Donaldson understands value of clubhouse chemistry

Barry Davis reports from Dunedin where Josh Donaldson talks about building relationships with new teammates and replacing Brett Lawrie at third baseman.

DUNEDIN, Fla. – In the Toronto Blue Jays clubhouse at Florida Auto Exchange Stadium, Josh Donaldson’s locker is already a popular destination point. Lounging in his blue chair, he chats affably with neighbours Michael Saunders and Steve Tolleson, smiles widely as Marcus Stroman stops by for a visit and shoots friendly barbs at anyone else in range.

It’s in simple exchanges such as these, and many just like them around the batting cage, or on the field, where some of the cache needed for real influence is built. Rather than joining a new team and assuming a position of leadership because of his stature in the game, Donaldson is working to develop friendships and trust slowly and steadily all around him.

His energy and enthusiasm levels may be bull-in-a-china-shop-esque, but his intent and approach is far more intelligent and measured than that.

“I think that’s what helps win games,” Donaldson says of having positive relationships with teammates. “At the end of the day, I want the guy next to me to know that I believe in him just as much as I believe in myself.”

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While the debate over how to measure the impact of leadership and intangibles remains a polarizing one within baseball, there’s no arguing that creating a functional workplace is in the best interest of any organization, be it a ball club, or a law firm or a marketing company.

Success is possible in environments where co-workers are indifferent to or even dislike one another, but places that prioritize healthy atmospheres are far more likely to maximize their human capital.

Donaldson points to his growth from struggling prospect to middle-of-the-order stud as proof of that, and while it’s possible his talent may have won out at the end of the day, who knows what might have happened without some timely advice from former Oakland Athletics teammate Jonny Gomes in 2012.

Explaining his outlook on leadership, Donaldson recalls his second game in the big-leagues, a 4-3 win over the Blue Jays on May 1, 2010, in which his first career hit – a fourth-inning two-run homer off Dana Eveland – played a pivotal role. Afterwards, he remembers entering the clubhouse, “and everybody was like, ‘OK, whatever,’ just kind of by themselves.”

The celebration wasn’t quite the way he’d imagined it.

That stuck with him, but more importantly, so did the lessons Gomes preached to a young Athletics team that finished 94-68 and swept the Texas Rangers in the final series of the season to win the American League West. Donaldson had struggled through the first three months of the season and after he was sent down in mid-June, was recalled in mid-August and posted an .844 OPS over the final 47 games.

“When I first came to the big-leagues, I was trying to prove myself, prove myself, trying to show everybody I belonged there,” says Donaldson. “Ultimately, when I kind of let that go, and allowed myself and my personality to play through it, he was the guy that brought that out of me. In that off-season a year later, I sat there thinking, ‘Hey, this is what this guy was trying to do.’ Ultimately it’s kind of led me to the player I am today.”

This isn’t just lip-service. Donaldson basically told the San Francisco Chronicle the exact same thing in September of 2012, and that made him determined to pay the wisdom forward after blossoming into an MVP-calibre force over the past two years.

“The guy’s a winner,” Donaldson said of Gomes, with whom he remains close. “He really took me under his wing and showed me how winners play the game, the attitude they bring. These guys don’t change, every day, no matter if you go 0-for-4 with four punch outs – you’re still trying to find some way to be positive about that day, whether it’s helping a teammate believe in himself to get that game-winning hit, and really focusing it more on your teammates versus yourself.

“If you get caught up in numbers and stuff like that, you’re going to drive yourself crazy. But if you can go out there and you can help your teammate get the job done, ‘Hey, this guy just threw me three sliders in row, I struck out, be ready for the slider,’ something to help impact your team that day, and try to take away something positive every day, that’s really how I try to go about my business.”

The generosity of spirit is reminiscent of Mark DeRosa, the sage veteran who played his final big-league season with the Blue Jays. DeRosa was signed to hit lefties and provide similar wisdom and leadership around the clubhouse, but as a part-time player his influence could only go so far.

As a middle-of-the-order bat, even one entering a new clubhouse, whatever Donaldson does and says will carry far more weight.

As manager John Gibbons put it, “You look what he’s done the last couple of years, he’s anchored a lineup that is flirting with the post-season every year, that tells you enough right there.”

Without doubt Donaldson’s biggest impact will come from his bat and glove, not in his words and deeds, but the hope for the Blue Jays is that the latter helps make up some of the gap in games that get settled in the margins.

There was an intent to change the clubhouse’s heartbeat with Russell Martin’s free-agent signing, and part of the attraction to Donaldson was his potential impact in that regard, too.

How much of a difference that actually makes is impossible to measure, but Donaldson will definitely give of himself, keep things loose, and make sure nobody’s big moment is as anti-climactic as his first home run was.

“As a kid you come up and dream of helping your team win, maybe a home run or whatever it is, and you come in and it’s just like, ugh, there’s really no kind of celebration,” said Donaldson. “I understand it’s a long season but at the same time, you win the game, guy has a big hit, hey, I want to be the first guy to come up to you and give you some love, and make sure you know that we appreciate that, that we appreciate you and what you’ve done.

“To me, because there’s so much negative that goes in this game for position players, you go 3-for-10 you’re considered to be great, you have to deal with so much adversity and stuff like that, your mind and everything has to stay focused on the positive.”

That’s easy to say and do during spring training. The challenge will be in winning enough games during the regular season to help keep it there.

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