Clovis News

Ex-Buchanan star Donald breaking out

They both loved baseball at the age of 24, but were living somewhat different lives.

Twenty-four-year-old Jason Donald lives in a condo in Clearwater, Fla, with a balcony that overlooks the Gulf of Mexico. He and his roommate, Lou Marson, wake up each morning and go play for the Philadelphia Phillies.

At 24, Donald's dad, Tom, had an unexpected, life-changing toddler. He and his wife, Debbie, were both trying to finish college and find money for bills. Tom had planned to coach someday at Redwood High in Visalia, where he'd graduated, but the baby changed everything.

Tom got a job doing janitorial work for FedEx, cleaning the office at 5 a.m., then blowing out the warehouse in the evening. During the day, he went to school full-time and got an assistant coaching job at Kastner Intermediate. Debbie went to school and taught aerobics and worked as a waitress.

"We were in love," Debbie says, "but it was really stressful."

Their baby is 24 years old now.

"I remember being 4 or 5 years old and going to my dad's baseball practices," Jason Donald says. "I just thought that was normal. I thought all kids got to do that. I didn't know it was because they couldn't afford a baby-sitter."

Tom and Debbie stayed in Clovis, and Tom eventually became the baseball coach at Buchanan High. Their son graduated from there in 2003 and is now the best infield prospect in the Phillies' organization.

Donald has been playing shortstop, second base and third base this spring, partly because the Phillies' starters at those positions have been gone. Shortstop Jimmy Rollins is at the World Baseball Classic, second baseman Chase Utley just returned from offseason hip surgery and third baseman Pedro Feliz recently came back from a November back surgery.

As of Tuesday, Donald was hitting .333 in 16 spring training games. Because of all the absences in the Phillies' infield, he's gotten more spring training playing time then pretty much anyone in the game.

No one knows yet where he is headed. Donald could start the season in Triple-A, or in the majors pinch-hitting, or even starting on Opening Day if Utley or Feliz have setbacks. During winter talks, there were rumors that the Phillies would use Donald's value to get a pitcher from the Padres or Twins or Royals. Donald's hitting is only making the decision tougher for team executives.

Why wouldn't he hit at spring training? He's done it everywhere else. He smashed line drives for three years at the University of Arizona (the Wildcats made the 2004 College World Series), then hit .304 in Class-A, then .307 last season in Double-A.

And that .307 for the Reading (Pa.) Phillies wasn't even close to his 2008 highlight.

"It was a great baseball year," says the always understated Donald.

You could say that. Donald made the Double-A All-Star Game last summer, and started in the Major League All-Star Futures Game at Yankee Stadium. He made the Olympic team, went to Beijing and hit .381 for his country. (The Americans won bronze.) Then in the Arizona Fall League, he hit .407.

It's a good life if you can get it, hitting baseballs during the day, sleeping to the sound of the Florida surf, all but guaranteed to make your major league debut this season.

"It doesn't matter when it is," Tom Donald says. "I'll be there. It doesn't matter if we're playing Clovis High, they'll have to play it without me, because I'll be there when my son plays his first big-league game."

The son is trying to keep the optimism under control. Including his own.

"I have to make the team first before he can make those type of plans," Donald says.

Well, yes, there is that. There are no guarantees. On Monday, Donald took a 95-mph Joba Chamberlain fastball off the forearm, was pulled from the game and wondered if the feeling would ever come back to his fingers. He was back in there pinch-hitting Tuesday and of course singled in a run.

"We're all just sort of waiting for him to get his big break," says Bob Bowlsby, the athletic director at Stanford. "He's stayed pretty healthy. He played pretty well in the Olympics. He's been one of the leading hitters on every team he's played well on."

If you're wondering why the Stanford AD would care about a minor league shortstop from Clovis who played college ball at Arizona, that's because Donald is dating Bowlsby's knee-buckler of a daughter, Rachel, whom Donald met at Arizona.

"He's a terrific young man," Bowlsby says. "He and our daughter have been dating for five years now. I don't think she's ever had a boyfriend for more than a week, so he must be doing something right."

Jason Donald says he would like to marry Rachel someday. His parents can't stop beaming; about baseball, about her, about the way their son's life has gone.

"Tom and I talk about that a lot," Debbie says. "We're so thrilled that our kids' lives are not the struggle ours were."