This story appears in the Aug. 17, 2015, issue of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED. Subscribe to the magazine here.
Paul Goldschmidt is many things—a destroyer of baseballs, an unlikely academic, a pioneer of performance enhancement involving a polarizing comedic manchild—but one thing he is not is particularly fast. According to one scout's stopwatch, the Diamondbacks' first baseman runs from home plate to first base in 4.4 seconds; the quickest righthanded batters, like Mike Trout, make it in four flat. And yet, if you glanced at baseball's stolen bases leader board at the end of the first week of August, you would have discovered a clear outlier. The top nine base stealers were all outfielders or second baseman, and on average they stood 5'11" and weighed 183 pounds. Tied for 10th, having successfully stolen a career-high 19 bags in 23 attempts, was Goldschmidt, all 6'3" and 225 pounds of him.
Goldschmidt, now 27 and in the second year of a $32 million contract that will extend through 2018, was a lightly recruited high schooler who ended up at Texas State, a Cape Cod League reject, an eighth-round draft pick and a prospect who never once appeared on any Top 100 list. But he has become a topflight base thief in the same way that he developed into a Gold Glove first baseman and an annual Triple Crown threat: via the relentlessness of his will.
"People who hit like him are usually content with getting on base, hitting a homer here, driving in a run there," says A.J. Pollock, Goldschmidt's whippet-thin teammate and one of the men above him on the steals leader board. "But if there's another element of the game out there, he's looking to gain an edge on it."
Working with Dave McKay, the Diamondbacks' baserunning guru, Goldschmidt has perfected his ability to retreat safely back to first on a pickoff attempt, smoothly pivoting instead of turning and leaping. "The clubhouse guys get mad," says Goldschmidt—who seems genuinely contrite about it—because he so often stains and rips his uniform during practice. He also studies pitchers' tells. If a lefthander refuses to glance at first base when he is planning a pickoff attempt, and stares a base runner down only when he intends to deliver a pitch, Goldschmidt notices. This season the average distance of his leads, according to StatCast, is 11.73 feet, the game's 13th largest. "With me not being the fastest guy, there's a lot of bang-bang plays at second," he says. "A half step is going to help." Of his 19 steals, a half dozen have come without a throw.
Goldschmidt's baserunning is only one reason why his name ought to be included in the national conversation about the game's best all-around players, alongside Bryce Harper, Trout, Andrew McCutchen, Giancarlo Stanton, Buster Posey and Josh Donaldson. Scouts, however, saw those stars coming—all were high draft picks—and they like to talk about why they didn't do the same with Goldschmidt. "We can say we missed this, missed that, and maybe we did," says one. "But I think that's a disservice to the player. Clearly he's improved, gotten better, changed his game, done what is necessary to become what he is now, which is this crazy force. We play this game, 'What did guys get wrong?' Well, what did the player get right?"
Tony La Russa managed his first big league game in 1979 and retired in 2011, not long after winning that year's World Series with the Cardinals. In the spring of '14 he became the Diamondbacks' Chief Baseball Officer. One afternoon in early August, the 70-year-old sits in a recliner in the visiting manager's office at Nationals Park, a folded crossword in his lap and his club's best player on his mind.
"For a while now, professional players have been distracted by fame and fortune," La Russa says. "Which means that once you get some fame and you get some fortune—yeah, that's pretty good. You start sitting on the couch. When you see a guy that has just exemplary drive, if that's the word you want to use, it stands out. Goldy, he can't be better than he is."
Goldschmidt's drive originates with his family. His great-grandmother, Ilse Goldschmidt, was an heiress to one of the largest printing companies in Germany, but in 1938 she and her husband, Paul, and their five-year-old son, Ernie, fled the Nazis and reestablished their lives in Boston. (While his father's side of the family is Jewish, Goldschmidt and his two younger brothers, Adam and Robert, adopted their mother's Christian faith.) "They didn't have two nickels to rub together," says Goldschmidt's father, David. Ilse sold candy door-to-door in Brookline, and Paul worked in the food industry; by the 1960s he had opened a luncheonette, called Eatwell Restaurant, on Boston's St. James Avenue.
Ernie also worked in the food business, owning a series of restaurants and catering operations. David would go into flooring, and he and his wife, Kim, were eventually able to move their young family into the affluent Houston suburb of The Woodlands. "I think the best way to put it is, we didn't need for anything, but we wanted for things," says Paul.
By high school, what Goldschmidt wanted more than anything was to excel at baseball. "He was always a good athlete growing up, but there were always better players," says David. Goldschmidt looked thick and stiff—a graceless fielder whose swing, though productive, didn't appear likely to work at higher levels. "People would say, 'Well, you know, his swing's a little long, is he going to handle good pitching?'" recalls Ty Harrington, his coach at Texas State.
As a college junior in 2009, Goldschmidt batted .352 with 18 home runs and 88 RBIs in 57 games, but just two pro scouts bothered to show up at his last conference tournament game. One of them was Trip Couch, who had once coached Goldschmidt in a high school summer league and kept filing positive reports on him to the Diamondbacks. Still, Couch only had a third-round grade on Goldschmidt ("Looking back—well, that's idiocy," he says), and watched as the Diamondbacks selected five corner infielders before choosing Goldschmidt 246th overall.
Goldschmidt hit from the moment he became a pro—he batted .334 with 18 homers and 62 RBIs in 74 games of rookie ball in 2009—but he wanted more. "I remember him talking to the defensive coaches and saying, 'I want to be a Gold Glove first baseman,'" says Alan Zinter, a hitting instructor who worked with Goldschmidt in the minors. "This big, burly-looking lumberjack guy with not the quickest of feet, not the best glove. It's almost like, Yeah, right."
Two years after he was an eighth-round pick, Goldschmidt made his Diamondbacks debut. Two years after that he became an MVP candidate. Now he is a Triple Crown contender—with a .337 average (first), 22 homers (sixth) and 79 RBIs (second) through Sunday—and the club's unquestioned leader. "When your best player is also your hardest worker, well, it's gold," says Cliff Pennington, an infielder who was recently traded from the Diamondbacks to the Blue Jays.
Goldschmidt's teammates try to emulate his disciplined daily routine, which is detailed down to when he takes his coffee: He pours it before he takes his pregame shower, knowing that it will be at just the right temperature when he emerges. "I should get someone on the team to mess with him and crank up the temperature on the coffee maker," jokes his wife, Amy, whom he met during study hall when they were Texas State freshmen.
His humility, which teammates insist is authentic, has made him a notoriously predictable quote among those who cover him. "He'll hit a two-run homer and come in the dugout, and the first thing he does is tell whoever was on base, 'Good job, nice at bat, nice walk, way to be on base,' or something," says pitcher Josh Collmenter. "What he is doing is secondary to what everybody else is doing."
For Goldschmidt, there is always more to do.
If you were to have passed through the busy lobby of the Westin hotel in Times Square on one day in the summer of 2013, you might have noticed a tall man with thick, heavily veined forearms tapping furiously on his laptop. The man was Goldschmidt, but he wasn't making notes about the tendencies of opposing pitchers, as he often does. He had homework to do, and the Wi-Fi in his room wasn't working properly.
When Goldschmidt was drafted from Texas State, after his junior year, he had a 3.8 GPA as a finance major, but he was 10 classes short of his degree. So, after his big league job became secure in 2012, he set out to finish what he had started, taking courses online from the University of Phoenix. "I get asked, 'Did your mom make you go back?'" he says. "It was nothing like that. I wanted to do it."
He graduated in September 2013 with a degree in business management. A month later he completed a season in which he batted .302 with 36 home runs, 125 RBIs and 15 steals, and came in second to Andrew McCutchen in the NL MVP balloting. "On flights, guys would be playing iPad games, poker, listening to music, talking," says Pennington. "He'd sit up front, so he's away from all the noise, and did his stuff."
Goldschmidt's education only deepened his desire to expand his horizons, in ways that are not always obviously related to baseball. When he was growing up, his family did not have enough money to travel much, but he and Amy have become passionate globe-hoppers, traveling to Australia, New Zealand and Europe in recent off-seasons. On game days on the road, he likes to rise as early as he can to explore; in Washington in early August, he visited the Holocaust museum before one game, and the Air and Space museum before another.
He has also become an avid reader. His tastes run toward tomes that concern leadership and overcoming adversity, such as Jon Gordon's The Carpenter and Viktor E. Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning. "I'm still early in my journey of reading, as I really didn't do it much growing up," Goldschmidt says. He tries to apply some of the lessons from his reading to baseball, such as those he derived from Shawn Achor's The Happiness Advantage.
"The premise of the book is that if you're happy, you're more likely to have success," he says. "There's a study the book talks about that found that when people are happier, their eyes actually work better, they can see better and focus easier." Hitting, of course, is largely a matter of seeing, and so Goldschmidt began a ritual in which, 20 minutes or so before games, he sits in the dugout and recites quotes to himself from one of the things that makes him the happiest: Billy Madison, the 1995 Adam Sandler comedy that he has watched nearly 100 times.
Nobody took any notice of Goldschmidt in the Westin lobby, and in fact, he can't think of one time he's ever been recognized in an American city other than Phoenix. Even in his adopted hometown, waitresses will sometimes look at his credit card and tell him he shares a name with their favorite ballplayer. He was shocked one day this past winter, while he and Amy were traveling in Rome, when a couple from Arizona approached him for a photo. "That was so cool," he says. "I know a lot of people look up to major league baseball players, but I'm just not thinking of myself like that."
Goldschmidt did receive more All-Star votes this year than any other National Leaguer save Harper, Posey and Todd Frazier, but a number of factors—that he was a late bloomer, that he plays in Arizona, that he shuns attention—have kept him from attaining genuine superstardom. That is not the case within his own clubhouse, where he is most often compared with another allegedly slow and stiff first baseman who by the force of his desire overcame a low draft position to become a legend.
"The highest compliment I can give him is that he's so much like Albert Pujols that it's a credit to both of them," says La Russa, who managed the future Hall of Famer for 11 years in St. Louis. La Russa calls his former first baseman Albert P. Pujols, with the "P" standing for "perfect." He calls his current one Paul G. Goldschmidt; the "G" stands for "greatest." "You want them to have their own distinct thing," he says.
Pujols's perfection, of course, was confirmed by his many outstanding postseasons. Goldschmidt has so far participated in just one, when he was a rookie in 2011; he hit a grand slam in the NLDS. "My greatest memory is when we clinched to play in the playoffs," he says. "To celebrate and do the champagne thing with 25 guys, our coaches, front office, that was the coolest thing ever. Just to see the pure joy of them and getting to experience that with everyone else, rather than, O.K., I had a good game, let me go home and let that soak in by myself."
The Diamondbacks, who were 54–56 through Sunday, almost certainly won't repeat that experience this year. But they are young and getting better, and their motivation extends beyond a desire for organizational success. Says La Russa, "For the world to know how good Goldy is, they gotta see him in October."
Until that happens, Goldschmidt will likely remain out of the spotlight, steadily improving upon what to most players—and most people—would seem to be good enough.
For stories of success against all odds, visit My American Dream.