He was a poor kid with a troubled home life and a bad attitude. Now he’s a Blue Jays superstar with one goal in mind: to win a World Series, no matter how many enemies he makes along the way
Josh Donaldson is obsessed with competition. At the airport, he bets his friends on whose luggage will tumble onto the carousel first. In the pool, he wants to know who can hold their breath longest. On the golf course, he puts money on whose tee shot is farthest. Donaldson’s self-confidence is in such comic oversupply that he sees competition not as a knee-buckling exercise fraught with potential failure, but as a precursor to victory, a way to demonstrate his God-given primacy. During the off-season, I visited him at his house near Mobile, Alabama, and as we shook hands in his kitchen, he held my gaze for so long that I had to look away. It seemed partly a habit born of his southern manners, partly an exercise in establishing dominance. A few minutes later, he told me that he plans to get a giant image of a lion wearing a crown tattooed on his chest. Before I could finish the word “Why?” he snapped his head in my direction and barked menacingly, “Because I’m the king of the fucking jungle.”
The evening before, Donaldson had hosted a party for about 15 guests—including his mom, Lisa, and some childhood friends—and the festivities went late. His place, a sprawling yellow-brick house on a tree-shrouded lane, is ideal for entertaining. In the backyard, there’s a pool with a waterfall and an eight-person hot tub, tennis court, basketball net, fire pit, cabana bar with barbecue and beer fridge, and a five-hole putting green that’s gently contoured to elevate the degree of difficulty. At the party, Donaldson challenged Adam Heether, his friend and personal assistant, to a putting competition. Donaldson and Heether, a 35-year-old former ballplayer, are both die-hard golfers who spend every free mid-season moment teeing off at Glen Abbey, RattleSnake Point and other courses around the GTA. On this day, Donaldson won by a score of 5-3 and commemorated the victory by strapping an invisible wrestling-style championship belt around his waist. Then he interrupted the festivities to let his guests know that rights for the belt were up for grabs, should anyone dare challenge him (no one did).
Donaldson’s mom softly rolled her eyes. The two share a sitcom chemistry, always bickering and bantering. She lives a few minutes away and is a constant presence when her son is home, popping over to tidy up, make his bed or cook his meals. Josh is an only child, and Lisa raised him alone. He’s 31, but she still considers him her baby. She’s intimately aware of his strengths, weaknesses and peculiarities, especially his need to compete. She once implored him to cease with the parade of mini-contests and relax like a normal person. “I’ve tried, Mom,” he told her. “I just can’t. It’s not fun.”
Donaldson’s gladiator intensity can rankle. Over the years, it has turned many teammates into enemies. It’s also a primary reason the Blue Jays brass acquired him in the fall of 2014, sending three prospects and Brett Lawrie, the Canadian fan favourite, to the Oakland Athletics in return. At the time, the Jays had a selection of all-stars but lacked the elusive ingredient that alchemizes skill into victory. Today, the trade has proven to be one of the most lopsided in baseball history. In two seasons, Donaldson, the team’s mercurial third baseman and undisputed leader, has won the American League Most Valuable Player Award and ushered the Jays to two post-season appearances.
In baseball, this type of repeat success is rare. Injuries, prospects turned bust, clubhouse friction, ill-fated trades, albatross contracts and a buffet of other pitfalls can derail the best-laid plans. Toronto is an unfortunate case study. For 21 years, the Jays faithful inhabited the baseball wilderness, watching as all-stars came and went without so much as sniffing the post-season. Winning hinges on talent, timing and luck. All three rarely coincide.
Donaldson knows this. He’s aware that his team, stacked with power hitters, flashy defenders and stud pitchers, stands on the cusp of a World Series and that the window on that opportunity may soon close. He also knows that he has only a few years left of peak physical performance. Most players of Donaldson’s calibre step into the spotlight in their early 20s and then spend a decade or so racking up accolades. Donaldson, a late bloomer, entered his prime at 27, and is now middle age in baseball years. His contract with the Blue Jays ends after next year, and while he won’t admit it, this season is the most important of his career. He plans to capitalize on that opportunity, cement his legacy and maybe add a few items to his trophy case.
Donaldson’s to-do list reads like a Homeric epic. Among the highlights: hit 50 home runs in a season, become the best hitter in the game, and, most important, bring a World Series trophy to Toronto. He knows that every kid in the city is counting on him, that fans are dying to dust off their retro Jays gear and strut down Yonge Street to hang off telephone poles, tap-dance atop streetcars and exorcise the pain of being the city that hasn’t won a proper sports championship since 1993 (apologies, Argonauts). Donaldson welcomes your high expectations because he thrives under pressure. He also wants the glory.
For the past two seasons, Donaldson has rented a two-storey apartment with a large balcony overlooking Lake Ontario at the Tip Top Lofts on Lake Shore West. He lives with Heether, whose day-to-day duties might entail troubleshooting renovation problems at Donaldson’s houses (he has another place in Tampa), reminding his boss to tweet or setting up the PlayStation. It’s a bit unorthodox that Donaldson employs his buddy as a sort of all-purpose butler—Heether chafes at “personal assistant” and has been lobbying for a title upgrade—but it makes sense, too. Donaldson needs someone to manage his affairs, and he’d rather pay a trusted friend than hire a stranger. And in practice, Heether is more wingman and confidant than anything else. The two met as opponents in the minor leagues in 2010, when Heether, an infielder in the Milwaukee Brewers farm system, came up to bat, with Donaldson catching. After an aggressive swing and a miss by Heether, Donaldson mocked him, which Heether found amusing. The banter continued for the rest of the game. Days later, the Brewers released Heether and Donaldson’s team signed him. They were roommates by the end of the week.
Heether’s presence allows his boss to focus on baseball, which Donaldson does with military consistency. On home game days, he wakes around 10 a.m., eats pancakes and eggs for breakfast, then drives his white Porsche 911 east along Lake Shore to the stadium, where he receives treatment—stretching, massage and the like—from the trainers, takes batting practice and prepares mentally for the game. Following the final out, he heads to the clubhouse, snacks on crumbled oatmeal cookies in milk, takes questions from beat reporters, works out (he can deadlift 450 pounds), eats dinner prepared by the team chef and drives home, usually arriving around 11 p.m. There, he and Heether, both professed man-boys, might play video games—he holds title to multiple Call of Duty belts—or watch an MMA fight.
Mostly, Donaldson’s a homebody. He went out on the town only a handful of times last season, consuming the occasional rib eye at Harbour Sixty and playing Ping-Pong at the King Street games bar Spin. But he prefers to spend time at home with Troy Tulowitzki (his best friend on the team), Kevin Pillar, Marcus Stroman, Ryan Goins and Devon Travis.
Toronto was Donaldson’s favourite place to play before he became a Blue Jay. Even as a visiting player, he could always count on the support of a boisterous contingent of Jays fans, which is hardly surprising. Toronto sports fans love an oddball (google “Munenori Kawasaki”), and Donaldson possesses no shortage of quirk: for a long time, his walk-up music was Phil Collins’s “In the Air Tonight”; he works out to Adele’s “Hello.” At one point during my visit to his place in Alabama, I caught him flamenco dancing in his kitchen to Right Said Fred’s “I’m Too Sexy.” Last August, after Donaldson and manager John Gibbons had a face-to-face confrontation (Donaldson had thrown his bat, post-strikeout, too close to the skipper), Donaldson cheekily explained to reporters that Gibbons had simply wanted to get a whiff of his new cologne.
Donaldson’s quirkiest passion is his hairdo, to which he gives an inordinate amount of thought. His stylist in Toronto is Peter Potrus at Yorkville’s Donato salon, but Donaldson is the mastermind, contemplating and re-contemplating his hair with the seriousness of an architect poring over blueprints. He’s worn it as a backcountry short-long, a samurai topknot, a standard-issue faux hawk and a Nordic braid (he made a cameo on Season 4 of the TV show Vikings). When we met, his mane was fashioned into a stylized mullet, the sides shaved, the top a platinum-blonde sine curve. He had considered buzzing it all off but decided against it. “I’ve worked too hard for it,” he told me with a sigh. Then, just before spring training, he showed up at the Jays’ Florida facility with a square-top pompadour (and a George Michael cross earring to complete the look).
For all of Donaldson’s eccentricity, he’s deadly serious on the field. He stalks the diamond with seething intensity, his jersey frequently untucked and dirt streaked, not exactly looking for a fight but not averse to joining one, either. When Texas Rangers second baseman Rougned Odor clocked José Bautista in the jaw during a brawl last May, the blur you saw chasing after Odor, fist cocked, hair flapping in the breeze, was the team’s fiery third baseman. And when then–Los Angeles Angels third-base coach Mike Butcher and Donaldson got into a heated exchange during a game, Donaldson, in full view of the dugout camera, chopped an X at his crotch and invited Butcher to “suck my cock.” In Toronto, a city raised on hockey, this truculence plays well. (His mother, who draws the line at lewdness, did not approve.)
Donaldson wishes he could be more of a presence in the city, but he is laser-focused on his goals. He is, however, open to changing his habits. Recently, he’s been seeing Briana Miller, a gregarious, tattooed ex-bartender and militant vegan. She’s an unflappable optimist whose Instagram account is filled with inspirational quotes—“Authenticity Is So Gangster” and “Be a Badass Love Beam” among them. Briana pushes Donaldson to improve his eating habits (fewer hush puppies, more hummus) and moderates his hermetic tendencies. Lately, she’s been encouraging him to turn off the PlayStation and take more walks. “So,” he says wanly, “I guess I’m going to go for walks.”
Donaldson was an adept athlete from the beginning. He was swinging a golf club while still in diapers, and at 18 months was featured on a local TV program in Florida showcasing his flawless stroke. At age four, he picked up a bat and was soon pelting baseballs across the yard. In adolescence, he displayed a volcanic temper, throwing his video-game controller so often that his mother lost count of the replacements she bought. Otherwise, he was playing sports, often staying out until the point of exhaustion, then flopping down on his stomach in front of the TV and nodding off, his chin cradled in his hands.
The Donaldsons lived in a working-class neighbourhood in Pensacola, Florida. Lisa had a part-time job at the local Sam’s Club, earning about $6.70 an hour. Her husband, Levon, was a labourer and iron worker who went by the nickname “Bones” and dealt coke on the side. He had tattoos of a Viking shield and a boxing emblem on his stomach, frequented strip clubs and had four children from multiple women.
His marriage to Lisa was short and violent. Levon frequently beat his wife, sometimes telling his son, “This is how you treat women.” Lisa divorced him in 1990, when Josh was four, and the next year she successfully applied for a restraining order. In August 1991, Levon locked her in a bedroom, where he choked her and threatened to rape her. She pressed charges. He pleaded no contest and was sentenced to two years of probation plus 50 hours of community service and monthly drug testing. Two weeks after sentencing, Levon broke into Lisa’s home, sexually assaulted her multiple times and broke her jaw. He then drove Lisa and Josh to his house about a half-hour away. While Levon was momentarily distracted, Lisa managed to flee with her son, flag down a passing motorist and escape to safety. She went to the police, who issued a statewide warrant for Levon’s arrest, but he had fled. Levon later got in touch with his son and tried to persuade him to join him on the run; Josh chose his mother. Four months later, in July 1992, Levon was finally arrested in Georgia. He was charged with sexual battery and false imprisonment and received a sentence of 12 and a half years.
Lisa and Josh moved to the low-income neighbourhood of Pea Ridge, Florida, where they rented a small bungalow on a quiet street. Lisa worked as a bookkeeper and part-time bartender at a pub, a job that provided her the flexibility to attend her son’s basketball, baseball and football games. Despite Levon’s transgressions, she wanted Josh to have a relationship with his father, so she took her son to visit him twice a year.
Josh found escape from the stresses of home life on the baseball diamond, where he was a virtuoso. He was faster and stronger than the other kids, and he made sure everyone knew it. “He saw a lot of bad things growing up,” Lisa says. “He took his aggressions onto the field. Like, I’m going to show you.” Donaldson would stand at the plate and admire the ball as it soared over the fence, add a little finesse to a throw across the diamond or leap heroically over a second baseman and stick the landing on the bag. If a teammate exhibited poor footwork while fielding a grounder or faulty form on a swing, Josh would say so, honestly and tactlessly. When handing in papers at school, he would tell his teachers, “You’d better keep this one. It’s got my autograph on it.” Opponents loathed him and so did many of his teammates. They didn’t bully him—Josh was too mean—but they mocked him ruthlessly.
Bonded by their shared trauma, Lisa and Josh became inseparable. She attended every one of his practices and games and organized her grocery shopping and other errands around his sports schedule. Josh was a fierce protector of his mother, who became extra strident in the absence of a male figure at home. During one game in which Donaldson was pitching, he unintentionally beaned three batters in a row. Boos rained down from the stands, and parents yelled for the manager to take him out of the game. Donaldson, then 10, was embarrassed and near tears. He wanted desperately to be pulled, but from the stands, his mom screamed, “You are not coming out of this game! You stand up there and finish it!” The manager left him in, until Josh beaned the next two batters and common sense prevailed.
In the small Florida baseball community, Lisa and Josh were not loved by other parents. At one game, Lisa overheard a woman say, “I can’t stand Josh Donaldson. He’s such a showboat.” Lisa twirled in her seat and said, “Don’t ever let me hear my son’s name come out of your mouth again,” then added a string of expletives to drive home her point. When Josh was warming up before a game, a parent approached Lisa with a venomous message: “He’ll never play Division One baseball,” the man said. “I want you to know that this is the end of the road for him.”
Another time, from her seat behind home plate, Lisa overheard Josh’s teammates ridiculing him behind his back. These were kids she had hosted for Josh’s birthday parties, and their words stung. She marched in front of the bench and berated them, then sat down and tried not to cry. The next morning, she told her son that they were moving to Mobile, Alabama, where he’d attend an elite baseball program at a Christian private school called Faith Academy, which cost roughly $3,000 a year. They packed up their bungalow and moved their lives an hour west.
Mobile is God’s country. He’s invoked on highway billboards and by radio DJs, in farewells from shopkeepers. Bourbon is considered quasi-medicinal, and the locals, who like to start sentences with “Well, gosh,” are impossibly friendly. Lloyd Skoda, Donaldson’s new coach, was a model Alabaman. A man of deep Christian faith, with impeccable southern manners and a pronounced drawl, he taught Donaldson how to, in his words, “be a man.” On the diamond, where Donaldson played various infield positions, Skoda preached commitment and hard work. Sometimes, practice started after school and ran until midnight. If his players were late, they ran poles—the distance from the right field corner to the left—until he said stop. If they were disrespectful, they ran poles. If they complained about running poles, they ran poles. Skoda turned aimless students into disciplined warriors.
In Donaldson, Skoda saw a talented, traumatized kid bearing a cosmic grudge against the world. The young man was tempestuous and sometimes mean-spirited, with a tendency to offend and alienate his teammates before they could do the same to him. In Coach Skoda, Donaldson found a father figure. Skoda would wait for him to finish football practice and then hit ground balls for hours after dark. He found that Donaldson could be kind-hearted and supportive, standing up for his classmates when they’d have powerful, teary, come-to-Jesus moments during chapel, which could earn snickers from less pious pupils. At home, he would sprinkle in “yes ma’am” and “no ma’am” when speaking to his mom. He became close to his Bible teacher, Dorothy Hughes-Smith, after she lost her husband to cancer. Donaldson would check in with her after school, just to see how her day had been. In his final two years at Faith, he won the Best Leader Christian Award. “Josh is a great guy,” says Skoda, “but he doesn’t want anyone to know. It’ll ruin his image.”
On the field, Donaldson moderated his showboat antics but often found himself thinking rather than reacting, trying to control his instincts rather than obey them, and initially his play suffered. He also tried to moderate his temper, but progress was slow. Once, following a basketball game against a rival school, he was surrounded by 10 members of the opposing team, all egging him on to fight. A crowd formed, and Donaldson seemed to consider taking on all 10 at once. Skoda charged into the mob and pinned Donaldson against the wall, which only increased the taunts. Finally, he escorted Donaldson to his car, where they sat late into the night until the young man was calm enough to speak. Donaldson described a blind rage. “I can’t see,” he said. “My eyes are open and I can’t see.”
Donaldson earned a full scholarship to Auburn University, about an hour’s drive from home. He played third base and catcher. In 2007, ahead of his junior season, he was named a Louisville Slugger Preseason All-American, a distinction recognizing the top college talent in the country, and was drafted 48th overall by the Chicago Cubs, who traded him to the Oakland Athletics a year later. For three seasons, he toiled in the minor leagues, earning meagre pay, travelling mostly by bus and anxiously awaiting his call-up.
On April 30, 2010, Donaldson made his major league debut. During his first 14-game stint, he struck out 35 per cent of the time and was quickly relegated to Triple A. In 2012, he finally earned a recall to the Athletics, and over time, he grew comfortable enough in the Athletics clubhouse to offer bald assessments of his teammates’ swings. His feedback was in the service of what he saw as their shared objective—to win—but too often it was received as insolence. Unlike football, with its end zone celebrations, and basketball, with its highlight dunks, baseball adheres to a puritanical code of conduct. Cockiness is frowned upon. Flashiness is discouraged. Showing up an opponent or, worse, a teammate, is verboten. Donaldson was frequently in violation, and many of his A’s teammates ostracized him.
His performance was declining, too. He was at risk of becoming what’s known as a “quad-A” player—a prospect who dominates at Triple A but can’t hack it in the majors. Rock bottom came on May 18, 2012, when the A’s travelled to San Francisco to play the Giants. Donaldson was riding the bench and he glanced up at the scoreboard. Pitchers are the worst hitters on any team, and Donaldson noticed that the day’s starter, Barry Zito, was batting .133; Donaldson’s average was a measly .082. (The league average was .255.) He called his mother and confessed that he was considering quitting baseball. But Donaldson had no backup plan. He hadn’t read a book in a decade and possessed no marketable skills. Baseball was all he’d ever known, and he’d staked his reputation on making it in the majors. His mother was furious and said what she always said: “I did not raise a quitter. Do you want to be pumping gas? That’s what you’ll be doing if you give up now.”
The following month, Donaldson was sent back down to the minors. During that time, he worked on his swing. He researched how to best apply his six-foot frame, average by baseball standards, for maximum power. He analyzed the mechanics of players he admired, including José Bautista, a light-hitting utility player who made a few adjustments to become one of the game’s most feared hitters. Donaldson had experimented with his swing before, but this time, with input from a hitting coach named Bobby Tewksbary, he overhauled it completely.
When he returned to the major leagues in August, the transformation was staggering. He implemented a dramatic kick—shifting onto his rear leg, flamingo style, before reversing the motion and transferring his weight into the approaching ball. He tweaked the timing of his trunk rotation so that as his hips moved toward the pitcher, his hands moved away—like a rubber band stretching to its limit—before snapping forward into his swing. And he changed the way he held the bat so that his swing plane would redirect the ball at the ideal angle to maximize home runs. At Donaldson’s suggestion, the A’s had also moved him from catcher to third base, which meant no more crouching awkwardly and taking foul balls off his arms and legs. In the first month after his return, Donaldson hit .344 and displayed stellar defence.
On September 13, 2013, Donaldson and the Athletics visited the Texas Rangers for a series in Arlington. During one of the games, he looked up and saw his father sitting in the stands. Levon had been released from jail and, after moving around from Louisiana and Kansas, he had settled in Texas. It was the first time he’d ever seen his son play. That afternoon, Josh reached base four times, including a home run. Levon barked non-stop encouragement. “He done real good. I was cheering for my boy,” Levon told a reporter, who asked what he was yelling.
Two weeks later, Donaldson won the league’s Player of the Month award. By the end of the season, he had established himself as one of the league’s premier players. At home in Alabama, Lisa was bursting with pride. Her son was finally finding success. And somewhere, the parents who’d sneered at Josh long ago were watching him dominate at the highest level in the world.
As Donaldson was becoming a force in Oakland, the Toronto Blue Jays had reached a crossroads. José Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion had transformed from journeyman role players into stars, and the team was finally showing flashes of promise. But at the end of the 2014 season, the Jays had finished third in their division, trailing the Baltimore Orioles and New York Yankees. The team’s general manager, Alex Anthopoulos, had pulled off bold trades and signings to reverse the team’s woes, but none had worked. If the losing persisted, his job was likely on the line. Neither the fans nor the owners, Rogers Communications, would tolerate another rebuild.
The great knock against the Jays at the time was a lack of intensity. In Donaldson, Anthopoulos saw a potential saviour: a star player with a powerful bat, top-tier defence and the kind of at-all-costs competitive drive the team sorely needed. In the fall of 2014, Anthopoulos pitched the idea of a trade to Billy Beane, his counterpart on the Oakland Athletics, who flatly declined. Not only was Donaldson a tremendous talent, but he earned just $500,000 a year and his contract had four more seasons remaining, all at relative low cost. But Anthopoulos refused to relent, hounding Beane in the days and weeks that followed with increasingly tantalizing offers until he agreed. On Friday, November 28, the deal was finalized. Donaldson was at home in Alabama playing Mortal Kombat when his phone started pinging like crazy. He was shocked but thrilled to join a contender, especially one with what he called “pretty sexy” jerseys. Toronto fans were ecstatic; Oakland fans were devastated.
Donaldson, then 29, had learned some lessons about first impressions. When he arrived in Toronto, he tried a new tack. The locker room had strong personalities—Bautista, José Reyes, Russell Martin—and he didn’t want to make enemies. For about a month, he sat back and watched. But the more he learned, the more he felt compelled to act. The Jays hadn’t made the playoffs in 21 years and seemed resigned to their fate. “The conversations were mostly about hope,” says Donaldson. “The guys hoped that we’d make the playoffs.” He took it upon himself to incrementally transform the character of the team. He spent time with the younger players, reviewing their swings and discussing their strategy at the plate. He spoke one-on-one with each of the veterans to get a sense of their personalities and goals. In the weight room, he pushed hard, and on the field, he flashed the kind of grit he’d quickly become known for.
The pinnacle came in the eighth inning of a late-June game against the Tampa Bay Rays. Blue Jays pitcher Marco Estrada hadn’t allowed a hit or a walk, putting him six outs away from a vaunted perfect game (in the history of Major League Baseball’s 200,000 games, the achievement has occurred only 23 times). The Rays batter popped up the ball, which carried high over third base and toward the stands. By any standard, it was a routine foul ball, but Donaldson didn’t want to risk Estrada’s perfect game. He tracked the ball to the third base wall and, just as it was about to land in a fan’s hand, he went airborne, launching himself into the crowd, flattening a preteen, torpedoing into a dad’s ample belly and snaring the ball before anyone could touch it. The fans went nuts. The opposing players stared, dumbstruck.
The clip went viral, and Donaldson’s popularity soared. His jersey quickly became the team’s bestseller. During home games, the fans chanted “M!V!P!” when he’d walk to the plate. In July, he received 14 million all-star votes, an MLB record. Donaldson finished the season with 41 home runs, 122 runs and 123 RBIs and batted .297, which put him on par with the all-time greats. That October, the Jays broke their playoff drought and advanced to two wins from the World Series. In November, Donaldson was at home in Alabama with his mom when it was announced that he’d won the American League MVP Award. He turned and said, “We won,” and buried his face in her shoulder.
In the Blue Jays clubhouse, Donaldson is the alpha dog. It’s not an official title, but no one would argue with it. He calls Tulowitzki the dad, “the one,” he says with a laugh, “who walks around making sure everyone’s eaten their applesauce.” The two are polar opposites, Tulo the sage, wisdom-spewing Yoda and Donaldson the punchy, macho drill sergeant. Somehow, they get along. Last off-season, they lived together in Tampa during spring training. As a leader, Donaldson has borrowed from Tulowitzki, learning to deliver advice in a way that’s helpful rather than insulting. He has earned the respect of his teammates, and unlike in Oakland—or at Auburn or Faith—he has no bridle, no reason to self-censor. And there’s plenty to say. “The guy can run his mouth,” says Kevin Pillar, the Jays centrefielder, who considers Donaldson a mentor and friend. “Whether he’s in a good mood, a bad mood, he does not shut up from the moment he walks in the room.”
Lately, Donaldson has developed a clubhouse routine to ensure his teammates are as motivated as he is. The process begins about 15 minutes before first pitch, when he enters a sort of meditative trance. The world goes dark, and he tries to centre himself. “It sounds weird, but I try to get my qi right,” he says, suddenly evoking a new-age yogi. The process is part visualization, part controlled breathing, part storytelling. Donaldson will picture the day’s opposing pitcher, quite possibly a kind and charitable man, and decide that he doesn’t like the way he walks. Or that he considers himself generally superior to Donaldson. Or that he’s trying to take food away from Donaldson’s kids (he has none). A smouldering resentment builds, eventually giving way to a wellspring of energy, surging through his body like Red Bull. When he feels like he’s about to burst, he knows he’s ready. He opens his eyes and turns his attention to his teammates, seeking out those who appear unfocused or lethargic, and gets in their faces, trying to impart his fire. He might yell, insult or jostle. Some of the vets, like Bautista and Tulo, don’t require his services, but Donaldson and Pillar like to get physical, pushing and pulling at each other’s jersey. He likes to gut-punch catcher Russell Martin, who usually returns the favour. The goal, Donaldson says, is to be so aggressive and overbearing that the game becomes a sort of denouement.
This type of behaviour would not fly at most workplaces. It’s unorthodox even in the testosterone-charged world of professional baseball. But it explains the Blue Jays’ roughneck reputation as the team other players love to hate. Today’s Blue Jays cuss out opponents, jaw with umpires and stare down opposing pitchers—tradition be damned. The same traits that pissed off Donaldson’s teammates, rivals and parents across Florida and Alabama now drive major league opponents and managers crazy. Donaldson may have been on first base when Bautista executed his resounding fuck you bat flip—the most controversial three seconds of the 2015 season—but it had Donaldson’s fingerprints all over it.
Last February, the Blue Jays brass, realizing Donaldson’s crucial importance to the team, signed him to a two-year contract. The deal, negotiated by his agent, Dan Lozano of MVP Sports Group, was worth $28.65 million (U.S.), plus a third year that, depending on his performance this season, could mean an additional $20 million in 2018. It was a huge moment for Donaldson. The convict’s kid from the poor neighbourhood, facing a legion of doubters and incredibly long odds, was set for life. With his earnings, he bought his Alabama and Tampa houses. He bought a Jaguar for his mother, and last April, brought her to Toronto to throw out the first pitch of a game against the Athletics. When he won the MVP Award, he redirected the $50,000 prize to Faith Academy, to help the school build an athletic complex. And every August, he holds a bowling fundraiser, the proceeds benefiting Big Brothers Big Sisters of Toronto.
Levon isn’t really in the picture. He and Josh are in touch, but he’s not a regular part of Donaldson’s life. “I want to surround myself with people who make me better,” he says. He keeps his circle small and sees no reason to expand it. When he got famous, people he hadn’t heard from in years began asking for tickets, favours and money; he eventually changed his cell number. Last year, at the Blue Jays Curve Ball Gala, a paid meet-and-greet event on the Rogers Centre field, I watched Donaldson navigate a swarm of cloying, wide-eyed fans with a flash of terror in his eyes. He gets uncomfortable in crowds, unsure of what people want from him, nervous about how much of himself to give.
That uncertainty perhaps explains the prickliness I encountered on arrival in Mobile. But by the time I left, a less combative Donaldson had emerged. He laughed loudly and often, sticking out his tongue and cackling at his choicest jokes. He was patient and relaxed, showing me his championship-calibre Ping-Pong and billiards tables in the basement and the massive home theatre still under construction. We toured his shrine, stacked with three shelves worth of Donaldson memorabilia. We talked about school (“See, to me,” he said, “U of T means University of Texas”), music (he likes southern rap and fancies himself the clubhouse DJ) and the magnificence of southern barbecue (he’s a frequent visitor to Moe’s Original Bar B Que, a 10-minute drive away). We browsed his baby photos, Donaldson laughing when I ridiculed his early-years fashion choices. Just before I left, we did a little bit of putting on his backyard green. He took a look at my stiff, unsightly form and frowned. Then he caught himself, smiled and said, softly, “It’s, um, more in the torso than the shoulders. Here, like this.” He bent at the waist, sized up the shot and drained the putt.