That determination and drive was quickly apparent to Gallego. The coach remembers a time during spring training in 2013 when Donaldson -- who spent the 2012 season shuttling between Sacramento and Oakland -- wanted some extra work on slow rollers. He'd already reported at 7:30 that morning for extra grounders, then worked out with the team for three hours in the bright Arizona sun, but it wasn't enough. So Gallego agreed to meet Donaldson on the back field of the team's practice facility.
A normal slow-grounder session for Gallego's infielders might be three balls -- five at the most. After all, it's a taxing play that involves charging in 40 or 50 feet, then torquing the body to grab the ball and fling it to first in one fell swoop. "I'm typically about quality, not quantity," says Gallego. But after the first few balls, Donaldson didn't like the way things felt. His approach angle was off. He was releasing from different points. His throws were tailing. So he asked Gallego to keep rolling. And rolling. And rolling. By the time Donaldson called it quits, they'd burned through an entire bucket of 75 balls. "Now?" says Gallego. "Don't bunt on the guy."
Don't hit a foul ball in his direction either. Around the A's clubhouse, the moment that cemented Donaldson's legend is known as the Tarp Play. On Sept. 3, 2013, Texas and Oakland squared off, division rivals locked in a tie for first place in the AL West. With one out in the top of the sixth, a runner on first and the A's trailing 4-1, Rangers batter David Murphy sliced a high pop foul toward the stands, just past the third-base dugout. Off the bat, it looked out of play. But this was Oakland, where foul balls go to die and the third baseman is a pathological attention-seeker.
Sprinting toward the stands at full speed, Donaldson eyed the hurdles in front of him. Tarp. Wall. Fans. As the ball dropped from the sky, Donaldson checked the wall twice more, hesitated slightly, then laid out and made a backhanded grab while crashing into the rolled-up tarp, rolling over it and disappearing into the narrow chasm between it and the wall. "I'd been wanting to do that all year," says Donaldson.
As if the catch itself weren't enough, a split second later Donaldson pounced back up onto the tarp and, perched like a predator, feigned a throw to second in an attempt to prevent the runner on first from tagging up. "Play of the year," tweeted Oakland pitcher Jerry Blevins (who was on the mound at the time) following the game. "See you at the ESPYS."
I saw the kids in my extended family going down that wrong path ... I didn't want to be part of that." -- Donaldson
Billy Owens, the A's director of player personnel, points to the Tarp Play as a perfect example of why Donaldson has found a home at the hot corner. (Last year, he finished third in the AL in UZR for third basemen, second in WAR, and fourth in MVP balloting.) "Putting JD at catcher was like caging a wild boar," says Owens. "It just didn't fit his personality. He was meant to run around on the field, do athletic things on the diamond and play third base like a warrior."
Adds Gallego: "He's a little kid that loves to show off to his parents, and we're his parents. We're his audience. He wants you to watch him play baseball. He wants you to watch him play golf. He just wants you to watch him."