Gonzalez listening, learning from Hernandez

As he prepares for his new job as Pirates closer, Mike Gonzalez is absorbing all he can from veteran teammate Roberto Hernandez.

Originally Published: March 31, 2006
By Jerry Crasnick | ESPN.com

BRADENTON, Fla. -- The classy veterans, the ones with a long-term viewpoint, always place the team ahead of individual interests. Just ask Jorge Posada.

Nine years ago, when Posada was about to break through with the New York Yankees, incumbent catcher Joe Girardi could have made his life difficult by initiating a turf war. But Girardi acted like a pro and did everything possible to ease the kid's transition.

Mike Gonzalez
AP Photo/Al BehrmanMike Gonzalez posted a 2.70 ERA in 51 appearances for the Pirates last season.
Roberto Hernandez can relate. In the summer of 1992 Hernandez was a promising reliever with a live arm and big dreams. Bobby Thigpen, fading fast as the Chicago White Sox closer, was gracious enough to groom him for the job. It's a lesson that Hernandez never forgot.

"Bobby Thigpen saw the writing on the wall and took me under his wing and tutored me to take his job,'' Hernandez says. "You're going to teach a guy to become a closer when you're still the closer? A lot of guys won't do that. He did, and every chance I get, I say he was the guy that pushed me forward.''

Fourteen years later, the process has come full circle and it's time to give something back. Hernandez is 41 years old and tied for 10th on baseball's career list with 324 saves, and he's evolved from student to teacher.

Mike Gonzalez is 27 years old, with four saves in seven career opportunities, and he's dying to learn.

Is this a perfect match, or what?

The Pittsburgh Pirates certainly think so. If you enter the home clubhouse at McKechnie Field in Bradenton, you'll see the two pitchers' lockers side by side. That will remain the case during the regular season, both home and away, as Gonzalez plays Ralph Macchio to Hernandez's wise old Pat Morita.

"Having a guy like him around is something else,'' Gonzalez says. "The man knows his stuff. I'm just trying to be a sponge and learn everything I can.''

Gonzalez's development is one of several story lines that will unfold during a summer of hope in Pittsburgh. In a perfect world, general manager Dave Littlefield's decision to acquire Joe Randa, Sean Casey and Jeromy Burnitz will help upgrade an offense that ranked 14th in the National League in runs scored. And new manager Jim Tracy and pitching coach Jim Colborn can coax the best out of a rotation that features four starters age 24 and younger.

The Pirates expect to be strong in the bullpen. The durable Salomon Torres led all relievers with 94 2/3 innings last year, and lefty John Grabow stranded a major-league best 89.7 percent of his inherited runners. Last winter Littlefield picked up Damaso Marte, often maligned with the White Sox, and Hernandez, who went 8-6 with a 2.58 ERA for the Mets in 2005.

If Pittsburgh's game plan plays out, all roads will lead to the franchise's resident power lefty. Gonzalez throws his fastball at 95-96 mph and has a lethal slider. While the Pirates are hesitant to officially anoint him as "the man" in the ninth, Tracy notices some similarities between Gonzalez and Eric Gagne, his former closer in Los Angeles.

"One of the qualifications you need is a fearless-type personality, and Mike Gonzalez has that,'' Tracy says. "You need devastating stuff, and he has that too.

"I also see a young kid who hasn't been overly exposed in the ninth inning, so we'll give him the ball and let his actions determine what happens. That's exactly the same path we took with Eric Gagne. When people in the industry first heard it they thought, 'What in the world?' But it turned out pretty good.''

Gonzalez, an earnest Texan, has the steely-eyed look of a competitor. After signing with Pittsburgh for a $15,000 bonus as a 30th-round draft pick, he had problems staying healthy as a starter. Gonzalez spent time on the disabled list with injuries to his shoulder, knee and back, and he made five separate stops at Class A Lynchburg and four more at Double-A Altoona.

"I could have built a house in Altoona,'' he says, laughing.

One of the qualifications you need [to be an effective closer] is a fearless-type personality, and Mike Gonzalez has that. You need devastating stuff, and he has that too.
Pirates manager Jim Tracy

In July 2003, the Pirates sent Gonzalez to Boston in a four-player deal. But when Brandon Lyon flunked his physical, the trade unraveled and Gonzalez returned to Pittsburgh.

Gonzalez has shown flashes as a setup man for Jose Mesa. Two years ago he struck out 55 batters and walked six in 43 1/3 innings. Last year the National League hit .197 against him. Although Gonzalez relies primarily on hard stuff, he can also mix in a changeup that he developed as a starter.

Hernandez's contribution will consist of helping him smooth out the rough edges. He's talked to Gonzalez about the importance of maintaining a certain swagger as a closer, while putting good and bad days in the vault quickly. There's no time to dwell on yesterday when another save opportunity beckons.

Hernandez also stresses the importance of maximum effort and diligent preparation, regardless of the circumstances.

"When the game is over you have to ask yourself, 'Did I give everything I had today?''' Hernandez says. "If you were only pitching at 80 percent, did you give 100 percent of that 80 percent? If the answer is yes, you're going to fall asleep pretty good even if you blow one. If the answer is no, you're going to be tossing and turning.''

Some days the teacher-student conversations transcend the diamond. When Gonzalez's great-grandmother died early in training camp, Hernandez helped provide comfort. Hernandez also gives his younger teammate advice on topics ranging from housing to investments. Gonzalez welcomes the tutorials, because too much shop talk can get a guy "all baseballed out.''

Gonzalez's eyes light up when talk turns to the adrenaline rush he gets on the mound in the ninth. He's inclined to joke and keep things light in the bullpen until the sixth inning or so. That's when the tunnel vision takes hold.

"I've always had that aggressive approach,'' Gonzalez says. "My mentality has always been, 'You get me or I'm going to get you.' It's worked for me and I'm not going to change it.''

His biggest strength can't be measured by a radar gun or a sabermetrician. He wants to be on the mound at the very end.

"The No.1 thing I tell him is, 'Be the best Mike Gonzalez you can be,' '' Hernandez says. "There's only one Mariano Rivera. There's only one Billy Wagner. There's only one Mike Gonzalez. Be the best you that you can be and live with that, and you can bounce back the next day.''

As spring training comes to a close, graduation day is fast approaching. Starting Monday in Milwaukee, the Pirates will be playing for real. And time will tell how well Mike Gonzalez has learned his lessons.

Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN Insider. His book "License To Deal" was published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.

Jerry Crasnick | email

ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer