On the field, however, Donaldson was a quick study. Ever since that day whacking pitches over his uncle's head, he found nothing but success on the diamond. With success came confidence, with confidence came swagger. Once when he was 9, he leapt clear over a second baseman who'd fielded a ground ball and was waiting in the basepath to apply the tag; Donaldson landed square on his feet before safely reaching second, where he flashed a wide, smug grin for all to see. "People didn't appreciate that," says his mother. Another time, when he was on the mound, he beaned every batter in the order on the opposing team, one through nine. "Parents were irate," says Bobby Cassevah, a lifelong friend and MLB reliever. Whenever Donaldson made even the most routine play in the field, he would showboat.
French and Pyritz knew that Donaldson's flamboyant style was rubbing folks the wrong way, but they never made him run ditches -- for that, anyway. "I didn't think the showboating was hurting anyone," says Pyritz. "And I knew that to be a ballplayer, you needed a little bit of that."
They also knew that Donaldson needed extra attention from anyone who could provide it. By the time he finished elementary school, every adult male on the paternal side of his family was already dead or in jail. When he was 4 years old, his Uncle Billy (Levon's brother) went to prison. The next year, his father joined him. Levon, by then divorced from Josh's mother, broke into the family's home in the middle of the night in a fit of rage. Although French is reluctant to recount exactly what her ex-husband did -- she vowed early on never to talk badly about him and forbade Josh and other family members from doing so either -- she admits "it was really bad." Ultimately, Levon was charged with aggravated battery. He pleaded guilty to sexual battery in a separate case, according to court records, and was sentenced to 12 years in prison. After that, Josh's uncle Adrian, who had four children and treated his nephew like one of his own after Levon went away, died of a massive stroke at age 36.
Wracked with guilt over the fact that Josh grew up with only one parent, French admits to trying to compensate by making Josh the focus of everything. "He was used to having my attention on him 24/7," says French, whose current license plate reads JOSHIE4. Despite working two jobs as a bookkeeper and bartender to make ends meet, she never missed one of her son's games in any sport until she broke her ankle when Donaldson was in the 12th grade. "He's always wanted the same kind of attention from everyone else," she says.
Growing up a gifted athlete under the dark shadow of family tragedy, Donaldson realized early on that sports was his exit strategy. He knew he didn't want to end up wearing a prison uniform, like the inmates he saw during his semiannual trips to see his father (once at Christmastime and again during the summer). "That's an experience that no child should have to go through," says French, who remembers that her son would always act out for a couple of days following those visits. "He never really talked about it, but it definitely affected him." So did watching his cousins, Adrian's children, three of whom eventually ran afoul of the law too.