Thursday, January 3, 2008
Gonzalez isn't ready to call it a career
By Jerry Crasnick
Seeking employment: Veteran left fielder, age 40, with a 2001 World Series ring, 2,502 hits and more career doubles than Tony Gwynn, Lou Gehrig, Ted Williams, Willie Mays and Babe Ruth. Former Branch Rickey Award winner, Roberto Clemente Award nominee and recipient of multiple Arizona Diamondbacks' Good Guy awards. Full-time position preferred but willing to accept a lesser role if necessary.
When you've earned $63 million over 18 seasons and played in five All-Star Games, it's tough sitting around in January depending on the kindness of strangers. But that's Luis Gonzalez's lot in life this winter.
Like Brad Wilkerson, Kenny Lofton, Shawn Green and Trot Nixon, he's just another unemployed left-handed bat in search of a place to play.
Gonzalez leaves his Scottsdale, Ariz., home several times a week, drives to the Arizona State University campus in nearby Tempe to work out in anticipation of spring training. The task of surveying the job landscape falls to his agent, Gregg Clifton, who is finding the process a bit more complicated than usual this winter.
"I think there's a misconception that Gonzo feels he has to get 650 plate appearances a year," Clifton said. "That's not the case. He's just looking for an opportunity to play on a regular basis -- whatever that is -- and get back to the World Series again."
Gonzalez has a long-standing reputation as one of baseball's most congenial players and solid citizens. He's a charity and autograph machine who's media-friendly, generous to the clubhouse attendants and committed to running out every ground ball as if it mattered.
But his last two stops, in Arizona and Los Angeles, haven't ended well. And now he must convince potential employers that he's willing to accept a role as a fourth outfielder, if that's what it takes.
It's a common scenario for players nearing the end of the line. Professional athletes forge long, successful careers with tenacity and a refusal to take "no" for an answer. When they reach the downside and a harsh new reality awaits, it's tough to flip the emotional switch.
That was never more evident than in St. Louis in 1996, when Tony La Russa began to ease out Ozzie Smith for Royce Clayton at shortstop and the Wizard took it very personally. Their relationship was wrecked beyond repair.
Gonzalez seems stung by the perception in some quarters that he was a divisive influence in Los Angeles last season. One Southern California columnist wrote that he and Nomar Garciaparra "sniped" quietly behind the scenes about their lack of at-bats.
"I read the stuff about how I was upset over losing playing time," Gonzalez told ESPN.com. "But I'd be shocked if any of the young guys said anything negative about me. I was the guy taking them to lunch and always telling them, 'Hey, I'm here for you guys if you need me.'
"I'm a 40-year-old veteran. I've been around. I'm not blind when I see a 23- or 24-year-old kid who comes up and has all the potential in the world. I understand I'm not the same player that I was when I was hitting 30-plus homers and driving in 100 runs in Arizona. But I still feel like I've got a lot left in the tank to prove something to people."
|Luis Gonzalez hit .278 with 15 home runs and 68 RBIs in 464 at-bats last season.|
Gonzalez's signature season came in 2001, when he hit 57 homers in Arizona, finished third in the National League MVP voting, and singled home Jay Bell with the winning run in Game 7 of the World Series. His popularity reached such insane heights in Phoenix, he was part franchise face, part civic treasure.
But the Diamondbacks knew where they were headed, with an emphasis on homegrown talent, and perpetuating the "Gonzo mystique" didn't jibe with the game plan. Three months after managing partner Ken Kendrick threw Gonzalez for a loop with a reference to steroid "whispers" -- an allegation Gonzalez vehemently denied -- Arizona parted ways with the organization's most popular player.
Gonzalez signed a one-year, $7.5 million deal to play left field in Los Angeles, and seemed to fit the clubhouse dynamic perfectly. He sprung for pizzas in spring training and gave encouragement and advice to young right fielder Andre Ethier. During one trip from Los Angeles to Arizona, he chartered a private jet and invited several teammates with homes in Phoenix along for the ride so they could spend a little extra time with their families.
Gonzalez also hit .294 in April, May and June. But as the season progressed and he and other Dodger veterans began losing time to prospects, generational tensions bubbled to the surface. The veterans thought the young players were coddled, and they chafed over fundamental lapses. Outfielder Matt Kemp, in particular, displayed a little too much big league attitude for the veterans' tastes.
When Jeff Kent chastised the youngsters in September for their inability to "get it," James Loney and Kemp fired back in the papers. The Dodgers went 3-11 down the stretch to fade from contention, prompting owner Frank McCourt and general manager Ned Colletti to fire manager Grady Little and replace him with Joe Torre.
In hindsight, there was plenty of blame to go around. Little, by most accounts, was woefully out of touch and incapable of healing the rifts.
Gonzo through the years
"The kids came up with some arrogance," said a person with knowledge of the Dodgers' situation who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "They've been told how great they are for so long, they think they're accomplished when they're not. But when things start to falter, you look for the veteran guys to steady it. When [Gonzalez's] playing time decreased, he started to become a little less of a team guy."
In October, Gonzalez went on Dan Patrick's radio show and said the Dodgers sacrificed winning for the sake of development in 2007. "We had no game plan," he said.
Although Gonzalez prides himself on his mentoring skills, an official with one of his former clubs said he can be critical of young players who spend too much time in the trainer's room or fail to play the game with the requisite fervor.
"I like Luis," said another person with ties to the Dodgers. "He's a nice guy. But under that smile, he's got a little pit bull in him."
Gonzalez concedes that he's a bit of a dinosaur. He's inclined to hang around the clubhouse hashing over games, the way players used to, and he firmly believes that young players need to earn their stripes.
"I'm an old-school player," Gonzalez said. "I'm a ballpark rat. I get to the park early and I stay late, and I haven't changed that approach. Nothing was ever handed to me as a young kid all the way up. I had to earn everything I've got."
Can he still back it up between the lines? Gonzalez has a notoriously weak throwing arm, doesn't run well and is adequate at best in the outfield. He also tailed off drastically last season, posting a .855 combined on-base and slugging percentage before the All-Star break and a .684 OPS after it.
On the plus side, Gonzalez is still in terrific condition. He hangs in the box nicely against left-handed pitching, he's adept at working a count and he has almost as many career walks (1,114) as strikeouts (1,175).
I love playing this game, and I'm going to do whatever I have to do until they rip this uniform off my back.
"If you have to face him four or five times in a game, they're still tough at bats," said a National League general manager. "He's not as likely to hit a ball out of the ballpark now, but he's still a pretty good hitter."
While Clifton spoke with the Twins, White Sox, Rangers, Rays and Giants early in the free-agent process, none of those conversations bore fruit. He's been in touch with the Brewers, but Milwaukee GM Doug Melvin recently classified Gonzalez as down on his list of options.
If a job as a fourth outfielder awaits, so be it. Gonzalez simply wants to know where he stands, rather than having to guess if he's playing every day.
"The thing that aggravated him in L.A. was that he didn't know where he stood day-to-day," Clifton said. "He'd show up one day, and he was in the lineup. The next day, he wasn't. It's important for Gonzo to know because he's a real preparation guy."
Waiting for a phone call is a novel twist this winter. But some things never change.
"I love playing this game," Gonzalez said, "and I'm going to do whatever I have to do until they rip this uniform off my back."
Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN.com. His book "License To Deal" was published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.
Most hits among active players