Adrian Gonzalez gets a jump on expectations

August, 25, 2012
8/25/12
10:24
PM PT
Adrian GonzalezAP Photo/Mark J. TerrillDon Mattingly, left, is already a big fan of Adrian Gonzalez, who had quite a Dodger debut.

LOS ANGELES -- Don Mattingly was sitting in the Los Angeles Dodgers' dugout before the game talking about Adrian Gonzalez.

If it had been 20 years earlier, it might have been some manager talking about a certain left-handed hitting New York Yankees first baseman, a Gold Glover with line-drive power and the ability to earn MVP votes year after year.

That guy no longer wears cleats, he has streaks of gray in his sideburns and he manages the Dodgers.

“He’s just legit. He just has that great stroke,” Mattingly said. “He hits lefties as well as righties. He’s really good at first, got a great feel for it. He’s just one of those guys, the stroke and the swing, it’s just smooth.”

Mattingly didn’t say it, but you could add “quiet superstar” and “franchise icon” to the traits Gonzalez possesses, or could one day. The Dodgers think they’ve not only found the missing bat at first base they’ve been so desperate for, but the easy-going, fan-friendly personality that could help take them into a happier era.

The first few minutes couldn’t have been more electric.

Gonzalez swung at an 0-and-1 fastball from Josh Johnson and sent it soaring toward the right-field foul pole. He jogged sheepishly after it, wondering if it would hook foul. When it wrapped around the pole, nestling into the seats for a three-run home run, Gonzalez had his 16th home run of 2012, but his first taste of L.A.

There were 40,284 fans in Dodger Stadium -- the owners hope Gonzalez helps them boost those numbers in the coming years -- and they rained down an ovation on Gonzalez. Heck, they gave him an ovation the first time he sprinted out of the dugout to get loose in the outfield.

“I was telling the guys it was just all adrenaline,” Gonzalez said. “I saw the ball halfway on a trajectory and it was a great feeling.”

[+] EnlargeAdrian Gonzalez and fan
Courtesy of Ben KessenAdrian Gonzalez poses for a postgame photo with Ben Kessen, the fan who caught his home-run ball after Gonzalez's first at-bat as a Dodger.
Gonzalez is the the guy who will -- along with Matt Kemp, Andre Ethier and Clayton Kershaw -- try to help this team get back to being what it expects to be, the preeminent baseball brand west of the Rockies.

The cliché is that this is Hollywood, or at least it’s just a few congested miles from Hollywood, and these kinds of fairy tales are supposed to happen here. But the movie industry also churns out plenty of tear-jerkers and horror flicks. Life as a Dodgers fan under former owner Frank McCourt hadn’t exactly been full of popcorn and candy.

The Dodgers' owners said they would spend money and they’ve spent plenty of it -- more than $300 million so far and counting. When you hitch your franchise’s course to a single player, you’ve got to be pretty confident you’re picking the right guy. The Dodgers had zeroed in on Gonzalez months ago and not just because he has a lifetime .880 OPS.

“Everything I’ve ever seen about Adrian is quality,” Mattingly said.

He’s probably the best Mexican-American position player of all time and that allows the Dodgers to complete the circle that started with Mexican pitching star Fernando Valenzuela 30 years ago. He’ll be a huge draw for this fan base, which has taken to droning, “Cruuuuz!” every time Luis Cruz, a former journeyman minor-leaguer from Northern Mexico, bats.

It’s not just about ethnicity, it’s about personality. After Saturday’s game, well after 9 p.m., with the emotions of a whirlwind day just beginning to settle in his stomach, Gonzalez spent about 10 minutes outside the Dodgers' clubhouse visiting with Ben Kessen, the young man who had retrieved his home-run ball.

Gonzalez chatted, posed for pictures and, as things were wrapping up, quietly said, “Can you give me your address so I can get you a bat? I appreciate it.”

If things keep going like this, the feeling will be mutual.

Mark Saxon

ESPNLosAngeles.com
Mark Saxon is a staff writer for ESPNLosAngeles.com. He spent six years at the Orange County Register, and began his career at the Oakland Tribune, where he started an 11-year journey covering Major League Baseball. He has also covered colleges, including USC football and UCLA basketball.

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TEAM LEADERS

BA LEADER
Dee Gordon
BA HR RBI R
.369 1 6 8
OTHER LEADERS
HRA. Gonzalez 5
RBIA. Gonzalez 17
RA. Gonzalez 14
OPSA. Gonzalez .907
WZ. Greinke 4
ERAH. Ryu 2.12
SOZ. Greinke 40