Commentary

Carlos Gonzalez reaches mountaintop

Twice traded by age 23, Rockies slugger now ranks among the game's elite players

Updated: March 29, 2011, 12:51 PM ET
By Jerry Crasnick | ESPN.com

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Shortly after Colorado outfielder Carlos Gonzalez signed a seven-year, $80 million contract extension in January, he took the plunge and bought a new red Ferrari. Gonzalez is partial to black, but Rockies shortstop Troy Tulowitzki already has a Ferrari in that color, and it wouldn't seem right to have twin Batmobiles dominating the players' lot. Socialites hate wearing the same dresses at cocktail parties, and baseball stars prefer distinctiveness in their choice of rides.

The Ferrari has style, horsepower and the capacity to seamlessly shift gears -- just like its owner. It's a tangible reminder of the benefits that flow from dedication to the task at hand.

"I like sports cars, like every boy likes nice cars,'' Gonzalez said. "Now that I have the opportunity to buy one, I tell myself, 'OK, this is the chance.' I'm really happy, but at the same time, I have to remember what I did to make it real.''

[+] EnlargeCarlos Gonzalez
Christopher Hanewinckel/US PresswireComing off a huge 2010 season and an $80M contract extension, Carlos Gonzalez has every reason to smile.

Gonzalez made his boyhood baseball and automotive fantasies come true with a breakthrough 2010 season that established him as one of the game's elite players. He won the National League batting title with a .336 average, led the league in total bases (351) and hits (197), captured Silver Slugger and Gold Glove Awards and finished third in MVP balloting behind Cincinnati's Joey Votto and St. Louis' Albert Pujols.

He also displayed a knack for making the unthinkable seem commonplace. The most stunning example came against the Chicago Cubs at Coors Field in late July, when he singled, tripled and doubled in his first three plate appearances, then homered off Sean Marshall in the bottom of the ninth to give the Rockies a 6-5 victory.

"Being around it every day, you just get used to seeing it,'' said Rockies third baseman Ian Stewart. "And then he'll do something crazy in a game that takes you aback a little bit and you're in awe again -- whether he hits a walkoff for the cycle or makes a diving play in the outfield or throws somebody out. He'll do something, and you think, 'Nobody should be able to do that.'"

So you can only imagine the Rockies' sense of alarm in the 2011 Cactus League opener when Gonzalez, Tulowitzki and Stewart converged at a dead run in pursuit of a pop fly against Arizona. Tulowitzki peeled off early enough to avoid trouble, but Stewart suffered a sprained knee and Gonzalez bruised his shin in the subsequent fender bender.

"I'm sure there were a lot of deep breaths taken,'' Stewart said. "And some mild heart attacks, maybe.''

The Rockies spent $134 million on a contract extension for Tulowitzki a month before making a long-term commitment to CarGo, and the synergy between the young stars is readily apparent. During a tour video introducing visitors to the Rockies' palatial new complex in Scottsdale, a shot appears of Gonzalez and Tulowitzki celebrating a big moment from the 2010 season. Colorado's opponents had better get used to it.

"They take each other to greater heights because they both want to be the best,'' said Rockies GM Dan O'Dowd.

Bouncing around

Tulowitzki has been on the star track since Colorado chose him out of Long Beach State with the seventh pick in the 2005 draft. As for Gonzalez, he has changed hands enough that the Rockies might have been tempted to ask for a certificate of authenticity when they acquired him by trade 2½ years ago.

It's a case of a guy just blossoming and coming into his own. I don't think there was any doubt about his talent.

-- Oakland GM Billy Beane

Big things were in store for Gonzalez from the moment he signed with Arizona at age 16, but the expectations came with yellow caution flags. In his early minor league stops, Gonzalez gained a reputation as cocky and too self-satisfied for his own good.

"Scouts and managers often have been turned off by Gonzalez's approach to the game, accusing him of giving away at-bats or not hustling at times,'' Baseball America wrote in 2008. "The Diamondbacks have addressed this concern in the past and say it's a case of immaturity and lack of focus and not bad makeup. To the contrary, they say he's a bright, outgoing person who wants to be a star.''

Nevertheless, the Diamondbacks were so flush with outfield prospects that general manager Josh Byrnes could afford to send Gonzalez to Oakland in an eight-player deal that brought starter Dan Haren to Arizona. The D-backs also traded Carlos Quentin to the White Sox in December 2007, but were still left with Justin Upton, Chris Young, Conor Jackson and Eric Byrnes, then in the early stages of an ill-fated three-year, $30 million contract.

Gonzalez quickly wowed his Oakland teammates with his ability, but he performed in fits and starts on the field. He logged a .634 OPS in 85 games in 2008. And when Athletics GM Billy Beane had a chance to acquire Matt Holliday from Colorado, he tossed Gonzalez into a package with pitchers Huston Street and Greg Smith.

[+] EnlargeCarlos Gonzalez
AP Photo/ Matt McClainCarGo (.336, 34 homers and 117 RBIs) was a Triple Crown threat last season.

"That's always the risk you run with a guy like that,'' Beane said. "It really clicked for him in Colorado. It's a great spot for him to play in, and his skill set obviously matches that ballpark pretty well. It's a case of a guy just blossoming and coming into his own. I don't think there was any doubt about his talent.''

A hot prospect who is traded twice by age 23 is bound to experience moments of self-doubt, and Gonzalez wasn't immune. He felt confused, disoriented and a little bit lonely upon arrival in both Oakland and Denver.

"You don't know how it's going to be with a new organization,'' Gonzalez said. "You don't know anybody. There were a lot of people around me I didn't recognize.''

Most successful careers have turning points, and two developments are generally cited in the recounting of Gonzalez's ascent to stardom. Former Rockies hitting coach Don Baylor tinkered with Gonzalez's hand positioning in their first spring training together, and the change resulted in a smoother, freer swing. Gonzalez also relaxed late in the 2009 regular season when Colorado manager Jim Tracy assured him that his minor league apprenticeship was over regardless of his performance with the big club.

Everything came together for Gonzalez in the Rockies' 2009 division series, when he racked up 10 hits in 17 at-bats for a staggering .588 average against the Phillies. After the season, Gonzalez had a tattoo inscribed on his left arm with the word "Faith,'' as a reminder of the importance of maintaining his inner strength in challenging times.

Priorities in order

Even with the security that $80 million brings, Gonzalez clings to the lessons he learned growing up amid modest means in the northwestern Venezuela city of Maracaibo. His mother, Lucila, worked in the insurance business, and his father, Euro, helped pay the bills as an auto mechanic, and they taught him that anything worth having requires commitment and long hours. Even though Gonzalez's newfound wealth allows him to take care of the family back home, Euro still wakes up at 4 or 5 a.m. each day and goes to the shop by force of habit.

Everybody sees the talent and thinks he just throws the bats and balls out there and plays. But he really wants to be good. He really wants to be a superstar.

-- Rockies teammate Jason Giambi

The son's natural tendency to aim high is apparent in his choice of role models. Former big league pitcher Wilson Alvarez and Hall of Fame shortstop Luis Aparicio hailed from Maracaibo, and Venezuela has produced a passel of other stars -- from Andres Galarraga to Bobby Abreu to Magglio Ordonez. But from the moment Gonzalez could swing a bat, he aspired to be the next Ken Griffey Jr. He wore No. 24 in youth ball, mimicked Griffey's uppercut stroke and gave his mother explicit instructions to alert him whenever the Seattle Mariners were on TV.

"That was my only reason to watch the game -- when Griffey was about to hit,'' Gonzalez said. "He had the sweetest swing in baseball.''

Gonzalez's eyes dance when he recalls his first encounter with his hero. He was playing for Oakland, hitting behind Frank Thomas in the lineup, when he suddenly found himself exchanging hugs and handshakes with Griffey behind the cage. The look of surprise on Gonzalez's face matched the feeling he experienced late last season when Pujols invited him and several teammates to hang out at his house during a Rockies-Cardinals series in St. Louis. To Gonzalez's astonishment, Pujols even asked for his autograph.

"Now I understand how the little kids feel when they see us walk anywhere and they follow us,'' Gonzalez said. "We always need to respect that part of the game, respect the fans and the kids. There's probably a future major league baseball player in the stands, and you don't want to ruin his mentality. When you like baseball and love a player, you don't want to see the dark side.''

Gonzalez's charisma, catchy nickname and gregarious nature make him a potential marketing phenomenon. His English is impeccable, and judging from his commercial endeavors, he has a touch of ham in him. He appeared in a Taco Bell ad that aired during Rockies games last season, and he's now a pitchman for Gillette. Gonzalez appears alongside Tampa Bay third baseman Evan Longoria, Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan and several other young sports stars as part of the company's "Young Guns'' campaign.

[+] EnlargeCarlos Gonzales Graphic
ESPN.comCarlos Gonzalez's home/road splits were extreme in 2010 (click graphic to enlarge).

But the TV exposure and flashy car can't obscure Gonzalez's focus on baseball as his No. 1 priority. He needs to prove something to the skeptics who look at his .775 road OPS last season and wonder whether he's just another Coors Field creation. Gonzalez also has 81 walks and 286 strikeouts in the majors, and that ratio is destined to improve as he shows more patience and opponents begin avoiding him out of fear of the repercussions.

Still, Gonzalez is so naturally gifted that he will always have to deal with the perception that baseball is a breeze for him.

"When I watched him going to get balls in the outfield, my first take was, 'He's hot-dogging it a little bit,''' said Rockies first baseman Todd Helton. "But he's just that graceful. It's not his fault he makes it look easy running after balls. It took me a little while to realize that. I watch him now and -- boom! -- there's a ball where he really has to get on his horse, and he's getting after that ball. There's no quit. There's no slowing down. He's going after it full bore.''

Gonzalez isn't above approaching the Colorado veterans for advice on how to improve his game. If he's not picking Helton's brain, chances are he's peppering backup first baseman Jason Giambi with questions.

"He's a student of the game,'' Giambi said. "He'll come to me and say, 'How's this guy going to pitch to me today?' Everybody sees the talent and thinks he just throws the bats and balls out there and plays. But he really wants to be good. He really wants to be a superstar.''

The Rockies, coming off a third-place finish, need to figure a few things out in their pursuit of an NL West title. After posting a 40-57 record the past four Aprils, they can't afford to sleepwalk their way through the first month again. And Jorge De La Rosa, Jhoulys Chacin and Jason Hammel had better assert themselves behind ace Ubaldo Jimenez in the rotation.

But the Rockies ultimately will go as CarGo and Tulo go. Try saying that three times fast.

"You always learn something in this game,'' Gonzalez said. "That's why everybody goes to school and studies. This is a school for me, and I come here to learn every day and get better.''

Last year, Gonzalez graduated from tantalizing talent to superstar and MVP candidate. This year, who knows what he might achieve? The School of Rocks is officially in session.

Jerry Crasnick is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Click here to purchase a copy of his book, "License to Deal," published by Rodale. Crasnick can be reached via email.

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ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer