In the End, the Pursuit of Josh Donaldson Came Down to More than Just Money

Please Credit: Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

It might not have been what Josh Donaldson expected when he stepped into the box at Target Field as a Minnesota Twin for the first time, but it had to be a pretty cool scene nevertheless.

Flanked by his entourage of family, friends and his agent Dan Lozano, Donaldson waded into ankle-deep snow to stand roughly where the batter’s box will be come April 2 against the Oakland A’s — the team he made his big-league debut with in 2010. A member of his party raced over to first base to mimic a runner on for Donaldson, and yet another went to the mound to build a snowball to pitch to him.

It was the perfect snowball weather, really — low 30s with ample snow cover. None of the pitches were anywhere near the makeshift plate Donaldson was standing at, but it wasn’t time for serious business in the batter’s box yet, anyway.

And besides, Donaldson has never been shy about taking pitches, either.

Donaldson took in the field in all her offseason glory — snowcovered and docile, yet still dignified — with his traveling companions, Twins public relations staff and his manager, Rocco Baldelli, who’d earlier remarked how “damn good” Donaldson looked in the team’s uniform just a little while earlier. The 34-year-old third baseman snapped a few selfies and got a good look at the jumbo screens all over the field showing him adorning his new colors — essentially the same ones he wore last season with his hometown Atlanta Braves.

Twins photographers snapped a quick photo of the entire traveling party, and just as the group retreated back through the visitor’s dugout and up the tunnel back into the bowels of Target Field, a light rain began to fall as the temperature crept to just the right number.

Rain status? Brought.

The reality was that the large traveling party with Donaldson provided what appeared to be a glimpse at what’s important to him off the field. That party included his girlfriend, Briana, as well as his mother, Lisa — whom he famously promised a Maserati if she quit smoking.

In short, it took more than just money to lure Donaldson not only to the frozen hinterlands of Minnesota, but away from frankly his home. Let’s not lose sight of how impressive it is that Derek Falvey, Thad Levine and Baldelli managed to pilfer the player second in the major leagues in Fangraphs WAR since 2013 away from the Atlanta Braves, whose home is Truist Park — a mere 121 miles from Plainsman Park, where Donaldson starred for the Auburn Tigers from 2005-07 before the Cubs took him in the first round of the 2007 draft.

For all of the things big and small Donaldson has accomplished in his career, there were still some frontiers he had not yet traveled entering this offseason. Somehow, he still hasn’t won a Gold Glove for his terrific fielding at third base. Matt Chapman, Evan Longoria, Manny Machado, Adrian Beltre and even Kyle Seager kept him from doing so in his time in the American League, and nobody was bumping Nolan Arenado from his perch this past season in the National League. He’s won the award seven years running.

But another thing Donaldson noted at his introductory press conference was that he hadn’t experienced much security in his career. Sure, he’s played at a superstar level basically every year since his breakout season in 2013, but a late start to his career — he was 27 when he broke out — and an ill-timed calf injury kept him from ever securing any sort of long-term commitment. Two years after he broke out, he was traded in a multi-player deal to the Toronto Blue Jays, and while there were whispers of a long-term extension coming, it never came to fruition.

Donaldson was traded to Cleveland, became a free agent and signed a one-year, make-good deal with his hometown Braves — and he made good.

But the upshot was that Donaldson had only ever once played on a deal that guaranteed him more than one year —  a two-year deal while he was arbitration-eligible with the Blue Jays coming off his 2015 MVP season. That deal guaranteed him just under $29 million — or a shade more than he’ll make per year with the Twins.

Sep 7, 2019; Atlanta, GA, USA; Atlanta Braves third baseman Josh Donaldson (20) holds an umbrella as he is showered with water and gum and bird seed as he celebrates his solo home run in the dugout in the fifth inning against the Washington Nationals at SunTrust Park. Please Credit: Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

That level of commitment was not lost on Donaldson.

“The length of (the deal) is very meaningful to me,” Donaldson said. “That means a lot to me, for the amount of time this organization is willing to have me be a part of it. For it to be the most lucrative deal in the Twins free agency — I know Joe Mauer signed a really nice deal here, and obviously for good reasons — that amount of commitment for my family, my friends and my agency, how much that means to us I can’t express in words. It’s so difficult to do that because it is so meaningful. This is what I’ve worked my entire life for since I was five years old. There’s a lot of sacrifices that I have made and that I’m continuing to make to this day. It doesn’t stop.”

Donaldson’s mention of family dovetails nicely with something Falvey said during his opening remarks in the introductory presser.

“Anyone who has been around the Twins long enough knows that the Twins are quite a bit about family,” Falvey said. “We talk about the Twins family quite a bit. When you sign a player or you bring anyone in, whether it’s a front office member, someone we hire in our group, a player or a coach, you become a part of the Twins family. To Josh’s mother Lisa and to his girlfriend Briana, I want to say welcome. Welcome to the Twins family. Along with Josh, you come right along with it, and you’re part of our family here going forward.”

Ultimately, Donaldson’s decision to take a one-year deal with the Braves to prove he was healthy paid off. He hit .259/.379/.521 with 37 home runs and 100 walks, and finished 11th in MVP balloting for a team that won the NL East for the second season in a row.

There were moments to doubt Donaldson could return. He was 33 and coming off a serious calf injury which limited him to 52 games in 2018 and 113 in 2017. He was still a capable hitter when he was on the field, but his line of .246/.352/.449 (117 wRC+) in 2018 was far from what he’d proven to be capable of (139 career wRC+).

But Donaldson’s confidence didn’t waver. Instead of taking whatever multi-year deals were on the table at the time, he opted to gamble on himself over the course of what he ostensibly hoped would be another healthy season.

“I mean I think it took a lot of confidence,” Donaldson said when asked of the gamble. “There were definitely other options out there. With that being said, all I’ve known is one-year deals. This is the first time really I’ve had an opportunity to sign a long-term contract and it makes it that much more special for me that this organization believes in me and wants to be a part of me and wants me to be a part of their organization for as many years as they’ve signed me up for. So, as well as it took confidence to do that, it’s taken confidence in this organization to believe in me and that’s something that I do not take lightly.”

One sign of a superstar is making the players around them better. That’s been the hallmark of a number of storied careers which have wound down recently or are currently winding down, such as Derek Jeter or Tom Brady.

Sep 5, 2019; Atlanta, GA, USA; Atlanta Braves third baseman Josh Donaldson (20) throws to first base but is unable to get out Washington Nationals third baseman Anthony Rendon (not pictured) in the first inning at SunTrust Park. Mandatory Credit: Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

Donaldson is also here to make players around him better. But how does that happen?

“I think first and foremost it’s having conversations with all the guys,” Donaldson said. “Just like Rocco did last year as a new manager. You want to try to get to know each and every individual out there and first and foremost let them know you care, and you want these guys to succeed and to continue to succeed.

“I’ve gotten to play with a lot of great players, and I’ve gotten to pick their minds and understand what they think makes them great as well and seeing how they go about their business. I think guys are going to get to see that with me and they’ve probably seen that with Nelson Cruz and the Joe Mauer-types, and how they went about their business in a very professional manner.

“I try to talk to everybody on the team. I don’t just single out a couple of people, hitters, whatever. I like to talk to pitchers after their outings. I like to go over things — what I feel are their strengths, especially when I have at-bats off those guys. There’s even more conversation to be had to where I think they could be successful at.”

Ultimately, it comes down to winning — something that drives the fire internally in Donaldson more than anything.

“I enjoy winning,” Donaldson said with considerable conviction evident. “I think over my entire career, I’ve been pretty successful at doing that and establishing an environment that’s successful for winning and ultimately it comes down to competing. I’ve enjoyed competing ever since I was a very small child.

“The other end of that is I don’t enjoy losing. I want to do what it takes. It’s a long season and sometimes people’s feathers get a little bit ruffled and that’s OK. As long as you’re staying true to yourself, that’s what I enjoy to do.”

How seriously does Donaldson take winning? Consider the following quote from his discussion with famed national writer Jayson Stark on Stadium’s “Baseball Stories” from a couple of years ago.

“I play hard, maybe I’d injure their kids if we were playing football,” Donaldson said when asked by Stark about the edge he’s had since a very young age.

“Did you injure their kids?” Stark replied quizzically.

“There were several kids that I injured,” Donaldson said. “Not intentionally, but it’s part of the game. But it’s one of those deals where I think the easiest way to affect someone is taking their confidence.

“I’ve been very blessed, and I think God that he gave me the ability to be confident in myself. And I’m thankful for my mom, who as every time somebody told me ‘no’ that I couldn’t do something, she was behind me saying ‘You can do it, but you’re going to have to outwork everybody for it.'”

Winning and family? Maybe it isn’t such a surprise Donaldson picked the Twins after all.

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