This Cardinals player is becoming a leader by example

June 3rd, 2024

This story was excerpted from John Denton’s Cardinals Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

PHILADELPHIA -- Not that the already short-handed Cardinals needed another reminder, but the club got to see firsthand how vitally important is to their formula for success when the gritty utility fielder missed the entire weekend series against the surging Phillies.

When Donovan got to the ballpark in Philadelphia on Friday, his neck stiffened to the point that he had to swing his shoulders around to look side to side, and he ultimately had to miss three games -- something he abhors, admittedly struggling to sit still while in the dugout. That meant the Cardinals lost his Gold Glove defense, consistent battles at the plate and his all-out, hair-flying-in the-wind style of hustle that is infectious.

What they also missed out on was having one of their emerging leaders and someone who is quickly becoming one of the faces of the franchise in the middle of the action all weekend.

Though he’s played just 2 1/3 seasons of big league baseball, Donovan was nudged by Cardinals coaches to become more of a leader this season. At 27 years old, the Cards thought that the player versatile enough to play left field, third base, second base and even some first base in a pinch also had the kind of wherewithal to shoulder more of a leadership role.

Being looked at now as one of the team’s leaders -- even in a clubhouse that boasts Nolan Arenado, Paul Goldschmidt, Matt Carpenter, Brandon Crawford, Sonny Gray, Lance Lynn and Miles Mikolas -- is not a role that Donovan takes lightly.

“I’ve always tried to be a guy who leads by example and tries to be as calm and even-keeled as possible,” said Donovan, who hopes to be back in the starting lineup in the coming days. “No matter how I’m doing, I want to be the same. Playing different positions isn’t easy, but I try to make it like no matter where I’m at, you’ll never notice that I haven’t been there in a while. That’s the role I try to take on, and hopefully, I can lead by example.”

One tangible way that Donovan has led this season is with a simple gesture he instituted to try to make rookies feel welcomed. When a Cards rookie makes his MLB debut -- Ryan Fernandez, Ryan Loutos, Chris Roycroft, Kyle Leahy, Pedro Pagés and Victor Scott II (St. Louis' No. 3 prospect) have done so in 2024 -- Donovan has presented them with a gift to commemorate the moment: an Ace of Spades bottle of champagne. And he has all the other players autograph the carrying case for the bubbly.

Roycroft, who had to scratch and claw his way through independent league baseball and three more years in the Minor Leagues to get to his MLB debut on May 7, was flabbergasted by the gift from Donovan.

“It was an incredible gift, and it made me feel welcomed into this family,” Roycroft, 26, said. “To have Donnie there as a leader and a role model for young guys like me, it makes the moment even more special.”

Roycroft said he’s already picked out a special place to display the autographed case and champagne, and he has no plans of drinking the bubbly until maybe after he retires. The way he sees it, every time he walks past that bottle in the years ahead, he will think about the euphoria of his debut and the generosity of Donovan.

“I’ll cherish and remember that moment forever, especially with the gift Donnie gave me,” Roycroft said.

Donovan was a natural to morph into a leader for the Cardinals considering how he was raised by mother, Lisa, and father, James, who was an aviation colonel in the Army, manager Oliver Marmol said.

“He’s just built that way,” Marmol surmised. “He’s very well thought-out when he speaks and with what he says. He’s very respected in that clubhouse for still being a young player. He’s done a really nice job.”

Donovan said he was in awe of the leadership abilities of Albert Pujols, Yadier Molina and Adam Wainwright when he reached the Cards for his MLB debut on April 25, 2022. His leadership style, he insisted, is still very much a work in progress.

“I’m still learning, and I look at the ways some of our guys lead and have done it at such a high level for so long, and I love it,” said Donovan, referring to Goldschmidt and Arenado. “Our leaders try to be the same guy every day. It’s a testament to the leaders that they are, and I’ve learned a lot from them.”