Adrian Gonzalez remains confident
Last September's Red Sox collapse hasn't shaken first baseman's approach
FORT MYERS, Fla. -- It still has the capacity to startle, because it is a prerogative so few first basemen are confident enough to exercise.
Runner on third, one out, infield playing at normal depth. It is, after all, the top of the first inning, when the wheels of strategy are slow to be set in motion. The batter, Laynce Nix of the Phillies, hits a sharp one-hopper to the right side. The runner on third, the swift Juan Pierre, glides toward home, believing by reputation alone he should score unchallenged.
Pierre is mistaken in his assumption. The first baseman, Adrian Gonzalez, quickly transfers the ball from his glove to his left hand and with no wasted motion throws a strike home to catcher Kelly Shoppach, who applies leather to the shoulder of Pierre, so taken off guard by what has transpired that he had given no thought to sliding.
"No runner in baseball is so fast he can beat out a one-hopper to me and my throw to the plate," Gonzalez says a few days later, as matter of factly as if he is talking about a much simpler task, like catching a pop fly.
So why don't more of his peers elect to do the same?
"You're always told to get an out," he said. "There are a lot of players out there who don't want to make a mistake. But me, it goes back to, I don't care. If I make an aggressive play and I have to answer questions about it later, I'll answer questions."
He gave his new manager, Bobby Valentine, a heads-up on what to expect.
"I told him, like I tell every manager, I'm aggressive," he said. "I may throw to a base where you're thinking, 'What in the world are you doing?' But that's how I play. If I throw it away, I'll come see you later and say, 'I'm sorry. My bad.' "
He then shared a craftsman's insight. "I also make sure I set my feet before I throw. That's the key."
There is an unmistakable sense of self-assuredness to the way Gonzalez plays baseball and the way he conducts his life. Last spring, when others were obsessing about all the time he was unable to hit in camp because he was coming off shoulder surgery, he calmly told one and all there was no cause for alarm, that he would be ready come Opening Day.
And he was.
To all the questions of how he would adjust to the high-anxiety environment of playing in Boston compared to the somnolence of San Diego, Gonzalez was equally sanguine. Same game, he said. Same skill set required. No difference in how he approached his job.
And there wasn't. He delivered for the Red Sox what he had delivered for the Padres. A steady diet of line drives, home runs, and baserunners crossing the plate. While the Red Sox's other marquee addition, Carl Crawford, seemed lost from the start, Gonzalez cruised into midseason an All-Star, with a .354 batting average, 77 RBIs, 17 home runs and an OPS of 1.006. Adjustments? If anything, Gonzalez appeared in his element.
The numbers tapered off in the second half, in part because Gonzalez lost strength in his surgically repaired shoulder. But when you survey the market of first basemen in the wake of Albert Pujols signing a 10-year, $240 million contract with the Los Angeles Angels (supplemented by a 10-year, $10 million personal services contract when he retires), you can understand the magnitude of the coup staged by the Sox when they traded for Gonzalez last winter and signed him to a seven-year, $154 million extension before the start of last season.
The Red Sox likely saved themselves a year and roughly $46 million for Gonzalez, who almost certainly would have commanded at least an eight-year, $200 million contract (Prince Fielder signed a nine-year, $214 million deal). And Pujols will be 41 at the end of his deal with the Angels. Gonzalez will be 36 at the end of his with the Sox, reducing the likelihood of Boston paying premium prices for substandard production.
Gonzalez caused a stir in some quarters with his remarks about it being "God's will" that the Red Sox were eliminated from the playoffs last fall. What some people failed to understand is he would have said the same had the Sox won. The needle on his spiritual compass wavers as little as that of his baseball compass, a confounding concept for those who measure their lives in strokes of less certitude.
Gonzalez comes to the end of spring training with a conviction that this team is built to win in a big way in 2012.
"It's a great team shaping up nicely," he said. "We have a lot of bats in different places. I think we're going to be really good once we break camp in a few days."
That belief is not shared in the numbers that proclaimed the Red Sox odds-on favorites to run the table last season. Sports Illustrated's Tom Verducci and ESPN's Buster Olney, for example, project the Sox to miss the playoffs, albeit by the narrowest of margins.
"I learned one thing in my life: Don't listen to what people say," Gonzalez said. "It's all personal opinion. I was on a Padres team that was picked to finish last and played game 162 for a chance to go to the playoffs and win the division. Last year we were picked to win it all and lost [a playoff spot] on the last day to Tampa Bay.
"The game is played on the field, not a piece of paper, not on personal opinion. That's why I told everybody, playing the game right and doing all the little things in the course of a season, the team that does that, they're going to win the division."
Little things, like not being afraid to throw home on a one-hop smash to first with a fast runner on third.
Big things, like hitting 30 home runs and driving in 120 runs.
"I'm just a hitter trying to be the best hitter, not the best home run hitter," Gonzalez said. "I just focus on executing my game plan, align mechanically, maintain balance."
And having settled in, he expects to exert a greater clubhouse influence in his second season here.
"I have guys coming to me for my opinion; I go to guys for their opinion," he said. "Guys are comfortable with me, I'm comfortable with them.
"You can't step into a team and get that respect, get that comfort zone, from guys in your first year. Nobody can. People have to get to know you. You have to have a relationship. It takes time to build a relationship, time to build trust, and if you lose that trust you're not getting it back."
While the voices of Dustin Pedroia and David Ortiz often pierce through the normal hum and drone of the Red Sox clubhouse, Gonzalez comes and goes while drawing scant attention to himself. That's how he likes it.
"I'm not a vocal guy to begin with," he said. "I'm the kind of guy who will sit people down, pull them aside or go talk to a certain guy, relay messages. That part of it -- most of what I do, you won't hear about it."
But Gonzalez insists this is not a team in need of radical internal rewiring in the face of last September's collapse. He remains unshakeable in his contention that there was no crisis of character that led to the team's downfall last season. He is as sure of that as he is that he can throw out any runner at home on a one-hop smash.
"I'd say the focus is the same, the mentality is the same," he said. "Obviously we've got different people, a different manager. But every single guy here, I can attest to their focus is winning the World Series, the same as last year."