Josh Donaldson stepped into the cage donning a red, white and blue American flag bandanna with his patented ponytail draping his neck. He stared straight forward, stoic expression and all, entertaining unworthy pitches until timing his strike.
His lightning-quick swing features a noticeable leg kick and aesthetically pleasing follow-through. The bat-to-ball crackle manifests baseball elegance. He put on a morning power display in the Braves spring training backfields Sunday, scattering his routine handiwork across the deep outfield.
It mantled more importance than basic batting practice. Injuries ruined Donaldson’s past two springs. His return to baseball’s ceremonious preseason workouts, his first with the Braves, wasn’t defined as gliding through the motions.
The former MVP, whose past season was deteriorated by circumstances beyond his control, was back with a purpose. His percolating energy and unfazed focus better suited a postseason push than an introduction to Disney World.
“That’s just how I go about my business,” Donaldson said. “I take a lot of pride in what I do. I put a lot of time into it. Every swing I take, everything I do is very precious to me. So I try to own that and have some intent to my work. There’s a focus to everything I’m doing.”
In a perfect world, Donaldson said he wants to play 150-155 games. He looks back on his frequent time off the past two seasons - due to shoulder and calf injuries — as a cleanse. He described himself as a newborn with a refreshed mind. His mental and physical health are the best they’ve been in years.
This is a story of a country boy returning to his roots. Donaldson, a Florida native who went to high school in Mobile, Ala., and attended Auburn, spent most of his major league career in Oakland and Toronto. He had a brief stint in Cleveland last season before hitting free agency.
When that bell rang, Donaldson indulged in MLB’s lifeless market. But the Braves, seeing the chance to better their lineup and depth, struck swiftly. Everyone knows the history between general manager Alex Anthopoulos and Donaldson. Anthopoulos is the one who brought him to Toronto as the centerpiece of a contender.
Anthopoulos emerged from that deal a genius. Donaldson won an MVP and helped revive the torpid Blue Jays. Toronto and Anthopoulos parted ways years ago, but Donaldson’s tenure in Canada didn’t end until last August.
When Donaldson was free to choose his destination, Anthopoulos didn’t let him endure the painful free-agency waters. He made it clear he wanted Donaldson early on and tossed him a $23 million buoy as evidence. It was the first, and one of the few, major signings of the offseason.
“If I would’ve been healthy last year, who knows what would’ve happened (in free agency),” Donaldson said. “But I’m very confident and I’m thrilled to be here and be part of this organization. Alex was very forthright with me early on in negotiating. Him and I have always had that relationship where, good or bad, we want to discuss things, how we can improve. He’s always been very honest with me. So I knew when he said he wanted to take a chance and start trying to put (a contract) together, I knew he was serious.”
The deal reunited Donaldson with his childhood team. His family’s struggles seeing him play evaporated. As Donaldson explained it, there won’t be any more attempts at following him on the west coast or in another country. They just need to turn on the local television channels.
Once a child idolizing Ron Gant, Donaldson came home the veteran with the most ability to push the Braves past a first-round postseason appearance.
“It was a great fit,” Donaldson said. “For me, being from the South, watching the Braves growing up, that plays a part in it. The environment that I’m going to be in here, that plays a huge part in it. … So I know (my family and friends) are excited about that. Whenever I step out there opening day, and I continue to go out there and do the things that I’m capable of doing, I’m sure everyone else will be excited too.”
Now Donaldson feels responsibility. He made Anthopoulos look brilliant before, and he wants history to repeat itself. His boss threw down a lucrative bet that he’d recover form and stay on the field. He gambled the Braves’ external improvement on a guy who played 52 games in 2018.
“Honestly I thought it was a great deal for me coming off the injury-plagued season I had a year ago,” Donaldson said. “I was looking forward to proving Alex right again. I proved him right the first time he got me. And now I want to do it again.”
However it turns out, Donaldson will be operating from the second spot in the lineup. He’ll hit in front of Freddie Freeman and quite possibly behind Ronald Acuna. Donaldson’s early scouting report on his fellow heavy-hitters: Freeman’s consistency and Acuna’s dynamics separate them from others.
Donaldson will hit second because he prefers it. That’s where he won his MVP. In his eyes, it’s more liberating, whereas hitting fourth requires more emphasis on being the RBI producer.
“It just allows me to be a better hitter,” he said. “At times when I’ve been in the 4- or 5-hole, I feel like I focus more on power. In the 2-hole, I can still do damage but I have the ability, hey, man on second with no outs, I can shoot a ball over here to second base and get the guy over if I need to and let Freddie, or whoever’s behind Freddie, drive them in. A lot of times that makes my approach more sound as a hitter.”
His attitude fits the Braves’ confidence. For all the complaints of a dissatisfying offseason, Donaldson might end up the winter’s best addition. That’s his underlying goal: He wants to prove Anthopoulos correct, and him maxing his capabilities will achieve it.
“I’m looking forward to going out there and proving that I can do it again,” Donaldson said. If he can, perhaps he’s the buoy that saves the Braves from drowning in the NL East’s perilous waters.
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