See if this doesn’t qualify Josh Donaldson as a card-carrying Southern boy?
—Born in Pensacola, Florida.
—Moved to Mobile, Alabama, during high school.
—Learned the tomahawk chop and rooted like crazy for the Atlanta Braves, like many budding baseball players in his neck of the woods.
Though he’d later become a hero in Canada, when Donaldson was 12 years old, he went to his first Major League Baseball game at the place he dreamed of playing—in Georgia.
And just look at him now, back in the South and in a Braves uniform. “Now I’m 32 years old and wearing this jersey, and wearing it with pride,” Donaldson, the 2015 American League MVP, told the media on November 27. He’d just signed a one-year, $23 million free agent contract with the Braves, and as a result added a powerful right-handed bat to a lineup desperately needing some thump following lefty first baseman Freddie Freeman.
But for all of Donaldson’s baseball success in Toronto, where his high-water mark three years ago featured 41 home runs and 123 runs batted in, his first noise on a large scale took place much closer to home.
Do you remember Donaldson when he played for Auburn University? If not, then you might not remember he was a catcher, too, not just a third baseman, where he’s spent his time in the majors. He showed his power at Auburn, hitting 17 home runs in his first two seasons in 2005-06. But as he learned the catching position as a freshman, he came into his own during the 2006 season and threw out 15 of 38 base stealers and picked off seven runners.
He’d do a little catching for the Oakland A’s from 2010-2012, but not much. Since the Chicago Cubs took him with the 48th overall selection of the 2007 draft, Donaldson primarily has manned the hot corner, where he’s been selected to the All-Star Game three times since breaking into the majors for good in 2012.
Indeed, Auburn claimed him well before the A’s, Blue Jays, or Braves, and he’s one of what H&A considers the top five former Auburn Tigers to ever play in MLB. The list of the others reads like a who’s who of all-stars and Hall of Famers:
FRANK THOMAS (1987-89)
“The Big Hurt” was a mammoth slugger, all 6-foot-5, 240 pounds of him, and he was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2014, his first year of eligibility. He finished with 521 home runs and 1,704 runs batted in during a 19-year career spent mostly with the Chicago White Sox. He also had a career .301 batting average and .419 on-base percentage. Thomas, a Columbus, Georgia native, attended Auburn on a football scholarship and played two sports. But he became solely a baseball player by the time the White Sox drafted him seventh overall in 1989.
BO JACKSON (1983-86)
The subject of NIKE’s “Bo Knows” commercials, two-sport superstar Bo Jackson is simply one of the best athletes ever. The 1985 Heisman Trophy winner at Auburn, he is the only athlete named an All-Star in MLB and an All-Pro in the NFL. He made his name roaming the outfield for the Kansas City Royals during the summers and running the football for the Oakland Raiders in the falls. During an eight-year MLB career he had 141 home runs, 82 stolen bases and countless leaps over the wall, springing upwards with the aid of his thunderous thighs and robbing hitters of extra bases. A 1991 hip injury ended his football career, and though he played two more baseball seasons following his rehabilitation, he retired in 1994.
TIM HUDSON (1996-97)
Just as Auburn fans got to see Donaldson do something different (catch), they got to see Hudson patrol center field as well as pitch. But after being drafted by Oakland in the sixth round in 1997, his future was clearly on the mound. Not a bad decision, huh? Hudson won 222 games over a 17-year career with the A’s, Braves, and Giants. He also came in second in American League Cy Young Award voting in 2000, only his second MLB season, when he won a career-best 20 games for the A’s. Just for fun, Hudson never forgot how to hit after leaving Auburn. He added four career home runs to his resumé.
GREGG OLSON (1986-88)
The Baltimore Orioles selected Olson, a right-handed relief pitcher, fourth overall in the 1988 draft. A quick study, Olson reached the majors that very year, throwing in 10 games as a 21-year-old rookie. Then look what he did — Olson went on to set the Orioles all-times saves record with 160 as a lights-out closer. He recorded 217 saves during a 16-year career that included stints with nine teams.
HONORABLE MENTION: Mark Bellhorn, David Ross, Gabe Gross, Terry Leach, Scott Sullivan, Joe Beckwith. H&A