The Twins Need Josh Donaldson's Fire. It's Been Burning His Whole Life

A volatile childhood and rugged road to the big leagues fuel the fire within Josh Donaldson.
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Everyone at TwinsFest knows Josh Donaldson. Gone is the rattail he sported in Oakland, and the mullet he wore in Atlanta, replaced by a sort of blond pompadour. Still, he attracts attention: the teammates giddily introducing themselves; the security guards asking how his house hunt is going; the fans yelling “War Eagle” at him, referencing his alma mater, Auburn. He absorbs this all with a distracted grin. He’s still trying to figure out how to join his new team’s group text, what his jersey number will be, where to catch an Uber at Target Field.

Near the end of an hour-long autograph session on Day 2 of the fan convention, held this past January, he hits pause on the chaos. A middle-aged man approaches with a baseball card, and Donaldson observes, “You were here yesterday,” as he scrawls out his name. It’s a nice moment in Minnesota, the nicest of states, the All-Star third baseman recognizing a relative nobody.

Or maybe it’s something else. One has to keep an eye out, Donaldson explains as the autograph-seeker ambles away. Some people are out to make a quick buck. They come back again and again, he says, and then stuff appears on eBay. “How much money are you going to make off me? Am I supposed to put your kids through college?”

It can be hard for Donaldson to feel relaxed. A volatile childhood followed by a potholed road to the majors has left him guarded. And this persistent discomfort is one of the many challenges he faces as he, for a third straight year, takes on this role: the final piece on a club with championship aspirations. The first two times—with the Indians and the Braves—he came up short. In January he inked a four-year, $92 million deal with the Twins, a team that had succeeded without him, and with which he now must lead a group of strangers. He must thrive on the field, even as he gets his bearings.

He must do it all against the backdrop of a pandemic that has so far stolen the lives of nearly 150,000 Americans. A 60-game season, he says, leaves no room for a slow start. “Game 1’s gonna mean a lot,” he says. “Game 2’s gonna mean a lot. … These games early on need to be treated as, We’re in a playoff hunt. We have to make sure that we come in every single day with our first priority making sure that we’re going out there to win the game.”

And on a personal level, he wants to overcome what he feels is a fundamental misperception.

“People,” he says, think “I’m just a dick.”

***

LaTroy Hawkins cackles at this characterization. “I can see that,” he says.

Minnesota employs four longtime Twins as special assistants to the GM:

Hawkins, Michael Cuddyer, Torii Hunter and Justin Morneau. In some organizations, theirs is a title that denotes a stooped star of yesteryear in baseball pants, shuffling around spring training, encouraging players and waving to fans. But not in Minnesota, where at least one member of this quadrumvirate researches and weighs in on each of the team’s potential acquisitions. And when it came to Donaldson, the decision was easy: Hawkins, a former pitcher, had spent 69 days with the Blue Jays in 2015 playing alongside this potential new hire. When the Twins’ chief baseball officer, Derek Falvey, asked about Donaldson, Hawkins was effusive, particularly on the way he challenged teammates to improve.

“He has no problem calling guys out—‘Hey, you need to be better,’ ” Hawkins says. “And he doesn’t just say that after a guy goes 0 for 4. He’ll say that after [he goes] 3 for 4.”

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Last year’s Twins won 101 games and christened themselves the Bomba Squad while shattering the single-season home run record, with 307. But another division-round sweep by the Yankees got the front office thinking about doing something different.

That and a book. Falvey says his staff was inspired by a leadership tome, Adam Grant’s Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World, which discourages hiring for cultural fit. That kind of focus, Grant writes, can lead to homogeneity; it may be wiser to seek out cultural contribution. How can this person advance our environment? How can he push us in a different direction?

These Twins, the front office decided, were too nice. They needed someone who could demonstrate how to work and confront anyone who fell short.

In other words, Minnesota needed someone who could be “a dick.” And Donaldson—known across baseball as a guy who’s just as likely to curse out a teammate as he is to berate an opponent, who’ll demolish a pitch and then gawk at it, who’ll beat you and then remind you he beat you—seemed to fit. He could be distant and rude, brash and aggressive. He also had, it seemed, a tendency to make his teammates better. What some can see as arrogance, Falvey calls an “edge,” a guy who “plays with fire.”

That fire, it seems—plus the fact that he’s been, by WAR, the second-most valuable player in baseball since he became a regular starter—helped earn Donaldson, at 34, the largest free-agent deal in team history. In return, the Twins hope he’ll shore up a position at which they finished No. 25 in defensive WAR last year, according to FanGraphs, and inject even more homers off a bat that produced 37 in 2019.

Donaldson points out: That number might have been higher elsewhere. “In the NL East,” where he played for the Braves, “some of the top starting pitching is over there. Facing those guys day in and day out—it’s difficult.”

This qualifies as humility from a guy who, even as he struggled to stick in the big leagues, would drive teammates wild boasting about his future All-Star appearances. In 2012, coming up with the A’s, he split Oakland’s clubhouse in two: those (few) turned on by the talent he occasionally flashed, and those (more) turned off by his mouth. Donaldson batted .094 that March and April, and still he compared himself in the clubhouse to José Bautista, the Blue Jays’ MVP candidate. Even as the A’s sent him to Triple A, he insisted to teammates, “It’s coming! I’m gonna be one of the best third basemen in the league!”

Jonny Gomes counts himself among the few believers back then, but he knew something had to change. When Oakland recalled Donaldson that May, the veteran slugger, who was in his 10th season in the bigs, pulled the 26-year-old aside. “Here’s the deal,” Gomes said. “You don’t speak until spoken to. And, for a little bit, we’re gonna let your baseball do the talking; we’re gonna hit home runs instead of talking about hitting home runs. We’re not gonna talk about your high school interception record or how good a golfer you are.”

To Donaldson’s credit, Gomes says, “He was like, ‘O.K.’ ”

Gomes laughs. “Guy’s holding the MVP trophy two years later.”

***

That is not quite the story that Josh Donaldson tells. He does not elide the worst parts. His father, Levon, was an ironworker and a cocaine dealer who would hit Josh’s mother, Lisa French, while the boy watched helplessly. When Josh was four and living in Pensacola, Fla., his parents divorced. A year later, Levon broke into Lisa’s house at 3 a.m. and told her, “This is your night to die.”

Levon held her prisoner for more than 27 hours, hurting her “every way you can imagine,” Lisa says, until finally she convinced him they’d all run away—mother and father and their only child—wherever he wanted to go. So he dragged them both into his car and took off.

At some point Levon pulled over. Lisa’s jaw was broken in two places; she would eat through a straw for the next three months. Through clenched teeth, though, she was able to tell Josh to run, and they threw themselves in front of an oncoming vehicle, the driver delivering them to a nearby gas station. They called the police, and authorities caught up with Levon four months later. Only then, after he was sentenced to 12 1/2 years in prison for sexual battery and aggravated battery, plus 11 more for separate drug charges, could mother and son begin to feel safe. (Levon, asked for comment, expressed no remorse but said, “I love my son with all my heart.”)

Josh has steadfastly refused to hold what he calls a “victim mind-set.” Still, he acknowledges this was the start of a lifelong struggle to be understood. All the negative traits people have ever seen in him seem symptoms of the same disease. He grew up with few close friends, unsure how to relate to people. He kept everyone at arm’s length, where they couldn’t hurt him. In sports, though, he could express himself. He played baseball and basketball and football, and he infuriated teammates and opponents alike with his brashness, celebrating loudly. Success soothed him.

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Until, for a period, those successes stopped coming. Donaldson’s first major league call-up, in 2010, lasted 14 games, as he struck out in more than a third of his plate appearances. He returned to the minors and dominated, but opponents chafed at his exuberance and soon he found himself dodging beanballs. He sent himself to the Dominican Republic for winter ball, where he grew homesick and lonely. He’d wander the streets, struggling even to order dinner. He got another shot in the bigs in ’12, but it wasn’t going much better when he glanced up one afternoon in San Francisco and saw he was hitting .082. The Giants’ starter that night, Barry Zito, was at .133.

Donaldson considered hanging up his spikes. Then he called his mother. Lisa French’s son had to find a way to forgive himself. She describes a young man who for years would strike out and spend the next week beating himself up. “I didn’t raise a quitter,” she told him. Besides, she reminded him: He’d been drafted out of Auburn as a junior; he had no degree, no skills to fall back on. “Do you want to come home and pump gas? That’s exactly what you’re gonna be doing.”

So he hung up and went back to work. Back in the minors, Donaldson devoured video of Bautista and overhauled his swing, adding a leg kick and relaxing his shoulders so he could meet the plane of the pitch. When he was recalled again that August, he hit .344 and slugged .625.

He got MVP votes in 2013. He was an All-Star in ’14. Before the ’15 season he was traded to the Blue Jays, where, coming full circle, he hit in front of Bautista. Only now he was armed with some advice from Gomes, his biggest believer in Oakland: You can hit on your own but you can’t win alone. He started to circle the clubhouse, checking on his teammates, asking what they needed from him. His girlfriend, Briana Miller, taught him to meditate, to pause before speaking. He still said what he wanted to say, but he “learned delivery,” Lisa says. That fall, Toronto took the Royals to six games in the ALCS, the furthest into a season he’d ever played.

A month later, Donaldson was delighted when he was named AL MVP, which is bestowed by the media. He was shocked when he won the Players Choice Player of the Year award, which is conferred by peers.

Josh Donaldson gets it. He used to look around and see opponents who wanted to throw at him. Now he sees guys who want to be like him. Really, though, everything has changed. MLB exhorts, “Let the kids play,” in advertisements. Meanwhile, the league tweets out videos of the best bat flips. Players talk trash over Instagram.

So, a 34-year-old who comes across as a bit of a dick? In the modern clubhouse, he just might be the leader the Twins need.