'Difficult day' for D-Backs: Gonzalez not in '07 plans

Updated: September 15, 2006, 1:58 AM ET
Associated Press

PHOENIX -- In what became the Arizona Diamondbacks' signature moment, Luis Gonzalez joyfully hopped down the first-base line and into the hearts of Valley sports fans.

Elias Says
Luis Gonzalez
Luis Gonzalez, 39, has appeared in 139 games this season. He's the second-oldest individual in the major leagues who has played in at least 130 games in 2006. Omar Vizquel, four months older than Gonzalez, played in his 140th game on Thursday afternoon.

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Gonzalez produced the most memorable moment in the nine-year-old team's history -- the bloop single off New York Yankees closer Mariano Rivera in the ninth inning of Game 7 that drove in the winning run in the 2001 World Series. It remains the state's only major sports championship.

Throw in his career batting statistics -- he's the team's all-time leader in hits (1,325), home runs (224) and RBI (772) -- and it's easy to see why Gonzalez became the club's most popular player.

But that's why it was so difficult for the club to say goodbye Thursday. During a breakfast meeting on a day off for the team, the Diamondbacks told the 39-year-old left fielder they will not bring him back for a ninth season in 2007.

Then they called a somber Chase Field news conference to break the news to everyone else.

"Obviously, this is a very difficult day for the organization," general manager Josh Byrnes said. "Gonzo's done about everything you can in this market as a player and as a person.

"Change isn't easy, but we feel very good about the cast that will continue to wear the uniform," Byrnes said.

Byrnes said Eric Byrnes, who has played center field this year, would become the club's everyday left fielder next season. Chris Young, who was recently promoted from Triple-A Tucson, will take over in center. Another rookie, Carlos Quentin, is penciled in for right field.

The club had not been expected to exercise its $10 million option on Gonzalez for 2007. But Gonzalez had said he would be open to discussing a new contract that would allow him to return for a ninth season in Arizona, even at a reduced price.

"I want to stay here," Gonzalez said this week. "There's no secret about that. I don't have any control over it."

Team officials said Gonzalez approached the club recently and asked if a decision could be made soon so he could begin saying goodbyes if he weren't in the team's plans. Managing partner Jeff Moorad, a former player agent who negotiated Gonzalez' present contract, said the club respected Gonzalez' wishes.

"I think more than anything, Gonzo desired clarity," Moorad said. "Would it have been our preference to wait until the end of the season? Of course. I think there was a legitimate need for clarification. We didn't want to play games or mislead our fan base or Luis.

"We'll miss Luis more than we can really express in words," Moorad said.

Gonzalez is expected to speak to reporters before Friday night's home game against Colorado.

The Diamondbacks have seven home games remaining, beginning with a three-game weekend series against Colorado Friday through Sunday. The team finishes the regular season with four games against San Diego Sept. 28-Oct. 1.

Though Gonzalez had held out hope that a new deal could be reached, team officials said they declined to open negotiations.

"This isn't a financial decision," Moorad said. "This is a decision about the long-term success of our ballclub."

Neither Moorad nor Byrnes would describe Gonzalez's reaction to the news. But Moorad said the organization asked Gonzalez to consider taking a position in the broadcast booth or in a coaching capacity after he retires.

"It's not an easy thing to end a relationship," Moorad said. "We made it clear to Luis this morning that there would be nothing better, in our view, than to have him come back to us at the end of his playing career, whenever that might be, and to be part of our organization for the long term, whether it's in the broadcast booth or whether it's on the field in some capacity."

The Diamondbacks acquired Gonzalez from Detroit after their debut season in 1998, and he went on to become the franchise leader in every major batting category. He hit 57 homers with 142 RBI in 2001.

Gonzalez is batting .277 with 15 home runs and 71 RBI this year.

On Tuesday night, Gonzalez became the oldest player in baseball history to hit 50 doubles in a season. He has 545 career doubles, 20th on the all-time list. Gonzalez has received a standing ovation after each milestone double at home this year.

Club officials know many fans won't be happy with the decision. But they hope fans will accept the team's long-range plan even as they're saying goodbye to a favorite player.

"This wasn't easy," Byrnes said. "Looking at a player of this magnitude, and how and when he parts ways with a franchise, there aren't many stories of a smooth transition."

Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press