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Gonzo finds a home

It sure took the Red Sox a long time to sign Adrian Gonzalez. But no time at all for the slugger to settle in.

(Jim Rogash/Getty Images)
By Charles P. Pierce
July 31, 2011

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Down in the bowels of Fenway Park, down the hall and through a door from the profane precincts of the Red Sox clubhouse, sunk deep in all the bricks and all the history, there is what appears to be a fairly run-of-the-mill preschool. Small lockers festooned with children’s drawings stand against one wall, which is otherwise decorated with a series of baseball scenes depicting every letter of the alphabet. I is for inning. U is for umpire (Boooo!). There is a PlayStation 2 console in one corner and a large toy stove in another. Plastic trucks are underfoot. Down the hall from where men spit and curse and play baseball for a living – F is for Free Agency, D is for Disabled List – is a place for their children simply to play. Of all the odd places in the ballpark to conduct an interview – and, when you come down to it, isn’t the clubhouse itself weird enough? – this may well be the oddest.

“It’s a strange life, I guess,” says Adrian Gonzalez, the Red Sox first baseman, who is much too big for this room and who may well be too big for the big room that is Fenway Park in what looks to be a summer-long pennant race. “But I grew up wanting this life, so I guess you just have to roll with it.”

His face is wide and open, with eyebrows that are a bit too short for his forehead but that also shoot upward at their ends at sharp angles in a fashion not dissimilar to the ones that helped make Leonard Nimoy rich and famous long ago. He resembles a happy mixture of someone you might see on Star Trek and one of those Mesoamerican monolithic heads that dot the landscape of Central America. He smiles easily and quickly, and he gives off nothing so much as an air of smooth, supreme confidence. “I’d be confident, too,” says Red Sox manager Terry Francona, “if I were hitting .350.”

Last December 6, Gonzalez was acquired from the San Diego Padres by the Red Sox, who had openly coveted him for more than three years. In San Diego, playing in Petco Park, a notorious hitter’s graveyard, Gonzalez had built a monstrous career for himself over the previous five seasons, averaging around a .300 batting average, 30 home runs, and more than 100 runs-batted-in as part of a very average San Diego lineup. He made the last three All-Star teams and twice won the National League’s Gold Glove award for fielding among the league’s first basemen. When he was coming to the end of his contract with San Diego, the worst kept secret in baseball was that the cash-poor/poor-mouthing Padres couldn’t (or wouldn’t try to) afford to keep him. When the deal was done, it escaped few people’s notice that Jed Hoyer, who had signed as San Diego’s general manager in October 2009, did so after spending eight seasons working for Theo Epstein and the Red Sox, to whom he then traded the best player on the San Diego roster.

“He was on the radar for all of baseball,” Epstein says. “We talked to [the Padres] in the offseason between 2008 and 2009. There were serious discussions then. We talked about him at the trade deadline in 2009, and those were serious discussions, and in the offseason of 2009.” At last year’s trade deadline, the Padres were still in the running, so the Red Sox didn’t approach him. “We were trying to get him for a while,” the Sox general manager adds. “Like I tell people, my three-and-a-half-year-old son could scout him.”

What finally got the deal done was a package including minor league prospects Reymond Fuentes, Casey Kelly, and Anthony Rizzo, plus a player to be named later (Eric Patterson). The Red Sox then quickly extended Gonzalez’s existing contract by seven years and $154 million, which will keep the 29-year-old in Boston for all of what should be his most productive years, very much starting with this one. “Gonzo” hit the ground here running. Well, not running, exactly. But hitting and fielding for certain.

(A brief note, then, about that running business. Gonzalez is very slow. It is not that he is out of condition. He is superbly fit, and his athleticism is obvious in the deftness with which he fields his position. And he has no chronic leg injuries. He simply does not run very well. In June, he came very close to hitting for the cycle – a single, double, triple, and a home run in the same game – against Milwaukee, but demurred on the grounds that he doesn’t run well enough to leg out the triple. Ironically, he hit a triple later that same week and arrived at the third-base bag laboring like a 7-year-old claimer at the Marshfield Fair races. “If he could run,” Francona says of the mystery of Gonzalez’s foot speed, or lack thereof, “he’d hit .400.”)

Over the first months of the season, as the Red Sox stumbled horribly out of the gate and then rallied into a serious pennant race with the New York Yankees, Gonzalez’s consistent excellence was one of the few things on which the team could count. By the halfway point in the season, he was hitting .349, a full 45 points higher than his previous best yearly average, and his OPS, which is computed by combining on-base percentage and slugging percentage, was a whopping .995. He’d hit 16 home runs and driven in a remarkable 73 runs. He had made himself a leading contender – perhaps the leading contender – for the American League’s Most Valuable Player award. And his fielding around first base was well-nigh impeccable. One night in June, Gonzalez dropped a simple foul pop-up in front of the Red Sox dugout, and the Fenway crowd reacted as though something large and Spielbergian had landed in the outfield.

“Normally, when you watch a great player from afar, you think you have a good feel for the player but the closer you are, the more you see some of the warts,” explains Epstein. “In Adrian’s case, it’s really been the opposite. The closer you are, the more you appreciate the overall game, the sophistication of his approach to hitting, and how engaged he is in all aspects of the game.”

As dominant a hitter as Gonzalez has been since signing with the Red Sox, it is in his fielding that the essential smoothness of his various talents is even more evident. First base used to be the place where teams stuck either aging power hitters a few steps past their primes or young power hitters who had demonstrated early on that they were not likely to have a defensive prime. “If you have a really good hitter who can’t really play any other position, you have to put him there,” Gonzalez says with a smile. “That’s not underrating the position. It’s just the only position they can play.”

Francona disagrees. “The days of your putting your big, clumsy guy over there are long gone,” the manager says. “It’s too important a position. You want the ball to end up where it’s supposed to be. You have to have a guy that can handle throws in the dirt. You get a guy like that, and your infielders are so much more relaxed. They know if they get it into the vicinity, you’re out.” Despite the fact that, from the stands, every throw from another infielder to the first baseman looks basically the same, and, therefore, from the stands, the simple putout looks like the simplest play in the game, every infielder throws the ball slightly differently, and the first baseman, like a catcher handling different pitchers, must be prepared to adjust. Indeed, as Gonzalez says, even on plays in which an infielder will throw him the ball on one hop, “guys one-hop the ball differently.”

“Everybody’s different,” says Jed Lowrie, a young Boston shortstop. “Some guys have throws that sail. Some have throws that sink. Adrian’s footwork and adjustments are so smooth that it looks like every play is the same, but it’s not.”

Early in his career, Gonzalez’s defensive work was so naturally smooth that various control-freaky minor league managers decided that he wasn’t trying hard enough, that the ease with which he handled the position was somehow equivalent to showing off. (For reasons nobody sane will ever understand, some baseball managers perseverate on bad ideas the way a dog perseverates on a chew toy.) Gonzalez listened, and he did things his own way.

“Every system has a way they want to shape their players,” he recalls. “They said the way I played was ‘too nonchalant.’ I said, ‘That’s just the way I play.’ I’m not trying to make it look a certain way. To them, it was kind of like I was hot-dogging it or something. They kept saying, ‘Well, you’re just trying to make it look that way.’

“At the end of the day, if I caught the ball, that’s really the only thing you’re looking for. Not how you catch it, just make sure you do catch it. There’s a lot of politics to it, man. You just got to trust yourself. As long as you’re catching the ball, that’s all that matters.”

And, if you manage to slide into that sweet spot where stubbornness refines itself into confidence, the rest of it can be child’s play.

***

He was born in San Diego, but he was a child of the long border. David Gonzalez Sr., a successful refrigeration and air-conditioning specialist, moved his young family back to Tijuana, Mexico, not returning to San Diego for good until Adrian was in the fifth grade. By then, all three of his sons had followed their father into baseball, David having once been a star first baseman in Tijuana’s amateur “Sunday ball” league. All three Gonzalez boys – David Jr., Edgar, and Adrian – played both Little League in San Diego and, when they were old enough, in the Sunday games. By the time he was 16, Adrian was playing against boys his own age at home and men in and around Tijuana. Eventually he was playing more than 120 games a year, back and forth across the border, between countries, between cultures.

“My mom, she was great about the driving,” he says. “It was like, ‘Mom, we got a game in Tijuana today.’ And then, ‘Mom, we got a game in Chula Vista tomorrow.’ ”

Gradually, Adrian’s play outpaced that of his brothers. “I wouldn’t say it was something I decided on,” he says. “My junior year in high school, I was Player of the Year in San Diego, and so I started getting looked at by the scouts. Going into my senior year, everybody was going, ‘Oh, you’re going to be drafted.’ I was, like, ‘Cool.’ Then people would say, ‘Well, you’re going to be a first-rounder.’ I thought: ‘That’s cool. What does that mean?’ Before I knew it, I was the number one overall pick. It wasn’t something I chose. I just liked playing baseball.”

At roughly the same time, he was romancing a girl named Betsy Perez who went to a rival high school. They had met in eighth grade at a dance at Bonita Vista Middle School, where Adrian made something of an impression. “We danced together to the last song of the last dance,” Betsy recalls. “I remember that he must have put a lot of cologne on, because it was really, really strong.” They dated through high school, and Adrian hired an airplane to fly over Betsy’s graduation ceremony towing a banner saying that he loved her. They married not long after that, and they moved on to the gypsy life of baseball’s minor leagues. “In that first year,” Betsy recalls, “we moved nine times.”

It can be a weird, rootless existence, especially for a young couple that includes someone like Betsy, who had never been away from home before. Though Adrian and Betsy had been raised as Roman Catholics, they both found stability and order in the network of nondenominational Christianity that has entwined itself like kudzu around baseball’s minor leagues. There is regular Bible study throughout all of baseball now, and the Baseball Chapel program has proved to be a remarkably effective tool for proselytizing in the various clubhouses.

(In 2005, Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig ordered a reevaluation of Major League Baseball’s relationship with Baseball Chapel when The Washington Post reported that an official of the organization had agreed with a member of the Washington Nationals that Jews could not be saved.)

“We’re both followers of Christ,” Betsy says. “It’s been big for us. When we first got married, we knew it was going to be kind of difficult, with all the insecurity of where he was going to be and not having any family close by. We wanted a foundation for our marriage.” To this day, Adrian has “Ps. 27:1” inscribed on his bats, a passage from Psalms that reads, “God is my light and my salvation/whom need I fear?/God is the fortress of my life/of whom should I be afraid?”

Gonzalez’s progress toward the Major Leagues was steady, if somewhat peripatetic. Drafted by the Florida Marlins in 2000, he was traded to the Texas Rangers in 2003 and then again, this time to San Diego, three years later. All through his career, he demonstrated a kind of maturity far beyond his years. “That’s what first attracted me to him,” says his wife. He worked on his fielding, but he learned how to study hitting. To this day, he is a notorious grind in the film room, watching endless video of the pitchers he will be facing and putting together his own strategies, game by game and even at-bat by at-bat. Theo Epstein calls this approach “stalking his prey.”

“If I faced a pitcher before,” Gonzalez explains, “it will be based on the last time I faced him. I don’t go up to the plate with the mentality of ‘See ball, hit ball.’ For me, that would just mean that I swing at everything.” What Gonzalez has developed is a hitting style that allows him to be aggressive without being reckless. Some players are free-swingers. Some are cautious, working a pitcher for walks. Gonzalez has developed within himself a middle ground – a way of forcing a pitcher to throw him the pitch that, through relentless study, he already has planned to drive prior to getting up to bat. This is that place again, where stubbornness refines itself into confidence.

“People always talked about my walks,” he says, “but my walks came because the pitchers wouldn’t throw strikes. I need to focus on what I want to hit. If my game plan is to look for a fastball in or a pitch away, it makes me focus that much harder on the pitch I want to hit. If it’s a pitch outside of what I’m looking for, I just won’t swing at it. That’s where I get my walks. If a pitcher’s not attacking the area I’m looking at, I won’t swing until I have to.

“If I’m confident, even if it’s the dumbest game plan in the world, at least it’s a game plan, and I’m going to go to the plate and try it. I’m willing to lose with that game plan. It’s a game of failure, and I understand that.”

***

By a quirk of Major League baseball’s annual schedule of interleague games, the San Diego Padres are in Boston at the end of June to play a three-game series with the Red Sox. This means that almost all the parties to the trade that brought Gonzalez here are in the same place at the same time, including Anthony Rizzo, the rookie first baseman who’d been an integral part of the deal. Rizzo was a saga all on his own. In 2008, while playing for the Red Sox Class A team in Greenville, South Carolina, Rizzo had been diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. He had come all the way through chemotherapy, and then all the way back up through the Red Sox farm system, when, last December, he got a call telling him that he’d been traded to San Diego as part of a package for Adrian Gonzalez.

“I’m honored to have been traded for a guy like him,” says Rizzo, who was starting for the Padres that night in June. “When I got there, he was still coming in to have his shoulder rehabbed. He asked me some questions about Boston, about the ballpark here, but he didn’t pick my brain. I picked his.”

Not far down the third-base line from where Rizzo is chatting, Jed Hoyer, the San Diego general manager who traded Gonzalez to his former employer, is shaking hands with his old Boston acquaintances. Hoyer stepped into a situation a decade removed from absolute tumult. Nevertheless, his first big trade was to negotiate his new team’s best player out of town. “It was a bittersweet moment,” Hoyer admits. “This is one of the best players in the game, and trading a player like that doesn’t feel good. It felt right, and necessary as a business decision, but that was one that left a pit in my stomach. For that 15 minutes after I put the telephone down, I had a little pit in my stomach because you never know when you’re going to get a player that good again.”

For himself, Gonzalez had a press conference with the visiting San Diego media, and he spent the afternoon at lunch with some of his former teammates. By any measure, he took the trade to the Red Sox as smoothly as he fields a ground ball up the line off his hip, one of the slick moves that so exercised those minor league tinhorns who tried to change him. His natural left-handed-hitting stroke to the opposite field – in his case, to left field, where stands Fenway’s comfortably close Green Monster – is perfectly suited to his new home. “That wall’s like a safety net for him,” Francona explains. “He can go two for five here, where, in San Diego, he might hit the ball hard and go one for five. That’s a hard place to hit.”

The real reason the transition to Boston has gone so smoothly is that Adrian Gonzalez approaches everything in his baseball life that way. He’s even thought about slumps – which, this season at least, have been completely theoretical constructs – with the kind of equanimity that escapes many players.

“The first thing is that it’s never statistical,” he says. “You don’t focus on statistics. You know why? Because you can go 0 for 10, but have six or seven hard-hit balls. You’re just hitting the ball at the wrong people. Then there are times when you’re swinging the bat horribly, but you’re six for 10 because you found six holes. It’s all about, did you get the pitch you were focused on, and were you able to put the right swing on it? That’s all that’s important.” Find a place in yourself and you find a home anywhere. This is what every child of the long border learns.

Charles P. Pierce is a Globe Magazine staff writer. E-mail him at cpierce@globe.com.

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