. “It’s pretty nice to write the lineup card each day with Josh Donaldson at third base.”
Before he faced off against major league hitting, Donaldson faced a difficulty in his Florida upbringing. His parents divorced when he was still a toddler and his father later landed behind bars on domestic violence and drug charges. Lisa French, Donaldson’s mother, raised him alone.
“Mom was on top of all of it, working day and night jobs, making sure I was making the grades and making sure I was accounted for,” he said. “My Uncle Chuck also took care of me and was a big influence and father figure.”
Playing ball from the age of five, he developed a competitive streak early, his mom recalled.
“Josh was a very active child. Our life revolved around whatever sport he was in. Every vacation we took had to do with baseball,” said French. “I don’t think he played anything that wasn’t competitive, even Nintendo. I don’t know how many controllers I bought because he’d lose a game, throw them at the t.v. and break them.
“He was a good kid,” she said. “The only problem I ever really had out of him was when he was 13 and thought he was 30. There were a few years when his mouth was quite a bit more than it should have been.”
During high school at Faith Academy in Mobile, Alabama, Donaldson excelled in baseball as well as football and basketball. As a senior, he hit .515, was named an all-state pitcher and shortstop and set a school football record with 11 interceptions. He graduated in 2004.
“It was a great environment,” Donaldson said. “Their baseball program is first class. I really enjoyed my time there not only because of baseball but because of the people. Everybody that works there really cares for their students.”
Flushed with success, the young athlete developed the brashness that rubbed opponents the wrong way. Some perceived him as egotistical. Donaldson put it this way: “I developed quickly as far as sports were concerned and I was a very confident kid… It’s one of those things where you mature and try to come across in a different way.”
Now with the green and gold, Donaldson enjoys celebrating big hits with a shout or a fist pump and declared himself “king of the world” when he won a player of the week award in April. But he’s also modest, approachable and quick to deflect credit and praise toward his teammates.
College ball helped him to mature, he said. Donaldson attended Auburn University in Alabama on a baseball scholarship. “They made me an offer I couldn’t resist,” he said. During his freshman year in 2005, he made his first appearance as a pitcher, hurling two scoreless innings, before settling in at third base. Donaldson hit .294 and made the NCAA All-Region team as the Tigers advanced to the Southeastern Conference tournament.
That turned out to be the team’s most successful year during Donaldson’s time at Auburn. “There weren’t a lot of good memories in my sophomore year,” he shared about the 2006 Auburn Tigers. “We broke a school record for losses.” The team continued to struggle in 2007 even as Donaldson developed as both a third baseman and catcher. But he learned from the difficulties, he said.
“You try to take a positive out of every situation,” he said. “For me, it was my first time ever really losing. I played on winning teams all through community park ball and high school. For young kids who haven’t experienced failure, it’s easy to start pressing or grinding a little too hard. You’re going to have days where you look really good and your days when you’re really bad. You learn from that kind of stuff. Through the years, I’ve learned to take it a day at a time.”
That attitude helped sustain him during emotionally trying early days as a pro. Expecting a first-round selection, Donaldson was somewhat disappointed to be the 48th overall pick by the Chicago Cubs in 2007. Struggling on Chicago’s Class-A affiliate in Peoria, Illinois in 2008, the future big league star overcame another moment of doubt.
“I’m in Peoria and it’s freezing, we’re not really playing well, and I’m hitting terribly,” he recalled. “It was just one of those points when I asked myself, ‘Do I really want to put myself through this grind all the time?’ Every player asks himself that at one point or another. For me, obviously the answer was yes. I learned to step back, take a deep breath, enjoy the game and have fun.”
His mom never doubted that baseball was his passion and his future. “I don’t recall Josh ever saying he wanted to be anything but a pro baseball player,” she said.
Traded to the A’s in 2008 in the Rich Harden deal, Donaldson first made the big club in 2010, filling in for injured catcher Kurt Suzuki. He smashed a two-run homer for his first hit to help the A’s beat the Blue Jays. “My debut as a starter was awesome,” he recalled, and it didn’t take the club long to introduce him to Oakland-style baseball fun. After he trotted the bases, the club gave him the silent treatment in the dugout.
“The first hit wasn’t necessarily hard for me,” he said. “It was the second hit.” Donaldson’s first big league cup of coffee lasted 14 games and he wouldn’t don the green and gold again until 2012.
Last year he made the trip between Sacramento and Oakland several times, again leading him to doubt his future only to rebound with the patience and determination he’d developed along the way. Following the injury to third baseman Scott Sizemore, the club moved Donaldson to the hot corner. There he turned himself into a fielding machine, once starting a triple play. Meanwhile he developed a knack for smashing big hits that helped fuel the playoff drive, including a four-for-four effort against the Indians. Defeating the Texas Rangers on the last day of the season thrilled the young Athletic.
“All the stars lined up. It was really amazing,” he said. “All the analysts counted on the Rangers to win the west and a lot of them said the Angels would catch us too and knock us out of the playoffs. To be in first place on the last day of the season by sweeping the other team was a dream come true.”
During the offseason, Donaldson trained ferociously and adjusted his regimen to prepare himself for full-time duty at third base. “I worked on being explosive and getting my agility back,” the former catcher said. “I did a lot of heavy lifting, box jumps, anything that had to do with explosion and power. I feel strong as ever now and my quickness is pretty good. I’ve had a lot of infield singles this year, beating out some close plays.”
This season Donaldson has developed into a Gold Glove-caliber third baseman. “He’s really nailed down the position,” Melvin said. His favorite defensive highlights include an over-the-tarp grab against the Cardinals and a diving catch to steal extra bases from the Giants’ Buster Posey.
But it’s his seemingly endless supply of clutch hits, like his 12th inning, walk-off homer against the Tigers in April, have gained him the most attention and All-Star consideration. Give the team a big hit, take a pie in the face. True to form, Reddick nailed him after the game.
“He’s been absolutely amazing for us at all times and especially at clutch times in each game,” said second baseman Eric Sogard.
“He’s been pretty hot,” agreed hitting coach Chili Davis. “When his approach is calm, he has better pitch recognition. He gets pitches to drive, he drives them. In hitter’s counts, he’s aggressive. In two-strike counts, he uses the whole field. He’s starting to understand what makes Josh Donaldson a better hitter. I’d like to see him maintain that approach because that’s going to make us a tougher team to beat.”
Like a true Athletic, Donaldson found a way to repay his coaches for their kind words. An avid collector, the third baseman bought baseball cards of his coaches’ playing days, brought them to work and read their statistics aloud to them. Melvin, Davis, Mike Gallego, Billy Beane and the others didn’t all relish the experience, he said. “Maybe they don’t like all of their numbers,” he laughed.
But Donaldson proved his hitting coach’s comments correct in the July 14 game against the Red Sox which finished the first half of the season. Donaldson had had a forgettable night in the series opener, going zero for four with a strikeout and a rare throwing error. Shaking it off, he spent extra time in the batting cage the next day. In the finale, Boston’s Brandon Workman took a no-hitter into the seventh. Then Donaldson drilled a home run 438 feet to left, tying the game. Batting in the 11th, the third baseman muscled a ball the other way to right, knocking in the winning run and sending Reddick after the whipped cream yet again.
The crowd went nuts. Donaldson’s play is thrilling A’s fans and none more so than his biggest fan.
“I’m absolutely loving it every single minute of it. I’m just amazed. Every time I see him on t.v., I think, ‘That’s my baby!’” French said.
“He’s a hard working kid and a fun loving guy. He’s fit in very well to the clubhouse,” Melvin said. “We’re a bit different here and he fits in with that because he’s a little different himself. He enjoys playing the game and enjoys having fun. But when he goes out there during the game, he’s all business and plays as hard as you can play.”
Athletic can swing a golf club, too
“Are you ready to win?” third baseman Josh Donaldson asked his young partner loud enough for their opponents and spectators to hear.
At the annual A’s Community Fund Golf Classic, Oakland’s star infielder showcased both his putting prowess and his personality for charity and for fun.
Golf is nothing new to the slugger who’s carried Oakland’s offense this season.
“It’s one of my favorite hobbies,” Donaldson said. “My dad got me into it real early. I actually started playing when I was about 18 months old.” In fact, his youthful ability drew comparisons to Tiger Woods, media attention and even television cameras.
Donaldson’s parents divorced before he reached school age, and when his father left his life, golf did too.
But he rekindled his interest during his sophomore year of college. “I was absolutely terrible,” he recalled. “But if I’m not good at something, I’m going to figure it out and put the time in to get better.”
Donaldson plays for fun and has occasionally competed tournaments near his Alabama home.
“If I get a chance to play, I can be pretty good,” he said. “But I don’t get a chance to play very often. I’d say my handicap is around a three or a four right now.”
He also competes against his coaches and teammates now and then at his favorite local course, Boundary Oaks in Walnut Creek.
“Curt Young, Mike Gallego and Chili Davis are all pretty good golfers. Jed Lowrie is really good too,” he said. “It’s fun to get out there and compete in something that we don’t do every day.”
At the team’s charity event at Round Hill Country Club in Alamo, Donaldson and his young partner Haley Ali lost the putting competition despite the infielder’s trash talk. Catcher Derek Norris and his teammate took the crown.
Donaldson explained his affinity for golf this way: “I enjoy torturing myself.”
Athletics Magazine, 2013