Gonzalez has had immediate success
Tony Clark has a unique set of qualifications to weigh in on Adrian Gonzalez, who -- as the Red Sox open the second half of the season Friday night against the Tampa Bay Rays -- is a front-runner for Most Valuable Player in the American League.
Like Gonzalez, Clark was a first baseman. He played in the white-hot intensity of Boston. He played in small-market San Diego. He played against Gonzalez. He played with him. When he was still playing, he was a league representative to the players' union. Now he works for the union. He knew Gonzalez as a young player. He has watched him grow.
"I love him as a man and I appreciate him as a baseball player," Clark said in Phoenix at the All-Star Game. "Everything he says and does is heartfelt.
"He and his family, what he stands for, what he believes in, how he carries himself, his respect, his level of dignity and integrity, is as solid as it gets."
Gonzalez played in relative obscurity in San Diego. There's no overlooking him now, not after what he has done in his first 3½ months in Boston, leading the majors in RBIs, tying Jose Reyes of the Mets for highest average (.354), hitting 17 home runs and playing Gold Glove-caliber defense at first base.
And not after two days in Phoenix in which he was the runner-up in the Home Run Derby and the next night hit a home run off Cliff Lee for the American League's only run in the All-Star Game.
"It was everything I expected he was going to do, it really was," said Padres closer Heath Bell, who played four seasons with Gonzalez in San Diego. "I expected him maybe not to hit .350, but .320, .310. He's an amazing player. I knew with the lineup they had and the people to protect him and the people on base all the time that he'd be just fine and have an amazing year, that he would be an MVP candidate."
How closely has Bell been watching?
"I've been watching him on TV all year," Bell said. "I think most of us in San Diego have.
"The thing is, he doesn't play for himself. He gave his life over to the Lord and he just says, 'All right, I'm going out there to play the best I can and whatever you decide I'm going to work and try to do well every day.' He's one of those guys who takes it all in and says, 'I can only deal with the stuff I can control. I control my bat, hitting the ball, but after that I can't control anything.' He knows that, and he's OK with that."
There were people outside of Boston who were not sorry to see Gonzalez leave the Padres. One of them was Matt Cain, the San Francisco Giants' All-Star pitcher. His reaction to the news that Gonzalez had been traded to the Red Sox?
"I was excited," said Cain, who was worn out by Gonzalez (.321/.391/.643, four home runs) in their frequent battles in the NL West.
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"In the past, I tried to go in on him and was able to do that. Then he changed to where he's able to hit the inside pitch. That looks like what he's doing now. When he's going well and he's really driving the ball well to the opposite field, if you throw it inside he's either going to pull it or hit it hard into the left-center gap.
"That's the swing he has, so you try to mix it up, keep him off balance. You really try to keep a different sequence from at-bat to at-bat and try not to do what you've done before, because he's intelligent. He catches on to that stuff."
Clark had a chance to take Gonzalez's measure when he was the Padres' backup first baseman in 2008. That was a thankless job, given Gonzalez's insistence on playing every day.
"I always appreciated him from the outside," Clark said, "and being part of the first-base fraternity had a chance to chat with him off and on.
"I told everybody for a long period of time he doesn't get the appreciation he deserves for what he does out there in San Diego, and I had a chance to trumpet him as often as I could while I was playing. Offensively, he's as special as they come. Defensively, he's as special as they come.
"I hated to see him leave San Diego where he grew up, but it was nice to see him land in a place that's going to appreciate what he brings to the table. He went from San Diego to the 'Big League East,' which everybody likes to call it, in the middle of a Yankee-Boston rivalry that's been around forever, and he looks like he's been it and settled in it for as long as you can remember."
Clark struggled mightily in his one season in Boston, batting just .207 and hitting six home runs while also being deeply involved in union negotiations for a collective bargaining agreement that went down to the deadline before being struck. Did he wonder how Gonzalez would make the adjustment to his new environment?
"I wondered for a different reason," he said. "Oftentimes, when a player leaves his original team, he's used to X,Y, Z: where you stay, patterns of spring training, clubhouse people, all those things. Oftentimes, the first time you change teams there's an adjustment -- trying to get reacclimated, trying to do too much to prove you're the guy everybody says you are.
"And I thought maybe there'd be an adjustment that way. But after the way he started off the way he did, and is doing what he's doing, I should have known better. If anybody could keep that in perspective, it was him."
Watching him operate in Boston, Red Sox pitcher Jon Lester said, has offered him a useful perspective on why Gonzalez has thrived.
"I think the biggest thing, and it was a big thing with Manny [Ramirez], too, people say, 'Manny being Manny,' until you're around them every day and see how they prepare for a game, it's pretty impressive," Lester said.
"Adrian has his routines he does to prepare for games. It's fun to watch how he breaks down pitchers, and it's not just starting pitchers. He breaks down all the relievers and their tendencies, and when he says he has a plan going up to the plate, he really does. He has an idea of what he's trying to do. Now sometimes that doesn't come together -- the pitcher might do the opposite of what he was planning on -- but that's the fun part of being a pitcher and playing the cat-and-mouse game.
"That was probably the biggest surprise for me, how well he prepares and how good a plan he has every time he goes up to the plate."
When the All-Stars did their obligatory media interviews in a hotel ballroom this week, each player sitting at tables scattered around the room, Gonzalez brought two people along with him. Entourage? Not quite. One was his father, David. The other was his father-in-law, Enrique Perez.
"Whenever you're elected to an event like this," Gonzalez said, "the first people who come to mind are your parents. They're the ones who made you. You couldn't be here without them. I've been really fortunate to have great parents, which I'm really grateful for."
When Gonzalez was a year old, his father gave him a baseball glove as a birthday gift, the same gift he also bestowed on Gonzalez's brothers.
"The whole family is very involved in baseball," said David, who runs an air-conditioning business in Tijuana, just over the border from his Southern California home, but played baseball until he was 47. "I love baseball."
And his son? Does he love it is as much? Gonzalez's face cracks into a broad smile, and he laughs.
"Maybe not that much," he says. "I'm crazy. I'm a crazy guy."
David Gonzalez played first base on Mexico's national team. In Tijuana he served as DH on an amateur team on which he played with his sons. Adrian played first base, David shortstop, Edgar second or third. For the teenage Adrian, playing with seasoned men proved invaluable when he flipped back across the border to play for his high school team in Chula Vista.
"The best thing about the Mexican league is it was a different kind of baseball," David Gonzalez said. "In the United States, a kid doesn't throw curveballs. In Mexico, yes. The Mexican players are good because they are smart. They are always looking for how they can beat you.
I think the biggest thing, and it was a big thing with Manny [Ramirez], too, people say, 'Manny being Manny,' until you're around them every day and see how they prepare for a game, it's pretty impressive.” -- Jon Lester on Adrian Gonzalez
"Adrian is so quiet, so smart, so calm when he bats. He doesn't rush.
"I was a little bit more hyper than he was, but not too much. We were different players. I was more a long-ball hitter. I hit OK, but I wasn't that good. I swung at a lot of bad pitches. He doesn't do that. He's a very disciplined hitter."
No, David Gonzalez said, he is not surprised that his son has hit so well in Boston. As for his fielding? "He's a very good fielder, intelligent," he says. "It's amazing, the way he handles his footwork, and his reactions are incredible.
"His reactions at first base look like Brooks Robinson [at third base] for me. But remember, he's my son."
Father and son still talk about the game. "I taught him," David Gonzalez says. "He knows I know about baseball a little bit. Sometimes, maybe when he is in a slump, we talk about it. Maybe it helps. Maybe not."
He laughs again.
"I'm 61," David Gonzalez says, "but I've been in baseball 67 years."
The father-in-law, Enrique Perez, is asked what impresses him most about his son-in-law. In his limited English, he searches for the right word.
"He's very humble," Perez says. "He has never lost this. There's only one level; everybody is the same for him. It's a beautiful value."
Clark, who has come to know Gonzalez so well, reflected on what allows Gonzalez to maintain an equilibrium unaffected by whether he's in Boston or San Diego, whether he's had a great game or gone 0-for-4.
"His faith," Clark says. "His ability to keep this game in perspective allows him to understand his responsibility on the field and off the field.
"He knows that on the field, he has to be a warrior. He recognizes that off the field, he's got to be the same way but in a different capacity. So being able to keep those two things in perspective has allowed him to have this level of success."
Gordon Edes covers the Red Sox for ESPNBoston.com.
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