On Josh Donaldson, a Diverse Superstar Who Relates to Everybody

The reigning AL MVP hits a lot of homers and plays elite defence. He's also found other ways to help his team.

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Apr 4 2016, 6:49pm

Photo by John Lott

Each day during spring training, Blue Jays players assemble along the right-field line at 9:15 AM for morning stretch. It starts with a light, 50-yard jog to centre field and back. On a recent morning, the voice of Johnny Cash suddenly boomed over the congregation, and the Blue Jays, in rousing unison, started to sing as they started to run.

I hear the train a comin' / It's rollin' 'round the bend / And I ain't seen the sunshine / Since I don't know when / I'm stuck in Folsom Prison / And time keeps draggin' on...

It was a surreal moment, this group of men in their 20s and 30s singing and grinning to a song written in 1955, and it was just another scene in the transformative chapter Josh Donaldson has begun to write into Blue Jays history.

The reigning MVP brings music in his hip pocket to morning stretch. It emanates from a cylindrical UE Boom wireless speaker paired with his cell phone. His play list is eclectic.

"I have a lot of different musical styles in there, everything from classic rock to Adele to Jewel to Tracy Chapman to Disturbed, R&B, everything," he says.

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His personal tastes are diverse, so everyone, from coaches to young teammates, can find a favourite.

"I like lots of different music," he says. "But I just do it for stretch because it gets very boring a lot of times. When you have a little bit of music going out there it helps it go a little bit quicker."

He likes it loud. One day last week, as manager John Gibbons met with reporters, the clubhouse door flew open and out came Donaldson in dark glasses, hair flying and a booming bass line bursting from his hip pocket. For a moment, the music overwhelmed the manager's message.

"Hey," Gibbons shouted, breaking out his familiar impish grin. "Don't interrupt me. I've got a big-time press conference going on. They're here to see me."

***

With due respect to the manager, Blue Jays fans are here to see Donaldson, and to relish the difference he has made to this team since the stunning trade that brought him to Toronto from Oakland in November of 2014. It took a remarkable assembly of players to forge a division championship, but ask Gibbons about that, and he will tell you it began with the additions of Donaldson and Russell Martin, two stars and natural leaders who changed the clubhouse culture for the better and enjoyed banner seasons on the field.

From left to right: All-Star. All-Star. All-Star. –Photo by Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

As the 2016 season opened on Sunday, they were at it again. When the Jays beat the Rays 5-3 in St. Petersburg, the obvious stars were pitcher Marcus Stroman (eight strong, resourceful innings) and shortstop Troy Tulowitzki (a two-run homer and his usual sterling defence). But in small, key moments, Donaldson and Martin came up big.

Donaldson's opposite-field single to climax a seven-pitch at-bat triggered a two-run rally in the first inning. With the Jays hugging a one-run lead in the fourth, Martin, the catcher, threw out Kevin Kiermaier, one of the game's fastest runners, trying to steal third to end the inning.

Donaldson was the game's second batter. One could make the case that he had the game's most important at-bat.

Rays starter Chris Archer threw a slider 40 percent of the time last season because few pitchers have a better one. He also has a 95-mph fastball.

In that first at-bat, Donaldson swung over a slider to make the count 2-2. Then he fouled off another slider before taking a fastball at 95 to fill the count. The next pitch was another slider. Donaldson was ready.

"Knowing how the at-bat was playing out, I was able to kind of have a feel that a slider was coming," he said. "I normally wouldn't want to swing at that pitch, but he's got a pretty good slider."

Donaldson bent at the waist, reached out and lined a single into right field. Jose Bautista followed with a six-pitch walk. After a wild pitch, Edwin Encarnacion ended a five-pitch at-bat with a two-run single to right field—on another slider. By the end of the inning, Archer had thrown 34 pitches. He was brilliant after that, but he was done after five innings.

After missing a slider earlier in the count, Donaldson said, "I knew it was coming again. I trust myself and trust my eyes enough to be able to make adjustments like that."

***

General manager Ross Atkins is new to the job, but it didn't take long for him to appreciate what a special player Donaldson is.

"I haven't been around all of the great ones, but he's unique in many ways," Atkins said before Sunday's opener. "I think the combination of drive, passion and desire to learn—not just about his swing, not just about being a defender, but what it means to win—is unique. There aren't many guys like that around.

"He's just constantly thinking that he's never good enough. He's an MVP and it's not good enough. He's constantly thinking about how he can be better, how he can improve his swing, how he can improve his game in every facet. I think probably most of the great ones are that way."

The reigning MVP. –Photo by John Lott

It also doesn't hurt that Donaldson simply loves to have fun with his teammates, that he gets along with all of them, that when he goes out to morning stretch with a boom box in his pocket, he makes a point to mix with the pitchers as well as his fellow position players.

Donaldson is a diverse character, but he relates to everybody. He enjoys joking around, but he is also one of the game's most intense students of hitting and constantly trades tips on hitting mechanics with teammates. He sets an example that makes those around him better and helps to keep them relaxed.

On the subject of Donaldson's music, Atkins smiles and says: "It's beautiful that he does that. Over the course of 162 games and hopefully more, there's a lot to be said for keeping things loose."

A few weeks ago during batting practice, Donaldson stood behind the cage chatting with Gibbons. Then he stopped the music, fiddled with his phone and dialed up Chris Stapleton singing "Tennessee Whiskey."

"There's one for you, Gibby," he said, in deference to the skipper's taste for country music.

Gibbons certainly was happy with the team's social dynamic last year. "We had some issues before that. There was some tension out there," he says. This year, it's even better, he says.

"I could see it turning last year (when) Josh and Russell started adding to it," he says. "But no doubt it's different this year. But the fact that we finally won something has got to play apart in it, too. Guys are confident now."

***

Last Friday night, on the bus back to the hotel after the Jays and Red Sox played in Montreal, Donaldson rolled back the musical clock. He played the Doors, the Four Tops and the Spinners, and sang along.

"It reminded me of my bus rides when I was playing with the Brewers," said Buck Martinez, the Jays' TV play-by-play announcer. For the record, Martinez played for the Brewers in 1978, 1979 and 1980.

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When the bus reached the hotel, Donaldson addressed Martinez and his broadcast partner, Pat Tabler.

"How'd you old-timers like that music?" he asked.

As he told the story during batting practice Sunday, Martinez summed up Donaldson's contributions in two words: "That's chemistry."

Martinez wasn't just talking about the Doors or Adele or Disturbed, or the fact that Donaldson can make the adjustment required to get a hit off Chris Archer's nasty slider. He was talking about a player who is greater than the sum of his parts.

As Donaldson himself said when discussing his tunes, "I've got something for everybody." That goes for more than his music.