He’s got juice in his hands: The oral history of Josh Donaldson

In Tuesday night’s All-Star Game, the Athletics’ Josh Donaldson started at third base for the American League. This was at least mildly shocking to nearly everyone associated with the Oakland Athletics or Major League Baseball, considering that just four years ago Donaldson was a Triple-A catcher given little chance of even playing regularly in the major leagues someday.

Thirty years ago, current A’s hitting coach Chili Davis played in his first All-Star Game.

Chili Davis: Making the All-Star team is confirmation that you’ve arrived, you know?

Donaldson actually arrived last year, when he finished fourth in the American League’s Most Valuable Player balloting. But his starting nod in the All-Star Game makes it feel more official: Donaldson has become one of the game’s best players, and perhaps its greatest third baseman.

A’s general manager Billy Beane: He’s a really, really good athlete. He might be the best athlete on the team. In many ways, he’s similar to Eric Chavez.

Chili Davis: His swing, when it’s under control, is a power swing. He generates a lot of power through his body. And when he’s making good contact, he can do damage to a team in a lot of ways. Now, that swing would be pretty hard to teach because of all the movement in it — the leg kick, the hands dropping and coming back up. But the key to that swing, and that approach, is being under control — being slow and early with the leg kick, not stompy or jumpy. Being under control with your mindset, not trying to force the issue. Get a pitch I can hit and square it up. And trust that, if I square it up and get through it, I’ve done all I can do and something good can happen.

Josh Donaldson: I’ve watched unlimited hours of Jose Bautista on film. What led me to leg kicking was him. I was always in between — doing a leg kick, toe tap, getting my foot down. When I saw that, I said, “I feel like I can do that every day.” So I’ve stuck to it. He obviously does some stuff different than I do. He doesn’t have as much movement as I do. But I think what he does is really good. Between him, Miggy and Allen Craig, those are the top three guys I watch.

Donaldson, now 28, was hardly an overnight success. After three years at Auburn, he spent nearly five-and-a-half seasons in the minor leagues. And Donaldson’s childhood was clouded by an unfortunate situation: when he was still a small boy, his father Levon was convicted of drug-related offenses and domestic violence, and spent 15 years in prison. As Donaldson told Susan Slusser in 2013, “A lot of stuff was going on that was not good. I had to grow up pretty fast.”

Donaldson: Even though my father was off in jail, I always had somewhat of a father figure around, another male to make sure I was getting involved in this or that, or helping me. And obviously my mom was always there for me, as well. One thing my mom always told me is, “There’s always somebody out there that’s going to probably be better than you. There’s always somebody out there that’s probably going to be outworking you. What are you going to do to be better? You’re going to have to put in the time.”

P.J. Walters is one of my best friends in the game; he’s in Triple-A now, has been in the big leagues for a couple teams. His dad started coaching me when I was seven. One of my other best friends, Bobby Cassevah, who was in the big leagues and is recovering from shoulder surgery, his dad took after me. My uncle. My mom. My high-school coach. There’s always been someone there to help push me in the right direction. Anything I needed to do, to make myself better, there’s been somebody there to help.

Coming out of high school in Mobile, Alabama, Donaldson was recruited by then-Auburn head coach Steve Renfroe.

Renfroe: Before I was head coach, I had done all the recruiting for 18, 19 years. And that year, in my mind I’m going back to being an assistant, and I went out and signed two kids: a pitcher, and Josh Donaldson.

I went down there to the Mobile area. Josh was playing, and there was one pro scout, and me. I remember seeing Josh hit and thinking, “He’s just got juice in his hands. Like a great puncher. This guy is scary good.” And when you talked to Josh on the phone, he was so confident, like Tim Hudson and Frank Thomas. I just fell in love with him.

I got fired right after I signed him. He called me that fall and said, “Coach, I don’t think they like me here.” I was in an uncomfortable position, couldn’t really get involved. But I said, “Just play ball and you’ll be the best guy.”

Renfroe was replaced at Auburn by Tom Slater, who’s now working as the New York Yankees’ roving hitting coach.

Slater: I could tell from the beginning that he was a really good competitor. He played third base his entire freshman year. In his sophomore season, we had an incoming freshman catcher who signed a pro contract right before the season. On August 15, you’re not going to go out and find a catcher. So Josh came into my office and said, “I can catch.”

That was his idea to help the team. Josh was all about trying to help us win. He worked his tail off and got good at it.

Donaldson played well as a freshman and sophomore, but took a huge step forward before his junior season.

Tim Wilken (then the Chicago Cubs’ scouting director): I saw him catch on the Cape that summer, saw him a little bit the next spring. We had six guys who saw him, and they all thought he could catch.

Tom Slater: He just continued to mature as a player. The summer before his junior year, he went off and played in the Cape Cod League and had a great season. And the better the pitching, the better he hit.

Billy Beane: He was a guy in that draft who came to my attention. Eric Kubota and some of our other guys hoped we would get him. The idea was that we might sneak Donaldson into the second or third round. He was definitely someone we wanted.

Jim Hendry (then the Cubs’ general manager): I remember him well. He’d played some third. A tough kid. We really liked him. Obviously, we thought he was going to play in the big leagues.

Tim Wilken has been doing this for so many years. As soon as I hired Tim, he knew he could pick who he wanted. He didn’t have to clear it with me unless it was a financial situation that had to be cleared with ownership. Tim assured everyone in the room that the kid’s makeup was terrific and that he’d overcome things in his life that were very tough. Tim had checked with the area scout about it.

That area scout was Bob Rossi …

Rossi: Well, it’s one of those things where you can’t know everything about the family background. If I like a player, I always go to the house. In the end, you pretty much go with [your assessment of] the kid. There are a lot of family situations where it comes up bad, but what are you going to do?

With the adversity he had, for him to get through that, it showed his maturity. I think it made him tougher. You don’t know what’s going to happen to anybody, but we’re not signing him for his mom and dad. He wanted to play, never let anything bother him.

Tim Wilken: You always have some concern. But I don’t think he ever gave us any indications that there were problems for him — on the field or off the field. Perhaps he kept it more to himself. He didn’t really share it too much. He never really seemed to let that enter his play. That’s probably the best I can say.

Other people in the industry knew about his father. We did discuss it, but there weren’t any signs that said we should run away from him. We knew he was an intense competitor. Maybe some of that came from those years, growing up with his father being in jail. But he never let that competitiveness get too far. A lot of children, sometimes they walk that proverbial tightrope. They can fall one way or the other. Luckily, that never entered into his play.

Bob Rossi: He had all the tools. Great arm. He could run pretty decently, for what he was doing. Just a fantastic kid. Great power. He could drive the ball to right field. He was a fantastic defensive player, played a great third base. He had a strong arm, could make any play you want. His tool was the bat, though. He could always hit.

Jim Hendry: Our scouts had talked with the coaching staff at Auburn. We had done a lot of homework on him. He was a hard-nosed kid with a lot of talent, a good-looking hitter. We didn’t know if he would be a catcher, so the backup plan was that he could play third. There was always a chance he was going to catch, but most of us thought he was going to go away from the plate.

Billy Beane: To the Cubs’ credit, they got him. Boom: Hendry grabbed him in the comp round. We were shocked. We were stunned.

Donaldson signed quickly, and got off to a great professional start, batting .346/.470/.605 with the Cubs’ Boise club in the short-season Northwest League. He struggled, though, in 2008 with the full-season Peoria Chiefs.

Wilken: The first time I met him was in Burlington, Iowa. He was with Peoria. He was going through some hitting woes at the time. He was very pull-conscious in his amateur career and early in his pro career. He was scuffling with the day-to-day rigors of catching. He wasn’t hitting. He was taking it into the field with him. Most kids will get a little moody when things didn’t go right at the plate. I knew he’d get out of that.

That’s when Billy Beane pounced. Almost exactly a year after drafting him, the Cubs traded Donaldson and three other players to the A’s for Rich Harden and Chad Gaudin. Finally, Beane had his man.

Beane: There are always guys you like in the draft, but you lose them. We felt justified in our evaluation of him at Auburn, based on his first half-season with the Cubs. He did struggle in the first half of his second season, but that’s the only one real blip in his career. And that’s the moment when we traded for him. We never would have gotten him the year before, or the year after. Really, we took advantage of that small sample size when he struggled a little bit.

Hendry: When Billy and I made trades, we got right to it. There weren’t games being played. We made trades in 10 minutes, like Jason Kendall for Jerry Blevins. We focused on stuff that made sense for both of us. We always had a lot of respect for each other. We didn’t try to win the deal. There was no high-fiving in the room if you thought you did great. We tried to come up with something that was fair for both of us. We didn’t have those conversations that started with 10 guys and then, “Let’s narrow it down to two.”

Beane: Me and Jimmy made a lot of trades, got along real well. In that deal, a few guys were off-limits, and because of that, we were able to up the number of players we got from them. We certainly never perceived Donaldson as a throw-in.

Hendry: We knew it was going to take two or three guys to get Harden. My recollection was that Donaldson was in the first or second phone call. It was Donaldson, Sean Gallagher, Eric Patterson, and Matt Murton in the end. Gallagher was the hot ticket that year. I called Billy on

Harden. Milwaukee had already traded for Sabathia, and it was imperative for us to get another starter. We were in a pennant race. Rich Harden was Rich Harden, and he was awfully good for us that year. We won the division, but unfortunately we lost in the first round.

Josh Donaldson: It was weird. It was kind of like a premonition. We had an off day, and all of us stayed in this one apartment complex. Myself, a couple guys on our team, and the guy who owned the complex, we played golf and went out eating afterward. Outback, I think. This guy was asking me, “How do you feel about everything going on?’ I said, “I have a weird feeling I’m about to get traded. I haven’t talked to my agent. He didn’t tell me anything like that. I just have a weird feeling.” Thirty minutes later, dude, I get the call from David Forst: “Hey, Josh, we just traded for you. You’re with the A’s now.” I’m like, “What?”

Beane: At the time of the deal, we got roasted. Absolutely roasted.

The conventional wisdom was that the A’s could have done better … and Donaldson was widely considered the least impressive of the four prospects the A’s got.

Beane: He was always a guy we thought highly of. The biggest trick was finding an opportunity for him. We had Suzuki catching, and Chavez at third base with a healthy financial commitment. So what was the best route? At Auburn, we saw him as a third baseman or a catcher. Depending on where we were as an organization. When we got Donaldson, it seemed like Eric Chavez would still be our guy at third base for a while. What’s lost now, what people forget, is that Josh was a really good third baseman in college.

So we felt like he could play either place.

Donaldson: In 2012, I reported to camp early. It was the first time I had met Bob Melvin. I just got back from the Dominican not long before that, where I had played third base the entire time. I said, “Bob, if you can, I would really like to try to mix in — if I can — at third base sometime.” And he said, “We talked about it already. We’ll try to get you in if we can.”

First day position players get there, Scotty gets hurt. I was on the field, catching, doing the bunt drills. When he got hurt, I looked at Bob. I said, “Hey, you want me to go over there?” He said, “Yeah, go over there.” That day, I took extra ground balls. The next morning, I go into the coaches’ office. Bob told me, “Put the catching gear away, go over and play third.”

A’s assistant general manager David Forst: I wasn’t in Phoenix. This was the first weekend of camp, and I was back home to spend some time with my family. We probably all got the same text from Dan Feinstein saying, “Sizemore is down. It doesn’t look good.”

We thought Josh could hit, and it’s not like we were going out and trading for a third baseman on February 20. So hey, let’s give Josh a shot.

Billy Beane: I remember exactly when we committed. Scott Sizemore was at third base in 2011 and had played really well for us. The next spring, he got hurt on the first full day of workouts. Within two minutes, I called David and said, “Put Donaldson at third base.”

Counting on Donaldson for significant contributions might have seemed far-fetched, as he’d not established himself as a top prospect. Before the 2011 season, Baseball America ranked him as the 12th best prospect in Oakland’s organization; in 2012, he was (supposedly) the A’s 20th-best prospect.

Beane: I don’t think their rankings were unfair. But one thing he always had in the minor leagues was a good contact rate, with power. Sure we liked him. And we saw him as a weapon at third base. Based on the information we had, even with the small sample size.

But I don’t think any of us saw anything like fourth in the MVP balloting last year.

Forst: Billy Owens, our director of player personnel, really advocated for Josh. Because of his work ethic, his intensity. If you looked closely, you could think he would have a good career as a major leaguer.

Beane: Remember, Josh started the 2012 season with us. But he struggled, and even with the great defense we sent him down and signed Brandon Inge. Then when Inge got hurt in August, I said, “We have to give Donaldson the job. If we don’t, somebody else will.”

Chili Davis: I see him still evolving. He’s a worker. The key thing I love about him is that he is competitive — defensively, offensively, very competitive. Because of that, I think he searches for perfection, and perfection in every way. This game will teach you a lot about yourself, and he’s still learning.

Donaldson: I agree with that 100 percent. Hitting and playing the game of baseball are my two biggest passions. I want to do everything I can to be successful. That’s why I try to be perfect, especially in my practice. It’s a fine line for me. If I don’t feel like I’m competing, then I don’t feel like I’m in the game. There’s that other line of the unwritten rules, or whatever you want to call it. I’m not trying to step above that and make myself bigger than the game by any means. I just want to go out there and perform to my best for my team to win.

This took me awhile to understand: It’s not always about the production. It’s about the process of how you go about it. It’s about being able to prepare your mind, every day, for what’s going to happen. I’ll be quite frank: June was a complete grind, mentally and physically, one of the worst months of my career. At the same time, I’m still trying to go out there and perfect my mind. I know my swing is fine. But it’s the mentality of going out there and grinding and being able to think through at-bats. Then ultimately, you learn at the end of the day what you have to do better.

In the minors, as soon as the shit hits the fan, you want to freak out. “I’ve got to do something.” I was looking for that quick fix: What’s going to get me a hit today? Then tomorrow, I’ve got to do something different. Now I have an understanding of myself.

Bob Rossi: The consensus of the people who saw him was that he was going to play in the big leagues. Because of the way he carried himself, his style of play, how hard he worked. But he’s really made himself into the player he is now. We thought he was going to be good. We didn’t know he was going to be this good. I’m not happy for me; I’m happy for the kid.

Jim Hendry: You never know how a deal’s going to turn out in the end, but Donaldson’s played tremendously well. I love everything he brings to the baseball field, and I’m happy for him.

Donaldson: When I was 11 or 12, I had a net in my backyard. It was eight by eight feet. I would hit all day. In the summertime — I was switch-hitting then — I would make sure I was taking 300 hacks right-handed and 300 hacks left-handed. Not just because I wanted to, but because I felt this was what it took to be the best. I thought, “Nobody else is doing this right now.”

Rossi: I was disappointed last year when he didn’t make the All-Star Game. It’ll be absolutely awesome to see him on the field this time. That’s what we live for. When you get a player like that? Oh, man.

Rob Neyer contributed reporting to this story.