Safe at third

Josh Donaldson

This is an online exclusive story from ESPN The Magazine's March 31 MLB Preview Issue. Subscribe today!

JOSH DONALDSON'S DADDY was nuts about golf. Loved it so much that the backyard of his home in Pensacola, Fla., was a driving range. A construction worker by trade, Levon Donaldson wasn't around much. When he was, the only thing he liked more than playing golf was spending time with his little boy. Not long after Josh started walking, Levon took the kid out on the links for the very first time. Right from the get-go, Josh was a natural, an 18-month-old who hit the ball like an 18-year-old. He was so good that one of the local TV stations put the toddler on the evening news. From that moment on, whenever Levon and Josh spent time together, it was in the company of irons and woods. At age 4, with the old man watching over his shoulder, Josh carded his first birdie, holing out from 100 yards at the University of West Florida's Scenic Hills Country Club. A year later, Levon Donaldson went to prison for a long, long time.


LISA FRENCH, Josh's mom, never cared much for the gentleman's game; she was more of a baseball fan. So she didn't mind one bit when her brother, Chuck Pyritz, took Josh out into the yard with a plastic bat and ball about a year after Levon went to prison. Six-year-old Josh swung at the first offering, a slow overhand toss from close range, and sent the ball sailing clear over his uncle's head. Beginner's luck, Pyritz figured. He took a step back and delivered again. Once more, Josh hit the ball over his uncle's head. Another step back, another missile. "I've never seen anyone with that kind of hand-eye coordination," Pyritz told his sister. "You need to get him in baseball."

A year later, when Josh was 7, French walked out the back door one morning to find that the faded wooden fence in her yard now featured a large black square. Josh had spray-painted a pitching target without asking her permission. She was angry at first, but then laughed at the lengths he was willing to go to.

For other offenses, though, French sent the boy to his uncle for some tough love. "This is gonna hurt me more than it hurts you," Pyritz would tell his nephew as he put him up against the wall and prepared to whip him. As Donaldson grew older, his mouth grew bigger, and the whipping turned into ditch running. In his uncle's backyard, there was a dike 10 feet deep and 35 feet wide. Whenever he'd crack wise to his mother, the boy would find himself at the bottom of the ditch. There'd be Uncle Chuck, sitting on the lip, watching as his nephew scampered up the 70-degree incline, then back down again -- for as long as he felt the disrespect warranted. If it was really bad, Donaldson might be stuck in that godforsaken trench for half an hour, going up and down the slope as many as 30 times in the sweltering Florida humidity.

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