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Game of his life

Baseball is Gonzalez's lifelong passion

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By Amalie Benjamin
Globe Staff / February 9, 2011

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CHULA VISTA, Calif. — The swing nearly knocks him over, the pint-sized wooden bat grasped in the hands of the 1 1/2-year-old. His grandfather looks on, indulgently, eventually taking the bat and knocking the ball off the tee, toward the edge of the cage. It is a teaching moment for a man who has been through this before, first with sons and now grandsons.

Soon after, the grandfather sweeps up young Mateo in his arms, with the child’s father and two uncles surrounding him. The uncles have left their workouts to coo over a child whose favorite word is “ball,’’ who can sit mesmerized in front of a television watching the San Diego Padres and the uncle who used to play for his hometown team.

As Adrian Gonzalez says, “It’s in the blood.’’

“That’s all we’ve known,’’ said Edgar Gonzalez, the middle of the three brothers and a former teammate of Adrian’s on the Padres. “All our conversations were usually baseball when we were young. It was all about baseball — that was our whole life.’’

It still is. Though David Jr., the oldest brother and father of Mateo, no longer plays, Edgar and Adrian do. That is why they are here at the six-month-old Gonzalez Sports Academy, a warehouse-like facility that is kept at a cool 64 degrees. They shuffle down the line, running and stretching and working on speed under the eye of their personal trainer.

It’s a job for Adrian now, one that will pay him many, many millions of dollars after the Red Sox acquired the slugging first baseman from the Padres for three top minor league prospects Dec. 5. It’s also a bond — one that’s visible as father David spreads out dozens of pictures of his sons, almost all of them with bats and balls and uniforms; one that’s clear in the words of Edgar as he describes their childhood; one that’s apparent in the swing of Mateo.

“By the time I came around, everybody was always engulfed in baseball,’’ said Adrian, 28. “So there was nothing you could do but continue the tradition and just love the sport because of it.

“When we were hanging out, we’re talking baseball, or when we’re playing, we’re playing baseball. It was always baseball. It was always just baseball, baseball, baseball.’’

Competitive edge There is no denying it. There were tears.

“We used to play Wiffle ball, and every single time we would play, when I would beat [Adrian], he would start crying and he would hate me beating him,’’ said Edgar. “He wouldn’t take me being older [by four years] as an excuse to me beating him. He still wanted to beat me.

“He would go on his own and practice during times that I wouldn’t be looking at him to try to get something, an edge, to try to go ahead and beat me.

“He was always at that level, trying to prepare for the game, and he still does the same things. He’s always trying to look for an edge when watching video of pitchers, he’s trying to look for an edge in everything he does.’’

“I don’t cry anymore,’’ said Adrian. “I don’t throw fits or pout or anything anymore. I got that all out of the way when I was young. That’s why he rubbed it in and made sure it hurt me when I lost.’’

If Edgar practiced for two hours, Adrian would practice for three.

Darkness rarely stopped them. When the park — their preferred destination growing up in Tijuana for Adrian’s first dozen years — was no longer an option, the brothers conspired in their shared bedroom. They would use rolled-up socks or a tennis ball, whatever was handy. For bats, there would be a pillow or a plastic toy. The bases were clearly marked.

They would hit, not as themselves, but as their idols. Tony Gwynn, of course. And Gary Sheffield, with the arm motion. And Ruben Sierra, with the leg kick. They would fill the lineups full of their favorites, perfect their imitations, drive the socks.

The goal was always more baseball, more time together. And nothing was better than the first day that all four Gonzalez males — father and three sons — played together on an amateur team in Tijuana.

“That was incredible,’’ recalled David Sr. “That was one of my dreams, to see them play on the same team with me.’’

‘Real fire inside of him’ As the cars roll by on this late January morning, it is likely the drivers don’t notice the pack of athletes by the side of the road. And, if they do, it’s likely they don’t recognize any of them. No one — including the jogger — stops to bother the workout partners, Adrian and Edgar, Padres Nick Hundley and Will Venable, and former San Diego State football player Ernie Lawson.

They run up a hill together, beating the pavement, racing to cones that trainer Tom Green places higher and higher on the graffiti-stained incline. It is perhaps an odd choice for these athletes, training alongside a highway reached through a housing development in Chula Vista.

It is a speed workout, and Adrian is right there with his compatriots in the vomit-inducing runs. (Indeed, Lawson and Edgar end up bent over in the grass, with Edgar saying, “That was torture.’’) The only nod to Adrian’s surgically repaired right shoulder comes when he is allowed to do a bear-crawl up the incline with his head forward, as opposed to backward, like the rest.

That shoulder, Gonzalez said, should not affect his readiness for Opening Day. He estimated himself at 90-95 percent, and said he is on pace to start swinging in a week or two. He expects to be able to play in games midway through March.

He is looking forward to playing without the pain that hampered him in 2010. He was affected mostly on defense, when he had to restrict his dives, though he sometimes found himself unable to finish swings. Still, he managed a .298 average, 31 home runs, 101 RBIs, and a .904 OPS, in 160 games.

“He’s a competitor,’’ Edgar said. “Doesn’t say he’s competing, but he really is inside. Like when we were running today, he says he’s not competing, but when somebody goes ahead of him, he’s pushing himself even more. He will say, ‘I’m not. I’m not competing.’ But I know he is, because he’s got a real fire inside of him to finish things.’’

That fire, though, stays deep inside.

“I would say I’m even-keeled in the sense where they’re not going to see me get too excited about a win or certain things that might excite other people,’’ Adrian said. “They’re not going to see me slap my helmet or yell stuff if I don’t come through. I’m going to be frustrated, but I’m not going to show it.

“You’ve got to be who you are. You can’t try to be somebody else for somebody else because they expect you to be a certain way or they want you a certain way. You want the best results out of me, I’ve got to be myself.’’

Fenway friendlier When Jed Hoyer arrived for his first spring training as Padres general manager last February, he fielded an unusual request. Gonzalez, not known for being vocal in the clubhouse, wanted to talk to his teammates about winning these exhibition games. As any baseball insider will tell you, spring victories aren’t exactly a priority.

“I had never heard of this from a player,’’ Hoyer said. “It was like, ‘I hope you’re OK with this, but I want to talk to the team about how important it is that we win in spring training. We don’t have the luxury of going through our workouts and not trying to win. We need to continue our winning ways from last year in order to have all our guys gain confidence to hit this season running.’

“I thought that was great. For a guy that wasn’t a vocal leader, he took a pretty vocal role in this team because I think he realized, ‘I’m by far the best player, I need to take that role,’ even though it’s not necessarily one that’s comfortable to him.’’

Gonzalez won’t need to do that in Boston. There are other superstars, others more ready and willing to be at the forefront. He can concentrate on his game, and playing 81 games in a ballpark far more suited to his swing and his talents, he should shine. Fenway stands in stark contrast to San Diego’s Petco Park, which often left Gonzalez frustrated.

As Hoyer pointed out, of the 11 home runs Gonzalez hit at Petco, none of those came after the fourth inning. As night deepened, the air would grow heavy, and the baseballs would stop going out.

“It was almost more like I was anticipating the opposing team hitting a ball and the ball not getting out and then watching their reaction,’’ Gonzalez said. “I’d be like, ‘How well did you hit that?’ They’re like, ‘I can’t hit that any better. That ball is 20 rows deep in our stadium.’ For me, that was more fun the last couple years than actually focusing on the balls I hit.’’

Hoyer said the Sox were the “most aggressive’’ of the four teams very involved in talks with the Padres.

“I think he’s one of the elite run producers in the game,’’ added Hoyer. “He was obviously a tremendous asset for the Padres, but this ballpark really minimizes damage. It crushes home runs for lefthanded hitters. The damage Adrian did, given that he played for the Padres, is remarkable.

“I think he’ll flourish there. I really do. Because I do think that lineup will allow him to get pitches, to blend in more, and he was never going to get that here. [Pitchers are] not going to be able to run away from him all the time. Here, they just ran away from him all the time.’’

A father’s pride Not far from the Academy sits another batting cage. This one, constructed years ago, has discoloration edging into its white beams. Those beams, though, are still sturdy, and with the replacement of netting and new parts in the pitching machine, the cage has yielded another generation of baseball players.

“Over time, especially, the nets get old and you start being able to hit the balls through the nets,’’ Adrian said. “We got older, started hitting the ball harder, and eventually it was just a batting cage for Wiffle ball games. The machine was rusted and it was old and the nets weren’t quite fit for hitting.

“Over the years, it took a lot of abuse.’’

It was the first thing their father put up in the new house, when the family moved back across the border. He built it strong and solid, placing the ficus trees just so. When the Rios family moved in, Andres Rios tried to prune them back. It was only later that he learned why the trees were planted there — to block the late afternoon sunlight from the eyes of boys accustomed to hitting into the evening.

Rios, with a baseball-mad son of his own, one who helped lead the Chula Vista team to the Little League World Series in 2009, let the trees flourish.

With all this, the baseball and the moments, the batting cage and the team in Tijuana, there is an expectation of pride. There is the sense that, beyond anything else, the father should be most pleased with his youngest son’s chosen profession and all his success.

But that has never been what David Gonzalez has been after.

“I don’t put too much attention to those kind of things,’’ he said. “I’m proud, but I’m very proud with my kids because they are very good people, human beings, excellent persons.

“I’m happy that Adrian is doing what he’s doing, but not saying, ‘Hey, hey, my son [is a baseball player].’ He is not doing anything special, or anything different than other people. He is not the only one.

“I think he is doing what he is capable of doing, and I’m proud of him [being] the guy he has to be. That’s the real truth.’’

Amalie Benjamin can be reached at abenjamin@globe.com.

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