Whenever Josh Donaldson steps onto the home field, there is this unspoken sense that this is his ballpark. He’s only letting SunTrust borrow the naming rights.
Some guys think they are pretty good. Some guys can front self-assuredness. Then, there’s Donaldson. “You can’t bring him down, ever. He has so much confidence it just oozes out him,” said his Braves teammate, Freddie Freeman.
When the Braves signed Donaldson for $23 million – striking the richest one-year deal for a position player in baseball history last November – he had a simple, rote answer for those who asked what he’d contribute for this princely sum after a couple of injury-plagued years.
It was the same answer he’d offer when asked about his slow start with his new team: Just look at the back of the baseball card. It’s all there. Four consecutive years top 10 in MVP voting, winning in 2015. When he’s healthy – the big IF in the room – you can pencil him in for some robust numbers. In the four seasons he played 155 games or more – 2013-16 – he hit .284 and averaged 33 homers and 103 RBIs.
“I have confidence in myself and my ability, but a lot of that confidence comes because of preparation, history and ultimately self-confidence that I’m going to figure it out eventually,” he said.
Inside the 33-year-old Braves third baseman with the radicalized mullet hairstyle there will always be traces of that kid from the Florida panhandle who waded through more sludge than any kid should. And came out the other side determined to, by God, take control of his second home, the diamond. If that meant taking way too much satisfaction in a talent beyond his years or alienating just about everyone on his first high school team (he would need a change of scenery, and transfer), so be it.
Sometimes that combative kid still comes out to play. Like last month when Pittsburgh pitcher Joe Musgrove brushed Donaldson’s jersey with a pitch, and a simple jog to first weirdly escalated into a bench-clearing episode that got both fellows ejected. Donaldson clearly was the accelerant in that one.
So, then, would you be surprised that this obvious alpha dog, this most carnivorous competitor, this player who borrowed the nickname “Bringer of Rain” from a gladiator on TV is a vegan in training? His girlfriend planted the seed, and once he watched a documentary about athletes who went plant-based called “The Game Changers,” he joined the movement.
Josh Donaldson: The Bringer of Kale.
Donaldson can’t claim pure veganism. He’s eaten fish, maybe a half-dozen times in the last year, he figures. And, as he points out, he does employ leather every day at work. The Braves might frown on it if he decided to take his position bare-handed.
“There are a lot of misconceptions about plant-based,” he said. (High among those: Guys like Josh Donaldson don’t go that way).
“If people ask me about it I tell them what I think it has helped me with,” he said, explaining how he isn’t preachy about it. “It’s not, hey, you got to do this. That’s not what I’m about. I just know it has been very beneficial to me.”
If it keeps him in one piece – he missed part of 2017 and great portions of 2018 with arm and recurring calf injuries – the Braves would gladly open a juice stand just outside the clubhouse.
Donaldson loves the stew of personalities within a baseball clubhouse. He loves the give-and-take of teammates confident enough to playfully ridicule each other. He loves to announce his presence with authority whenever he enters the room.
“Every time he walks in the clubhouse you perk up because you don’t know if he’s coming after you or not,” Freeman said. “He brings energy into this clubhouse. Once he walks through those doors, your shoulders go back and you want to get on his level because it’s a level that’s hard to come by – there’s only one Josh Donaldson that I’ve ever seen.”
“I like to keep it loose and fun,” Donaldson said. “Sometimes the stuff that comes out of my mouth, it’s like, ‘What was that?’”
Does it surprise even himself? “Sometimes,” he said. “The filter is sometimes a little different.”
Braves reliever Jerry Blevins was a teammate when Donaldson broke in with Oakland – and that was a long, tortuous process, taking Donaldson nearly five years, and a position change from catcher to third base, to establish himself a major leaguer. Blevins speaks well of those Donaldson’s qualities that always seem to look better up close than from afar.
“When he’s on the other team there is that in-your-face style of play that can rub some guys the wrong way,” he said. “But you have to respect it no matter what because he puts himself on the line all the time.
“You get to see a different side of his personality once you’re on his team. He’s not that guy all the time. But when it’s between the lines, he’s that guy. You got to respect who he is. He is who he is all the time, and if you like it or don’t like it, he’s unapologetic. You got to respect somebody who gives you the truth all the time.”
In that clubhouse stew, hard to say exactly what Donaldson is. Maybe a piece of okra that somehow fell into the pot. Something different.
While he fully engages in the clubhouse bonding, the subject of his upbringing doesn’t really come up too often. His are not exactly the kind of childhood memories that come up in off-hand conversation.
Domestic abuse was a constant in his young life. By the time Josh was 5, his parents divorced by then, the violence reached an awful crescendo. His father broke into the home, assaulted his mother, drove them to where he was living about a half-hour away and briefly held the two against their will, according to details in a 2017 Toronto Life story on Donaldson.
They were able to get free, and his father fled Florida. A few months later he was captured, charged with sexual battery and false imprisonment and sentenced to more than 12 years in prison.
Donaldson and his mother got by on what she made as a bookkeeper and part-time bartender. For both of them, their sanctuary was the baseball field. That’s where Josh could always express himself, often quite forcefully.
No, not exactly fodder for pregame banter. “I don’t play the role of victim,” Donaldson said. “I always wanted to overcome any obstacles. I think the more you talk about that kind of stuff, it’s more you’re breathing life into it. I like to think of the positives that came out.”
Positives? Yeah, like gaining the knowledge that he could overcome events far worse than getting sent repeatedly down to the minors early in his career or any little slump that followed. There’s a hard-won strength in that.
Currently, Donaldson is looking quite himself at the plate. He’s got it figured out. Entering Friday, he’s hit 15 homes runs in his past 37 games (23 total for the season) and has a 20-game on-base streak.
When the Braves signed Donaldson, Braves GM Alex Anthopoulos saw him as the short-term answer to the far louder signings of Bryce Harper and Manny Machado.
“We arguably thought Josh had the ability offensively, and even defensively, to be as good as those guys. Obviously, they’re at different places in their careers in ages, but for 2019, Josh Donaldson had every opportunity to be as good or better than any one of those guys.”
And, yes, his batting average/on-base percentage/OPS slash line compares favorably to those two at the moment – Donaldson .259/.376/.896, Harper .256/.369/.841 and Machado .274/.345/.856.
Both Donaldson and Anthopoulos have said they’d be open to talking about life together beyond this season. But it’s not an obvious fit. He’ll be 34 next season. And Austin Riley may or may not be ready to take over at third – the jury’s still out.
“(Donaldson) has put himself in a position – which is what we all wanted – that the industry is going to want him, too,” Anthopoulos said. “He’s going to be very desirable guy and we’re going to have to compete for him, rightfully so. That’s what we hoped for when we signed him.
“Four months into it this has played out like both sides wanted it to. He’s been great, and we’d love to continue an extended relationship.”
So, Donaldson has done it again. He has beaten back the doubt that accompanied him early to Atlanta. He has left a lasting mark on another team, his fourth. By this stage of his life, what is there possibly left to prove?
There’s always something else.
“That I can still play,” he said, for one.
“I want to prove that I can win a World Series, that’s the biggest thing. That’s a big goal for me. Whether it’s about proving something or not, I just enjoy playing the game. I love it. This is what I want to do as long as I possibly can.”
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