- Eddie Matz
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This is an online exclusive story from ESPN The Magazine's March 31 MLB Preview Issue. Subscribe today!
JOSH DONALDSON'S DADDY was nuts about golf. Loved it so much that the backyard of his home in Pensacola, Fla., was a driving range. A construction worker by trade, Levon Donaldson wasn't around much. When he was, the only thing he liked more than playing golf was spending time with his little boy. Not long after Josh started walking, Levon took the kid out on the links for the very first time. Right from the get-go, Josh was a natural, an 18-month-old who hit the ball like an 18-year-old. He was so good that one of the local TV stations put the toddler on the evening news. From that moment on, whenever Levon and Josh spent time together, it was in the company of irons and woods. At age 4, with the old man watching over his shoulder, Josh carded his first birdie, holing out from 100 yards at the University of West Florida's Scenic Hills Country Club. A year later, Levon Donaldson went to prison for a long, long time.
LISA FRENCH, Josh's mom, never cared much for the gentleman's game; she was more of a baseball fan. So she didn't mind one bit when her brother, Chuck Pyritz, took Josh out into the yard with a plastic bat and ball about a year after Levon went to prison. Six-year-old Josh swung at the first offering, a slow overhand toss from close range, and sent the ball sailing clear over his uncle's head. Beginner's luck, Pyritz figured. He took a step back and delivered again. Once more, Josh hit the ball over his uncle's head. Another step back, another missile. "I've never seen anyone with that kind of hand-eye coordination," Pyritz told his sister. "You need to get him in baseball."
A year later, when Josh was 7, French walked out the back door one morning to find that the faded wooden fence in her yard now featured a large black square. Josh had spray-painted a pitching target without asking her permission. She was angry at first, but then laughed at the lengths he was willing to go to.
For other offenses, though, French sent the boy to his uncle for some tough love. "This is gonna hurt me more than it hurts you," Pyritz would tell his nephew as he put him up against the wall and prepared to whip him. As Donaldson grew older, his mouth grew bigger, and the whipping turned into ditch running. In his uncle's backyard, there was a dike 10 feet deep and 35 feet wide. Whenever he'd crack wise to his mother, the boy would find himself at the bottom of the ditch. There'd be Uncle Chuck, sitting on the lip, watching as his nephew scampered up the 70-degree incline, then back down again -- for as long as he felt the disrespect warranted. If it was really bad, Donaldson might be stuck in that godforsaken trench for half an hour, going up and down the slope as many as 30 times in the sweltering Florida humidity.
On the field, however, Donaldson was a quick study. Ever since that day whacking pitches over his uncle's head, he found nothing but success on the diamond. With success came confidence, with confidence came swagger. Once when he was 9, he leapt clear over a second baseman who'd fielded a ground ball and was waiting in the basepath to apply the tag; Donaldson landed square on his feet before safely reaching second, where he flashed a wide, smug grin for all to see. "People didn't appreciate that," says his mother. Another time, when he was on the mound, he beaned every batter in the order on the opposing team, one through nine. "Parents were irate," says Bobby Cassevah, a lifelong friend and MLB reliever. Whenever Donaldson made even the most routine play in the field, he would showboat.
French and Pyritz knew that Donaldson's flamboyant style was rubbing folks the wrong way, but they never made him run ditches -- for that, anyway. "I didn't think the showboating was hurting anyone," says Pyritz. "And I knew that to be a ballplayer, you needed a little bit of that."
They also knew that Donaldson needed extra attention from anyone who could provide it. By the time he finished elementary school, every adult male on the paternal side of his family was already dead or in jail. When he was 4 years old, his Uncle Billy (Levon's brother) went to prison. The next year, his father joined him. Levon, by then divorced from Josh's mother, broke into the family's home in the middle of the night in a fit of rage. Although French is reluctant to recount exactly what her ex-husband did -- she vowed early on never to talk badly about him and forbade Josh and other family members from doing so either -- she admits "it was really bad." Ultimately, Levon was charged with aggravated battery. He pleaded guilty to sexual battery in a separate case, according to court records, and was sentenced to 12 years in prison. After that, Josh's uncle Adrian, who had four children and treated his nephew like one of his own after Levon went away, died of a massive stroke at age 36.
Wracked with guilt over the fact that Josh grew up with only one parent, French admits to trying to compensate by making Josh the focus of everything. "He was used to having my attention on him 24/7," says French, whose current license plate reads JOSHIE4. Despite working two jobs as a bookkeeper and bartender to make ends meet, she never missed one of her son's games in any sport until she broke her ankle when Donaldson was in the 12th grade. "He's always wanted the same kind of attention from everyone else," she says.
Growing up a gifted athlete under the dark shadow of family tragedy, Donaldson realized early on that sports was his exit strategy. He knew he didn't want to end up wearing a prison uniform, like the inmates he saw during his semiannual trips to see his father (once at Christmastime and again during the summer). "That's an experience that no child should have to go through," says French, who remembers that her son would always act out for a couple of days following those visits. "He never really talked about it, but it definitely affected him." So did watching his cousins, Adrian's children, three of whom eventually ran afoul of the law too.
"I saw the kids in my extended family going down that wrong path," says Donaldson, seated in front of his A's locker after a late February workout in Phoenix. As loud as his actions are on the field, he's strikingly quiet and reserved off it. With a subtle Southern twang and a voice that has a tendency to crackle, he sounds somewhat like Bill Clinton. "I didn't want to be part of that." Instead, he wanted to be a major leaguer. He needed to be a major leaguer.
He needed it so badly that he spent entire days throwing at the black square on the faded wooden fence. He needed it so badly that when he was in the 10th grade, when his friends grew tired of his look-at-me act after he made the Pace High varsity squad ("They were saying things a mother does not want to hear," says French), he transferred to Faith Academy in Mobile, Ala., a blue-chip baseball program -- even though it meant waking up at 5 a.m., driving an hour and a half each way and not getting home until 9 or 10 at night before the two moved to Alabama. He needed it so badly that in 2012, five years after the Cubs drafted him as a catcher (first round out of Auburn) and four years after they gave up on him before he ever played a major league game (he was dealt to Oakland in 2008), he was willing to start all over again.
THE BREAK Josh Donaldson needed came on the first day of spring training 2012, when regular A's third baseman Scott Sizemore shredded his knee during a bunt drill. At the time, Donaldson was a catcher who'd appeared in just 14 MLB games and was running out of minor league options. But he was also standing nearby as Sizemore was taken off the field. "You want me to go over there?" he asked manager Bob Melvin, pointing to third. "Yeah, go over there," said the skipper.
"Over there" is where Josh Donaldson has lived ever since, becoming one of the best third basemen in the game. And while the move may seem like a fateful stroke of luck, it had more to do with Josh's preparing himself for just such an opportunity. Following a particularly discouraging 2011 season, toiling in Triple-A without being called up once (he had two cups of coffee the year before), Donaldson figured he could stand to become a little more marketable. So he took it upon himself to go to the Dominican Republic and learn a new skill: third base. Technically, it wasn't entirely new. He'd been a shortstop in high school and had played some third in college. But he'd spent the bulk of the previous seven years behind the plate, having volunteered to convert to catcher as a freshman at Auburn. Not that he was going to let a small detail like that stop him. "JD is the first person to drop an F-bomb on you if you don't believe in him," says A's third-base coach Mike Gallego. "He's out to prove you wrong."
In fact, Donaldson took to his new position so quickly that he fooled his manager that winter in the Dominican, former big league third baseman Ken Oberkfell. "I didn't even realize he was a catcher," says Oberkfell. Donaldson had the natural ability for the position: As a senior at Faith Academy, he decided a week before football season to play cornerback, then proceeded to lead all of Alabama with 11 interceptions and finished second in the state in punting. More important, he had the workaholic mentality, forged at a young age out of a necessity to outrun his legacy.
That determination and drive was quickly apparent to Gallego. The coach remembers a time during spring training in 2013 when Donaldson -- who spent the 2012 season shuttling between Sacramento and Oakland -- wanted some extra work on slow rollers. He'd already reported at 7:30 that morning for extra grounders, then worked out with the team for three hours in the bright Arizona sun, but it wasn't enough. So Gallego agreed to meet Donaldson on the back field of the team's practice facility.
A normal slow-grounder session for Gallego's infielders might be three balls -- five at the most. After all, it's a taxing play that involves charging in 40 or 50 feet, then torquing the body to grab the ball and fling it to first in one fell swoop. "I'm typically about quality, not quantity," says Gallego. But after the first few balls, Donaldson didn't like the way things felt. His approach angle was off. He was releasing from different points. His throws were tailing. So he asked Gallego to keep rolling. And rolling. And rolling. By the time Donaldson called it quits, they'd burned through an entire bucket of 75 balls. "Now?" says Gallego. "Don't bunt on the guy."
Don't hit a foul ball in his direction either. Around the A's clubhouse, the moment that cemented Donaldson's legend is known as the Tarp Play. On Sept. 3, 2013, Texas and Oakland squared off, division rivals locked in a tie for first place in the AL West. With one out in the top of the sixth, a runner on first and the A's trailing 4-1, Rangers batter David Murphy sliced a high pop foul toward the stands, just past the third-base dugout. Off the bat, it looked out of play. But this was Oakland, where foul balls go to die and the third baseman is a pathological attention-seeker.
Sprinting toward the stands at full speed, Donaldson eyed the hurdles in front of him. Tarp. Wall. Fans. As the ball dropped from the sky, Donaldson checked the wall twice more, hesitated slightly, then laid out and made a backhanded grab while crashing into the rolled-up tarp, rolling over it and disappearing into the narrow chasm between it and the wall. "I'd been wanting to do that all year," says Donaldson.
As if the catch itself weren't enough, a split second later Donaldson pounced back up onto the tarp and, perched like a predator, feigned a throw to second in an attempt to prevent the runner on first from tagging up. "Play of the year," tweeted Oakland pitcher Jerry Blevins (who was on the mound at the time) following the game. "See you at the ESPYS."
I saw the kids in my extended family going down that wrong path ... I didn't want to be part of that.
Billy Owens, the A's director of player personnel, points to the Tarp Play as a perfect example of why Donaldson has found a home at the hot corner. (Last year, he finished third in the AL in UZR for third basemen, second in WAR, and fourth in MVP balloting.) "Putting JD at catcher was like caging a wild boar," says Owens. "It just didn't fit his personality. He was meant to run around on the field, do athletic things on the diamond and play third base like a warrior."
Adds Gallego: "He's a little kid that loves to show off to his parents, and we're his parents. We're his audience. He wants you to watch him play baseball. He wants you to watch him play golf. He just wants you to watch him."
Ten days after the Tarp Play, on Sept. 13, 2013, Levon Donaldson showed up in the stands to watch his son play baseball for the first time. Since being released from prison, Levon's contact with Josh had been limited to sporadic phone calls and the occasional off-season visit. Whenever he'd bring up baseball, offering a few coaching tips, Josh would change the subject to avoid butting heads. "Our personalities are too similar," says Josh. Levon was working construction not far from the Rangers' stadium, so he drove over to see his kid play. Ask Josh about it now, what it felt like to play in front of his father, and he's understated in his response: "It was nice." Of course he doesn't have to say much more than that. His play that night -- 2-for-3 with a homer and three RBIs -- did all the talking. Translation? Watch me.
For ESPN The Magazine's MLB Preview Issue, Eddie Matz writes that after his father went to prison, Josh Donaldson found an escape in baseball -- then became one of the best third basemen in the game.