He’s the player whose fire could raise the intensity level for a team that has World Series aspirations.
He’s the player many fans thought the Twins couldn’t get, a highly sought free agent who had many bidders.
He’s the player who ranks among baseball’s top sluggers, a former MVP who adds more home run power to a record-setting lineup.
He’s the player who used his own struggles to become a hitting mentor to younger players while honing his own feared swing.
He’s Josh Donaldson, the player who navigated a rough early childhood, who relied on a mother who forged his course to success at the highest level.
And the Twins, historically bad in postseason play outside of two World Series titles primarily because of the ir play against their archnemeses Yankees, are delighted to have him.
“Donaldson was a big piece,” Marwin Gonzalez said. “He’s an MVP. Everybody knows what he is capable to do at home plate. Also he plays a good defense, too. We are all happy.”
The Twins in January stepped up with a four-year, $92 million contract to bring in, by far, the most expensive free agent in club history, one who belted 37 home runs and had 94 RBI last season for Atlanta.
After striking out in their search for a top free-agent starting pitcher, they turned to the 34-year-old third baseman to help them improve on what they do best. “Bringer of Rain” joins a group that clubbed 307 home runs while winning 101 games.
The hope is Donaldson can help them push deeper into the postseason, and that hasn’t abated as the season shrunk from 162 games to 60.
“When you look at it and you see 101 wins … that’s a high bar,” Donaldson said. “Ultimately, that’s the regular season. I think the bar is not just regular season with this team anymore. I think the bar is more set for the postseason, but in order to get to the postseason, you have to take care of business in the regular season.”
Donaldson has been known to show some fire on the field. He was ready to go toe-to-toe with Twins reliever Glen Perkins in 2014 when the closer said something to Donaldson after striking him out. When the Rangers’ Rougned Odor socked Jose Bautista, Donaldson’s Toronto teammate, during a brawl in 2016, Donaldson tore after Odor.
If that ingredient enhances the overall product, the Twins will take it. Not the threat of pugilism, but the edge that can help a team be mentally tougher.
“I definitely believe there is a time and place for not giving a damn,” Donaldson said. “I think on the field is one of them. Because you have lots of people who are trying to judge you and a lot of people who are trying to do certain things, and if you are concerned with all these things, then it takes away from your performance.”
Donaldson was 9 or 10 years old when he began unintentionally plunking batters during a youth baseball game near his home in Pensacola, Fla. Parents booed and wanted him pulled from the game, and he wanted out, too.
But his mother, Lisa, yelled down from the stands, ordering him to finish his outing.
“I had a lot of thoughts going through my head and one of them was, ‘I’m about to kill your kid because I don’t have any idea where [the pitch] was going,’ ” he said. “I didn’t want to do that. I was upset and my mom made it very clear that they knew what they were getting into when they signed up. You need to still go out there and do what was asked to do.”
Donaldson’s mother was his confidant and motivational force. His father, Levon, was way out of the picture by then. Lisa was the victim of Levon’s domestic violence when they lived in Pensacola and filed for divorce in 1990, when Josh was just 4 years old. Lisa also secured a restraining order, but it didn’t stop Levon from returning to choke and threaten her. He was sentenced to two years of probation, community service and monthly drug testing.
A couple of weeks later, however, Levon returned again and broke Lisa’s jaw while sexually assaulting her. He then drove her and Josh to his house, but they were able to flee and call the police. Levon was arrested a few months later. He was charged with sexual battery and false imprisonment and handed a prison sentence of 12½ years.
Sticking to baseball
Lisa and Josh moved to Mobile, Ala., where Lisa worked two jobs but was a fixture at all of Josh’s sporting events. He was talented, and confident, and she pushed him to get the most out of his ability.
“She would always remind me there’s always someone else out there working harder than you,” he said. “That always kind of motivated me. I loved to compete from a young age. That was more natural for me, going out there and competing and she just kind of gave me a little extra edge.
“I had very few rules. I had to make my bed before I went to school in the morning. I had to clean up after myself, clean my room at night, and I had to make good grades, which were all A’s and B’s. And once I started a sport, I couldn’t quit.”
Buoyed by Lisa’s support, Donaldson found guidance at Faith Academy in Mobile, where he was a standout athlete, and earned a baseball scholarship to Auburn. He was a first-round pick of the Cubs in 2007 but was traded a year later to the Athletics. Lisa was there for him as he went through the ups and downs of a minor leaguer, as he batted .156 as a rookie in Oakland in 2010 and when he went 98 consecutive plate appearances without a walk to start the 2012 season.
After the first time he was sent down in 2010, Lisa was livid at the Athletics during a phone conversation while he drove back to Class AAA Sacramento. Donaldson had to stop the car as his mother seethed at the organization.
“If I have a chance to put a uniform on, I have a chance to play,” Donaldson told her. “I got a chance to prove that I belong here. I haven’t done that. I’ve got to go figure out what it’s going to take. That’s when I started taking ownership of myself. Just try to become a good self-evaluator.”
Heading toward stardom
Donaldson was 24 then, and still catching more than playing third base. But his game began to grow. He sweated the little details, worked on his swing, even played winter ball after the 2011 season. When Scott Sizemore injured a knee at the start of 2012 workouts, Donaldson got a chance to start at third base. He was sent to Sacramento twice that season, but he was never demoted again. He started barreling baseballs, playing strong defense and blossomed.
He batted .301 with 24 homers in 2013 and finished fourth in MVP voting. He batted .255 with 29 home runs and 98 RBI in 2014. Meanwhile, his agent was having a rough time getting Donaldson compensated. The Athletics ended up renewing Donaldson’s contract before the 2014 season, when he had just over a year of service time and had little leverage. He ended up getting a $7,500 raise from 2013.
After the 2014 season, the A’s dealt Donaldson to Toronto, where he hit .297 with 41 home runs and 123 RBI in 2015. His fire — yelling and chest bumping willing teammates before games were a couple of his antics — was perfect for a team learning to win, and the Blue Jays got within two games of the World Series. And he landed that MVP award.
He received a two-year extension worth $28.65 million after that. The second year of that deal was rough for Donaldson, who battled a calf injury for the majority of the season then was traded to Cleveland for a playoff push. He hit a combined .246 with eight home runs over 52 games. He needed the bounce-back season with Atlanta last year to re-establish his value.
The Twins, coming off their latest expulsion from the postseason at the hands of the Yankees — it’s six consecutive postseason series losses now — bought in.
Ready to roll
On Wednesday, Donaldson scrambled to his left while playing third base to gobble up a ground ball during an intrasquad game. He cut off shortstop Jorge Polanco while doing so, but then again, Polanco might not be used to someone who can go to his left that well.
“I’m going to have to be more ready to go to my left side, cause I know Josh Donaldson has a lot of range to his left side too,” Polanco said.
During the Twins’ first dress rehearsal game July 9, Donaldson blasted a Lewis Thorpe pitch well into the seats in right. Donaldson, 6-1 and 210 pounds of muscle, circled the bases and celebrated as if he had just hit a walk-off home run as his teammates howled.
“I’ve seen that swing before,” Twins manager Rocco Baldelli said. “I’ve seen that ball go out of several major league ballparks in that exact same manner. He has the ability to hit the ball out to all parts of the ballpark. Like I said, vintage Donaldson.”
Donaldson has chatted up anyone willing to talk hitting. Catcher Mitch Garver recently hooked up with his new teammate for a discussion about swings and approaches.
“Mitch and I have kind of hit it off from early on,” Donaldson said. “We’ve talked hitting a little bit, but more of our conversations have other things to do than just that. I’m interested — I always love talking about hitting because it’s something I’m very passionate about. So, I’m sure we will have those conversations and, hopefully, I can learn from him and he can learn from me as well.”
Not shy about success
Donaldson, the expensive import, is here. His contract will pay him $21 million for each of the next four seasons; there’s a fifth year attached at $16 million that the Twins can buy out of for $8 million. That means he’s guaranteed $92 million, an average annual value of $23 million if he’s bought out.
He’ll be the 26th-highest-paid player in the majors and fourth among third basemen behind Anthony Rendon, Nolan Arenado and Manny Machado.
There’s a bit of a risk for the Twins because of Donaldson’s age, but the length of his contract means he’ll be one of the Bomba Squad’s central figures.
And he’s here to make the Twins be more than a first-round playoff foil. He’s here to defend well and supply the Bomba Squad with more. He’s seen some things young boys should never see, he’s made himself into a player who wants to help teams win and young players find their way.
“I definitely believe there is a time and place for not giving a damn. I think on the field is one of them.”
He’s just now settling into Minnesota, since players didn’t report to Target Field until July 1. His fiancée, Briana Miller, is expecting the couple’s first child, a daughter.
The “Bringer of Rain” (he took his nickname from the Starz TV series “Spartacus”) has high expectations for himself and his teammates, who have World Series aspirations, and that means it will get loud.
And not just when Donaldson is hitting. His encouragement will reverberate through empty stadiums this season.
“Look, I’m not going to sit here and say I’m coming in here to change this team because there’s not a need for a change,” Donaldson said. “They won 101 games.
“I play with a certain style, flair, chip, whatever you want to say, that’s particular for me. If other players — if that brings it out of them, then they have an example to look at.
“But I expect these guys to come out and compete each and every day. And I know they do from their histories.”