You only get one chance to make a first impression. But with Blue Jays third baseman Josh Donaldson, the first impression often is misleading, if not outright wrong.
Cardinals first baseman Brandon Moss, Josh Donaldson's former teammate with the Athletics, remembers the first time they met, back in 2012 at Triple-A.
Donaldson had just been sent down. To Moss, he seemed bitter. Frustrated. Arrogant.
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"I didn't like him at all," Moss recalls. "I thought he talked too much. It seemed like he was a bad guy."
Royals outfielder Jonny Gomes, another former teammate of Donaldson's with the A's, recalls seeing him for the first time in the spring of '12. Gomes had just joined the team as a free agent. Donaldson was trying to establish himself.
"It was like Day 3, and I was like, 'Who the heck is that?'" Gomes recalls. "He had a big old knee kick, was hitting moon shots over the scoreboard.
"The guys who had been there were like, 'He's kind of a jackass, kind of like in his own world. He does this. He does that.' I thought in my head, 'Those are all characteristics of a superstar. That's how superstars act.'"
Jays right fielder Jose Bautista, until this season, knew Donaldson only as an opponent. He admired him as a player, viewed Donaldson's extended journey to stardom as similar to his own. But sometimes, watching Donaldson, he wondered about him.
"He's one of those guys that from time to time would do something to make you raise an eyebrow, (think), 'What is going on through his mind?'" Bautista says.
"He would be yelling or doing something on the field. He would be more ticked off at himself than anything. (You would think), 'I don't really know this guy. I don't want to say he's an asshole.' But some of his mannerisms, you couldn't figure them out."
First impressions. Wrong impressions.
Bautista, after nearly a full season playing alongside Donaldson, considers him the epitome of a player who ticks you off as an opponent, but turns out to be the best teammate.
Moss, who grew close to Donaldson during their three seasons together with the A's, said he learned something valuable along the way.
"He ended up showing me not to judge someone so quick," Moss says. "He is a great person and a great teammate. He may not act the way that we're all taught to act. He may not exemplify the ho-hum, chummy guy that everyone wants their stars to be. But that's what makes him likable to me.
"He doesn't care about being what you want him to be. He's going to be who he wants to be. I admire that. I admire someone who says, 'This is who I am. Whether you like it or not, I don't really care.'"
Donaldson is not the leading candidate for American League MVP because his teammates cherish him, because he recently paid for a suite to allow 30 members of the Jays' traveling party to attend a Monday Night Football game in Atlanta on Sept. 14.
No, he's the leading candidate because he is batting .299 with 39 homers and a .942 OPS, playing brilliant defense and running neck-and-neck with Mike Trout in Wins Above Replacement, all for a first-place club.
This, though, is a story about certain qualities of Donaldson's that cannot be measured, qualities that only add to his value. This is a story about a player who burns so badly to win, he ignites his teammates around him.
"There are times when I challenge my teammates. I challenge them in the clubhouse very often," Donaldson says. "This isn't to call anybody out right now, but it could be Jose Bautista or it could be the 25th man on the roster. I say things to guys to hopefully spark something in that day to get them ready to play.
"With baseball being such a long season, there are times honestly when it's really hard to go out there and play. Mentally, you feel exhausted. Physically, you feel exhausted. In my opinion, being around for so long, you really need teammates who are going to help challenge you that day, help bring your energy up that day."
Athletics infielder Danny Valencia, who played for the Jays earlier this season, says Donaldson is "prepared every day he comes to the field and he expects the same from his teammates. He holds everyone accountable in the clubhouse. Sometimes it may rub people wrong, but that's what winning players do."
With Donaldson, though, it isn't just talk. Consider the number of games he has played since becoming a full-time third baseman: 158 in 2013, 158 in '14 and, if he appears in the rest of the Jays' games, 160 this season.
It's worth noting that "number of games played" is listed second among the MVP criteria, right behind, "actual value of a player to his team, that is, strength of his offense and defense." (It's also worth noting that Trout is on track to play in 159 games.)
Jays general manager Alex Anthopoulos did extensive background work on Donaldson before acquiring him from the Athletics last offseason. Anthopoulos was impressed by the way Donaldson fought for his success, remodeling his swing after Bautista's. Anthopoulos was impressed by Donaldson's toughness, too.
"When you look at the games-played column, some people can say it's luck," Anthopoulos says. "But seeing a guy like Mark Buehrle has probably opened my eyes to it more than anything else (that it's not simply luck.)
"Guys get banged up all the time. Guys can miss time. Guys can go on the DL. But you see guys like Nick Markakis and Hunter Pence and now Josh Donaldson ... guys that post and play as often as they do, there's a mental component to that.
"I guarantee you, Josh could easily have said over the years, 'Put me on the DL for two weeks. I need a rest. Give me more days off.' But there's a mental component and there's accountability and there's leading by example. With guys who drag or don't feel like playing, if Josh wants to say, 'Hey, you're expected to play. We need you,' he backs it up."
Moss attests to that.
"When I was with him with the A's, not a lot of us played every day. We would get a day here or there if there was a lefty or righty on the mound, whatever, if we needed to rest our bodies. But Josh never got those days -- ever," Moss says.
"He never complained about it. He never said anything about it. You could see sometimes that he was banged up. But he was always going out there. On nights when you could see he was just dragging through it, he would always find a way to do something great."
Work in progress
Maybe Donaldson's edginess stems from his childhood, when his father Levon was convicted of drug-related offenses and domestic violence and spent 15 years in prison. Or maybe Donaldson would have emerged as a fierce competitor, anyway.
Even during his college days at Auburn, Donaldson was rather brazen. His freshman year, he recalls being the player the upperclassmen "came after." He was candid, opinionated, always ready to engage in a verbal joust. But he would tell people: Give me one year. If you don't like me after a year, that's fine.
Donaldson says that people at Auburn came to understand him, just as people in the majors did later. The Cubs took him with the 48th overall selection in the 2007 draft. The A's traded for him a year later. But by the spring of '12, when Gomes first met him, it still wasn't clear whether Donaldson would be a catcher or a third baseman, or a major leaguer at all.
Gomes heard his new teammates say that Donaldson was cocky and full of himself, but as the veteran puts it, "I wasn't looking for any more friends. His game was going to play." To this day, Donaldson appreciates Gomes' support, recalling, "Jonny believed in me probably more than I believed in myself at the time."
Donaldson would want to bunt. Gomes would tell him, "This is the American League. We're not bunting. Hit the ball out of the ballpark." Even now, as an established power hitter, Donaldson is tempted to bunt to beat a defensive shift and help his team win. But Gomes' words ring in his ears.
When the A's first promoted Donaldson in 2010, he says he was too worried about offending veterans, saying the wrong thing, even -- as silly as this sounds - sitting in the wrong place. Gomes persuaded him to be himself and let his talent flow, using his trademark phrase, "Somebody's got to get famous."
"That was his big thing: 'Somebody get famous today, somebody drive the bus today,'" Donaldson says. "It didn't matter if you had one day of service time. It didn't matter if you had 10 years in. You could have that opportunity."
Donaldson says he took the advice to heart. And Gomes saw his protégé blossom.
"I heard him talk the other day about how he is taking everything in right now because at one time he was the worst player in the big leagues. He was the worst in the game there for a minute," Gomes says.
"It was a work in progress. You would think he was hitting like .380 and he was hitting like .180. But he felt it coming. I talked to him all the time. He would say, 'It's coming. It's coming.' And I was kind of like, 'We're running out of time, bud.' But they sent him down and brought him back up, and he has been guns a-blazing ever since."
Less than four years later, it's Donaldson imparting wisdom to his teammates, driving them to be the best they can be.
"He's not one who is going to rub your head and tell you that everything is going to be OK," Bautista says. "He has a different approach than that.
"He's like, 'You know what? I see this and this and this. You're an established player. This is what you've been able to do year after year. This year is not going to be any different. This is a short period of time where you might not be experiencing the success you're accustomed to. But let's not focus on the negative, how bad it's going right now. Let's focus on how quickly you're going to get out of it.'
"I've had a few of those talks with him this season. He observes. He watches. He can tell. He knows. He'll watch his teammates. He knows what affects every single person. There have been more than a handful of times when he has told me, 'I see this and this and this.' And he's exactly right."
Moss recalls a specific instance during the second half last season when he was struggling with a hip condition that eventually would require surgery. He was in the video room after a game, trying to figure out some mechanical issues with his swing. Donaldson, always slow to leave the clubhouse, stopped by.
"At first, I didn't even want him in there," Donaldson recalls. "A lot of times when you're struggling, you start over-analyzing swings and change things. At first, I just said, 'Hey man, get out of here. Give your mind a break. You're a freaking All-Star, for crying out loud. Have some confidence in yourself.'"
But then Moss opened up to Donaldson, revealed that he was hurting.
"At that time, the only person who knew I was hurting was my wife. She was it. I didn't tell anybody," Moss says. "So I told him what was going on. And he sat down with me in the video room for probably 30-35 minutes. We just went over video to see if anything had changed because of it. And we talked about ways that maybe I could get through it, maybe tweak this here, tweak that there, take some (pressure) off my legs, stuff like that.
"He'll surprise you sometimes. If you were to take him for what you see him as every single day, something like that would take you by complete surprise. But in actuality, he cares about people. He really wanted to genuinely help. And that meant a lot."
Donaldson, in recalling the moment, says what Moss needed most was to get his mind in the right place. There are days, Donaldson says, when he, too, feels banged up, when he needs to trick himself into playing, amp himself up in different ways. That's one reason he challenges teammates: He wants them to challenge him back, motivate him to summon the energy and grit to play.
Moss still recalls his first impression of Donaldson at Triple-A; he had never played with someone so brash and outspoken. He says he is grateful that he got to know Donaldson better, grateful that he saw a side of him that Donaldson does not always show.
To Moss, Donaldson is special, both as a person and as a player.
"We're all competitive. We all go out there and want to be the best, want to play well," Moss says. "But he has a unique -- it's almost an arrogance about himself.
"It's not an arrogance of, 'I'm the best.' It's an arrogance of, 'I'm going to show you why I'm the best.' He wants to go out and prove it every single night. He literally wears every at-bat on his sleeve."
The impression is indelible -- and the one that matters most.