Don­ald­son is bravely op­ti­mistic

USA TODAY International Edition - - SPORTS - Gabe Lac­ques USA TO­DAY

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Josh Don­ald­son wasn’t so much a ballplayer in his first five ma­jor league sea­sons as he was a rag­ing bull, mov­ing fast and break­ing things and gar­ner­ing four con­sec­u­tive top-10 finishes in Amer­i­can League MVP vot­ing.

He finally broke, and spent his final sea­son be­fore free agency shelved for all but 52 games, be­trayed by a calf in­jury that rep­re­sented the worst pos­si­ble out­come as he en­tered free agency.

At 33, the man who spear­headed four stir­ring and un­likely play­off runs in Oak­land and Toronto does not pos­sess the sig­nificant chip on his shoul­der that fired his as­cen­sion that cul­mi­nated in the 2015 MVP award.

Yet the Don­ald­son whom the Braves are pay­ing $23 mil­lion, a record salary for a one-year con­tract, to play third base and lift them be­yond the Na­tional League East Di­vi­sion ti­tle they claimed in 2018 might yet be the best ver­sion of him­self.

He’s healthy. He’s highly mo­ti­vated. And he’s also per­haps grounded by a pro­fes­sional mor­tal­ity he per­haps never knew ex­isted when he grew into an MVP-cal­iber player.

“It sucks to be hu­man,” Don­ald­son said Wed­nes­day be­fore the morn­ing work­out. “I’m not a ro­bot. 2018 was a lost sea­son for me, be­cause of in­juries. There were a lot of things go­ing on that I’ve tried to iden­tify, and I’m go­ing to con­tinue to learn from.

“When I was 26, 27 years old, I felt like I could tear a ham­string and be fine. The older you get into the game — I’m not old by any sense of the mat­ter — the more evolved you get into your ca­reer, you have to learn how to deal with things bet­ter.”

Don­ald­son cer­tainly han­dled his first foray in free agency with aplomb. Like many jewels of a vaunted 2018 class that was ex­pected to pro­duce sev­eral ninefigure deals, Don­ald­son en­tered with a whim­per. Oh, he re­turned from his calf in­jury in time for a six-game cameo (in­clud­ing play­offs) with the In­di­ans.

But with risk aver­sion the watch­word in the in­dus­try, Don­ald­son knew a longterm deal wasn’t in the off­ing, not af­ter what he calls “a lost sea­son.”

And so when the Braves called, there was plenty to like. It didn’t hurt that Don­ald­son’s first fa­vorite player grow­ing up in Flor­ida and Alabama was Ron Gant and that his walls were adorned with posters of Tom Glavine and Greg Mad­dux.

What really helped: That Alex An­thopou­los, the gen­eral man­ager who ac­quired him in Toronto, was will­ing to make a big, al­beit short, bet on Don­ald­son re­turn­ing to MVP form.

Oh, no one’s ready to anoint Don­ald­son as a shoo-in to join the late, great Frank Robin­son as play­ers to win MVPs in both leagues. But An­thopou­los doesn’t think it’s folly to ex­pect great­ness from Don­ald­son yet again.

“Only one guy can win the award,” An­thopou­los told USA TO­DAY. “But I think he’s go­ing to be a high-level player, and I think that’s reflected in the con­tract we gave him.”

Cer­tainly, Don­ald­son pos­sesses skills that are in some ways im­per­vi­ous to age. He has a life­time .367 on-base per­cent­age, peak­ing at .404 in his 2015 MVP sea­son, when he hit 41 home runs. The for­mer high school wide re­ceiver and de­fen­sive back pos­sesses what foot­ball types might call a “high mo­tor,” from the field to the club­house, where his lead­er­ship skills are val­ued.

“I can tell that the pas­sion, the in­ten­sity with which he plays will be sec­ondto-none,” man­ager Brian Snitker says.

And though no longer hell­bent to show he de­serves to stick in the ma­jor leagues, that in­ten­sity in Don­ald­son’s eyes has not dulled. “I think I’m al­ways out to prove some­thing,” he says. “I just have a lit­tle more to prove this year than in years past.”

The con­di­tions to do so are nearly op­ti­mal.

Don­ald­son was able to work out with greater vigor this win­ter and fo­cused on sin­gle-leg strength and what he calls “foot im­pact,” or how his foot en­gages and im­pacts the ground when he runs.

A sub­op­ti­mal gait can im­peril the calf, and Don­ald­son pos­sesses some beastly ones. “Every­thing starts from the ground,” he says.

Mean­while, he has a chance to hit between three-time All-Star Fred­die Free­man and reign­ing Rookie of the Year Ron­ald Acuna Jr. If ever there were a chance to pro­duce what Don­ald­son calls “a plat­form year,” well, this might be it.

While Don­ald­son would wel­come a longer-term re­la­tion­ship with the Braves, it’s highly likely he’ll be on the mar­ket again come Novem­ber. He turns 34 in De­cem­ber, an age when some ma­jor league front of­fices are more likely to offer a player a gold watch than a Brink’s truck of cash.

Re­minded of this re­al­ity, the Don­ald­son whom base­ball knows and loves re­turns. “I don’t lis­ten to them,” he says in mea­sured tones. “I don’t really care for their opin­ion; I just go off what I feel like.”

Right now, Don­ald­son feels pretty darn good.

Josh Don­ald­son played in just 52 games last sea­son for the Blue Jays and In­di­ans be­cause of in­jury. CUR­TIS COMP­TON/AP

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