Commentary

Adrian Gonzalez: Special delivery

Tracing the path that led the new Red Sox slugger to the majors, and eventually Boston

Updated: December 22, 2010, 1:56 PM ET
By Gordon Edes | ESPNBoston.com

They left the offices of the Boston Red Sox on Yawkey Way and were headed back to the Mandarin Oriental hotel, with the intention -- this can't be happening -- of returning to San Diego. His agent, John Boggs, was already checking on flights. His wife, Betsy, was on notice to pack their bags.

The cabbie had the radio on, tuned to sports talk. He turned it down when they got in. No, Adrian Gonzalez said, leave it on. The callers were frustrated, bewildered, incredulous. Gonzalez kind of felt the same way.

"Whaddya mean, the trade is off? You kiddin' me?" the voice on the radio said. "They can't get Teixeira, and now they blow it with this guy, too?"

This was the middle of a football Sunday afternoon in Boston, the Patriots due to play the Jets in a much-hyped showdown the following night, but the Sox and Gonzalez were the topic of the moment. A few hours later, after Theo Epstein and Larry Lucchino had showed up at the hotel to reopen talks and close the deal, there was a second cab ride, this one to Abe and Louie's for a celebration dinner. Another driver who was a Sox fan, the radio on.

"Theo better be ready," the voice on the radio said, "because there's gonna be some lawsuits. You know how many Sox fans hanged themselves in the last five hours because they thought this trade wasn't going to get done?"

Gonzalez smiled in the retelling. "Pretty exciting," he said.

'It's in the blood'

"My mother lives right up the road right here," Adrian Gonzalez tells a visitor, guiding his white SUV through the streets of Chula Vista, Calif., which translated means "pretty view," its original inhabitants inspired by the location between San Diego Bay and the foothills of the Otay Ranch. Mexico is about seven miles to the south, the Pacific about 20 minutes to the west.

"This is where I grew up," Gonzalez says. "This neighborhood is called Bonita. When we first came back from Mexico, we lived in Bonita, just right over the hill there, and I went to high school in Eastlake, which is about five minutes southeast of here.

"All my friends lived on this street right here, to the right. My dad lives on this street right here. These two golf courses here, they're community courses. They're not kept in great shape, but they were great to get in a round of golf for 20 bucks. This is where I learned to play golf. I hit a lot of cars on this road right here, slicing balls into the street."

Gonzalez grew up in a world without borders. Two peoples, two languages, two countries, one child's natural order of things. He was born in San Diego, at the University of San Diego Medical Center, and for the first 18 months of his life, he lived in San Ysidro, just this side of Mexico. Then the family moved south, to Tijuana, where his father, David, runs an air conditioning business. When he was about 12, they moved here, to Chula Vista, still an easy commute for his father.

So much has changed. The newspapers are filled with horror stories about the murders by the Mexican drug cartels, 14-year-olds confessing to beheading bodies and hanging them from bridges. Gonzalez worries for his father, about the kidnapping of businessmen. His father has been threatened before. So has the son.

Three years ago, Gonzalez was in a supermarket, shopping with his wife, when he checked the messages on his cell phone. "We are going to kill you," a male voice said, speaking in both English and Spanish. He also added, "Your father is worthless."

Gonzalez reported the call to police. No arrests were ever made, but recently, he became agitated when the local paper published photos of the new 11,000-square-foot home he and Betsy purchased in the beachside enclave of La Jolla, listing his address. Even the president of the San Diego Padres, Tom Garfinkel, contacted the newspaper to complain.

But the danger has not deterred his father from making daily trips to Tijuana. "What do you want me to do, just sit around?" he asks his son. "This has been my business for 35 years."

"He's got to put it in God's hands," Adrian Gonzalez says.

There are other ways in which David Gonzalez will not change. For his grandsons, the gift for their first birthday is the same as it was for his own boys -- David Jr., the oldest; Edgar, the middle son, and Adrian.

"Baseball? We breathed it," says Adrian Gonzalez, whose grandmother Alicia was a left-handed softball player of some renown in San Diego. "Everything we did was baseball. The first gift I got was a glove and a ball. My dad makes it an emphasis, for every 1-year-old in the family, to give them a glove.

"You may see my nephew, who is 18 months old. He's already picking up a ball and throwing it. It's in the blood. Ask us about music, and we know nothing. Everything was sports, especially baseball."

One team, four Gonzalezes

The photo greets you when you walk into the Gonzalez Sports Academy in Chula Vista, the family-owned training facility complete with batting cages, a weight room, sprinting lanes and an exercise area.

In the photo, the four Gonzalezes, arms around each other, are wearing matching red caps, red belts and gleaming white uniforms, with Tijuana Amateur emblazoned across their chests. The father, David, is second from the left, his thick black mustache dwarfing those of his sons, Edgar to the left, David Jr. to the far right. The clean-shaven one is the youngest, Adrian.

Gonzalez
Gordon Edes/ESPNBoston.comAdrian Gonzalez honed his skills as a teenager by playing on a team with his father and two older brothers in a Mexican league that included some former major leaguers.

"I played first base," Adrian said of his days playing in what was more a semipro league than amateur, a 16-year-old competing against players that were twice his age, some of whom had played pro ball on some level. "My brother David was the shortstop. Edgar played second or third. My dad was the DH. We had a good team."

In his younger days, the father had been the first baseman, a good one. "He was different from me," Adrian says. "He was skinny, and he was fast. He really didn't grow into his body until his 30s.

"In his region, northwest Mexico, he was always the best first baseman, playing on all-star teams, batting third or fourth. He played on national teams and was still playing until he was 47. He played in a 40-year-old league in San Diego, and they didn't know at first who he was. People were saying, 'Man, you can hit.'"

All the boys could play. David was MVP at Point Loma Nazarene College. Edgar was the starting shortstop at San Diego State and was drafted into the big leagues, chosen in the 30th round by Tampa Bay in 2000, the day after the Florida Marlins made Adrian the No. 1 pick in the country. Edgar eventually played two seasons with Adrian with the Padres, then spent last season in Japan, playing for the Yomiuri Giants. Several teams are interested in signing him to a minor-league deal and inviting him to camp; the Marlins are a possibility.

Playing in a Sunday league in Tijuana with men while he was still a boy, Adrian Gonzalez says, gave him a terrific advantage when high school season rolled around.

"There really was good competition, including some guys who played in the major leagues," he said. "Remember Oscar Robles? Jose Silva would pitch there. Facing this kind of competition allowed me to have success in high school.

"I'd go from facing these guys, all of whom threw 90 and threw this, this, this and this," Gonzalez said, his hand flicking in every direction, "Mexican-style baseball, to high school, where most guys threw 80 miles an hour, straight ball, with maybe a curve. I was advanced because of who I was playing against."

It was at Eastlake High that an apprentice Padres scout named Theo Epstein watched Gonzalez generate the kind of excitement reminiscent of a long-ago time, when a skinny left-handed-hitting kid -- another Mexican-American, though he hid that fact for most of his life -- had the baseball world making a pilgrimage to Hoover High School in San Diego.

Adrian Gonzalez was playing in the Sweetwater Valley Little League when he accompanied his older brother David to Hoover High for a game and saw the banner: Home of Ted Williams.

"Everyone in San Diego who plays baseball knows his story," Gonzalez says.

And soon, Epstein would know Gonzalez's, though Gonzalez doesn't recall that after a game, Epstein and Jason McLeod, now the Padres' assistant GM and the former scouting director in Boston, asked Gonzalez to take some swings with a wood bat.

"When I saw him in Boston," Gonzalez says, "I told him, 'I had you guys fooled, man.' Eastlake, that ballpark is tiny. Those balls I hit over the fence were not really hit that far. It was 318 down the lines and 350 to center. Tiny, and the wind blows out.

"I remember everybody used to make fun of me: 'You take credit for your numbers at Eastlake, seriously? You take credit for that?' Hey, I just chose the right high school to play for."

Huevos with a side of cactus

Gonzalez is warmly greeted when he walks into La Finca D'Adobe for breakfast. He grew up with the children of the owners, one of whom brings a Padres jersey to sign, as well as a bobblehead doll of Gonzalez depicting him when he was with the Kane County Cougars, the Marlins' Class A farm team in the Midwest League.

Soon, the shy children of other diners approach him, asking for a picture to be taken with the neighborhood's most famous native son. Gonzalez obliges, and smiles as he makes small talk with the parents.

Adrian Gonzalez and Brother
Gordon Edes/ESPNBoston.com Adrian Gonzalez with his brother Edgar; their father, David, makes sure all the kids in the Gonzalez family get a baseball glove on their first birthday.

"Felicidades," the waitress, Sandra, says, as she hands Gonzalez a menu and congratulates him on his trade to the Red Sox.

The coffee, prepared old-style in a ceramic pot, is sweet, strong and flavored with cinnamon. Gonzalez recommends the Trios de Michoacan, often referred to as the soul food of Mexico.

"Have you ever had cactus?" he asks, adding, upon sensing his visitor's hesitation, "They take out the needles. You might like it."

His visitor suggests that such offerings may be hard to come by in Boston. Gonzalez smiles.

"Some of my friends were saying, how many years is it going to be before you open a taco shop over there and you can have your own Mexican food?" Gonzalez says.

Gonzalez did have a restaurant once, in Phoenix.

"It went well at first, but the economy wasn't good at the time, and then they passed a law that said if the cops saw a person and asked for his papers, and they didn't have their papers, they could detain them. It was in one of the most prominent Mexican communities in Phoenix, but a lot of people didn't have papers, so they were afraid to be out. It went downhill from there, and we put it up for sale."

Breakfast served, Gonzalez bows his head silently in prayer. More heads are nodded in his direction, well wishes extended.

"The thing that's incredible," he says, "is that it almost seems more people in San Diego knew me after the trade than during my five years here.

"They hate to see [me] go, but they say they're excited for [me] and say we'll support you, so it's good."

Mexico City, no; Boston, sí

John Boggs had plans for the weekend. He and his wife Mary were going to Palm Springs for a wedding. A daughter of Steve Garvey's, the former Padre and Dodger and a Boggs client, was getting married. Boggs already had rented his tux. They were leaving the next day.

Then the phone rang, around 9:45 on a Thursday night. The date? Dec. 2.

It was Jed Hoyer, the general manager of the Padres. "We may have something going with Boston for Adrian," he said.

Boggs turned to his wife. "Sorry," he said, "but you may be going to the wedding without me."

Adrian Gonzalez had plans, too. He was scheduled to board a plane on Friday for Mexico City, where he had been invited to throw out the ceremonial first pitch on Opening Day for the city's largest Little League.

Then his phone rang. It was Boggs, informing him of what might be happening. "If they want me there," Gonzalez said, "they'd better get something done, because I'm going to be in Mexico City, and they'll have to deal with that."

Boggs promised to find out what he could. Then Gonzalez's phone rang again, at about 10:30.

It was Jeff Moorad, the owner of the Padres and, coincidentally, the former agent who had negotiated the deal that landed the last big slugger to hit Boston, Manny Ramirez.

"Adrian, it's Jeff," Moorad said. "We've traded you to Boston."

The words were not entirely unexpected. Gonzalez had heard his name linked to the Red Sox for the better part of two years. Heck, even longer than that. He was a minor leaguer with Texas the first time Epstein tried trading for him, back in 2006.

The Sox again tried to trade for Gonzalez at the July trading deadline in 2009, then again last winter. There was no talk of trading him at the deadline last season because the Padres were surprisingly leading the NL West, but with Gonzalez a year away from free agency and Moorad already announcing the club would be unable to afford him past 2011, the rumors had escalated again. But the wise guys thought Hoyer would wait until July to pull the trigger.

Outwardly, Gonzalez has the emotional register of a sequoia. Sometimes his wife will teasingly tell him to smile, and he will inform her that he is smiling. But in this moment, with his boss on the phone, telling him he was no longer a member of his hometown team, something stirred, deep inside.

"It's kind of like that moment of, 'Wow, did this really just happen?"' he says now. "You're kind of taken back a little bit, and then you're like, 'I just got traded to the Red Sox.' That's pretty cool, you know? Then there's that moment of excitement and anticipation, you start getting that nervousness. 'Hey this is pretty cool. You're going to be playing for the Red Sox."'

Moorad said goodbye, wishing him luck. A flurry of phone calls followed, including one to Little League officials in Mexico City. Sorry, Gonzalez said, I won't be able to make it. My brother Edgar will be happy to come in my place.

The next morning, Adrian and Betsy Gonzalez, with John Boggs and his associate Tony Cabral, boarded a plane for Boston. Only then did news break that the Padres and Red Sox might have a deal.

But would they?

Read Part 2: A matter of trust -- How the deal was sealed

Gordon Edes is ESPNBoston.com's Red Sox reporter. He has covered the Red Sox for 12 years and has reported on baseball for 25 years. Ask a question for his next mailbag here.

Gordon Edes

Red Sox reporter, ESPNBoston.com

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