As single mother, Donaldson's mom 'led by example'
Third baseman raised with strong emphasis on both athletics and academics
The story has been told countless times in his family circle, and even more times outside it. But Josh Donaldson never tires of hearing Uncle Chuck recount it over and over and over again.
Neither does his mother, Lisa.
"My brother took Josh into the backyard," Lisa said. "He had never picked up a baseball bat in his life. I had gotten him one of those yellow bats and white little balls."
Josh was 4 years old at the time.
"My uncle said he was throwing it softly the first couple of times; didn't think I would hit it," Josh said. "Throws it, and whack! Hit it right by his head."
Luck, perhaps? That's what Uncle Chuck thought, so he tried it again.
"He hit it even further," said Lisa, with a smile heard even over the phone. "It's been going on ever since."
She pauses, before adding, "Praise the Lord on that one."
It's been 23 years since Josh discovered a talent that has led to a full-time job with the A's, for whom he flirted around in the Minors for some time as a catcher before finding his place in the everyday lineup last year as a third baseman.
Through it all, starting when he was drafted by the Cubs in 2007 out of Auburn University, every one of Josh's moves through the chain has been met with speculation as to whether his bat can keep up.
Lisa, vocal and outspoken much like her son, pays no mind to this, saying, "I've always felt like I had to stick up for him."
Because, at home, no one else really could. Josh's father, Levon, went to prison when Josh was just 5, remaining there for the next 16 years, while Lisa played the role of a single mom. She thrived on it, managing the books and taxes for her own mother's bar in Florida during the days, bringing home some extra money by bartending late nights and making ends meet for a son she was always there for.
"She's always been a very hard worker," Josh said. "She put the character inside me to say, 'You're going to have to work in order to get somewhere,' and she's led by example for a single mom. It's hard to raise a child by yourself. It's probably not fun to have to do that, but she did a great job."
Never once did she miss a single practice or a game -- until Josh's senior year of high school, when she broke her ankle. And there were lots of them, with Josh active not just in baseball, but football and basketball, as well.
"Our lives revolved around sports," Lisa said. "The only vacations we ever took were sports-related, either for Josh's games or maybe to go see the Braves. I loved every single minute of it.
"Josh was always active, never being able to sit still, constantly having to do something. He was very hyper, but since he was my only son, I just assumed all boys were like that. He would be outside 'til dark."
That's where Josh found a wood fence in his backyard. He drew a box on it and, channeling his desires to one day be a pitcher, would throw a baseball at it -- sometimes by himself, if no one was around -- all day long.
And if he wasn't showcasing his competitive spirit outside, he was doing it inside while playing video games.
"He would get so mad," Lisa said, laughing, "that he would throw his controller at the TV. I don't know how many controllers I ended up buying."
But it wasn't always fun and games in their house. Schoolwork always came first -- or else no sports, and that meant all A's and B's on his report card. Josh was a good student, perhaps in part to his charming way with his elementary school teachers.
"I can still remember today," Josh said, "telling all of them, 'You might want to keep this paper, because my autograph is on it, and it's going to be worth something one day.'
"I wish I could see their reaction if they turned on the TV and saw me."
"It's been a wild ride for him," Lisa said. "I'm just so amazed and so grateful that he's been given these talents and the opportunity to do what he loves. I can't imagine seeing him do anything else."
Without Lisa's active pursuit to transfer Josh from Pace High School (Pace, Fla.) to Faith Academy in Mobile, Ala., 80 miles away from their home, the path Josh took to a professional baseball career likely would've looked much different, or may not have existed at all.
Following Josh's sophomore year at Pace, where he was often taunted by mostly jealous teammates, Lisa had heard enough snickering, and yearned to place her son in a better environment. It just so happened that one of Josh's best friends, P.J. Walters -- now a pitcher in the Twins' organization -- had enrolled at Faith Academy the year before, prompting Lisa to seriously consider doing the same for Josh.
"Then one day," Lisa said, "I told him we were going. I put up our house for sale within a week, sold it two weeks later and in a month's time we moved to Daphne, Ala.
"It was a no-brainer for me."
Lisa remains in Daphne, and so does Josh -- about two miles down the road from his mother.
"I thought about buying a place in Arizona or something," Josh said, "but I knew that would crush her. She's always been there for me, supporting me. It's important for me to be there for her."
For as much as Lisa's instinctive mothering approach shaped Josh's life, she insists she did have some help along the way. Josh had an abundance of father figures growing up, a crowd that not only includes Uncle Chuck, but Walters' father, as well as Faith Academy's coach Lloyd Skoda, "who taught him not only how to play baseball," Lisa said, "but how to be a man."
Still, it was typically "just me and my mom," Josh said, smiling.
"I wouldn't have it any other way," Lisa said. "I beam ear to ear every time I think about him."