"I saw the kids in my extended family going down that wrong path," says Donaldson, seated in front of his A's locker after a late February workout in Phoenix. As loud as his actions are on the field, he's strikingly quiet and reserved off it. With a subtle Southern twang and a voice that has a tendency to crackle, he sounds somewhat like Bill Clinton. "I didn't want to be part of that." Instead, he wanted to be a major leaguer. He needed to be a major leaguer.
He needed it so badly that he spent entire days throwing at the black square on the faded wooden fence. He needed it so badly that when he was in the 10th grade, when his friends grew tired of his look-at-me act after he made the Pace High varsity squad ("They were saying things a mother does not want to hear," says French), he transferred to Faith Academy in Mobile, Ala., a blue-chip baseball program -- even though it meant waking up at 5 a.m., driving an hour and a half each way and not getting home until 9 or 10 at night before the two moved to Alabama. He needed it so badly that in 2012, five years after the Cubs drafted him as a catcher (first round out of Auburn) and four years after they gave up on him before he ever played a major league game (he was dealt to Oakland in 2008), he was willing to start all over again.
THE BREAK Josh Donaldson needed came on the first day of spring training 2012, when regular A's third baseman Scott Sizemore shredded his knee during a bunt drill. At the time, Donaldson was a catcher who'd appeared in just 14 MLB games and was running out of minor league options. But he was also standing nearby as Sizemore was taken off the field. "You want me to go over there?" he asked manager Bob Melvin, pointing to third. "Yeah, go over there," said the skipper.
"Over there" is where Josh Donaldson has lived ever since, becoming one of the best third basemen in the game. And while the move may seem like a fateful stroke of luck, it had more to do with Josh's preparing himself for just such an opportunity. Following a particularly discouraging 2011 season, toiling in Triple-A without being called up once (he had two cups of coffee the year before), Donaldson figured he could stand to become a little more marketable. So he took it upon himself to go to the Dominican Republic and learn a new skill: third base. Technically, it wasn't entirely new. He'd been a shortstop in high school and had played some third in college. But he'd spent the bulk of the previous seven years behind the plate, having volunteered to convert to catcher as a freshman at Auburn. Not that he was going to let a small detail like that stop him. "JD is the first person to drop an F-bomb on you if you don't believe in him," says A's third-base coach Mike Gallego. "He's out to prove you wrong."
In fact, Donaldson took to his new position so quickly that he fooled his manager that winter in the Dominican, former big league third baseman Ken Oberkfell. "I didn't even realize he was a catcher," says Oberkfell. Donaldson had the natural ability for the position: As a senior at Faith Academy, he decided a week before football season to play cornerback, then proceeded to lead all of Alabama with 11 interceptions and finished second in the state in punting. More important, he had the workaholic mentality, forged at a young age out of a necessity to outrun his legacy.