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Thursday, December 23, 2010
Adrian Gonzalez: He'll be a Monster

By Gordon Edes
ESPNBoston.com

Adrian Gonzalez and Green Monster
Expect Adrian Gonzalez and the Green Monster to become fast friends at Fenway.

SAN DIEGO -- Boston Red Sox manager Terry Francona used 119 different lineups last season. None of his lineup cards in 2010 had either of these names: Adrian Gonzalez or Carl Crawford.

After a season in which injuries compelled Francona to use 7 leadoff men, 10 hitters in the No. 2 hole, 6 cleanup men and a stunning array of 25 names in the No. 9 slot, Crawford and Gonzalez should make the math a lot simpler -- and the offense exponentially more dangerous.

Gonzalez has yet to have a conversation with Francona about where he will hit in the order. But even without hearing from his new boss, Gonzalez said he figures he'll be in the 4-hole. He expects the two burners, Jacoby Ellsbury and Crawford, to hit 1-2, followed by Dustin Pedroia, who may not see another breaking pitch for the rest of his life.

Why not Gonzalez in the 3-spot, where he has taken the majority of his at-bats the last five seasons with the San Diego Padres and the place where a high-average, big-power hitter often finds himself?

"I don't have a preference,'' he said, "but when I'm on base, I do clog up the bases. I'm thinking I'll probably hit 4. Ellsbury, Crawford, Pedroia, me, Youkilis.''

The next game Gonzalez plays at Fenway Park will be his first. In 2005, when he was with the Rangers, he was anticipating his first trip to the Fens but was sent down to the minors, a week before Texas was scheduled to visit.

Gonzalez had never laid eyes on the ballpark in person until he and his agents came earlier this month to hammer out a deal with the Sox. But he is convinced that it is as ideally suited to be his home for the next decade as the La Jolla spread he and his wife Betsy just picked out for themselves back in San Diego.

Why the rapture over his new surroundings? Here are five reasons, off the top:

  1. It's not Petco.
  2. It's not Petco.
  3. It's not Petco.
  4. It's not like those other hitter-alien parks in the National League West, like AT&T Park in San Francisco and Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles.
  5. Have you ever seen his swing?

The perils of Petco

Having played five summers in San Diego's Petco Park, which at first glance is a lovely sandstone and stucco edifice but has become a tribal burial ground for hitting coaches (see: Dave Magadan), surely Gonzalez had made his peace with the place.

Gonzalez I'm never going to go up to the plate [in Fenway] thinking I have to overswing. That's a good feeling to have, so I'm definitely excited about that. But for me, it's not just Fenway, it's the fact I don't have to hit in San Francisco, I don't have to hit in Dodger Stadium. The biggest park in the AL East is Tampa, which is a smaller version of Dodger Stadium.

-- Adrian Gonzalez

He shook his head.

"It's frustrating,'' he said. "Look at my numbers at home.

"It's frustrating,'' he repeated.

It's Petco, where the fish tacos are great, the blue seats evoke the ocean, the sailors and Marines have a ball and the outfield dimensions are designed to break a lefthanded slugger's heart. We won't bog you down with the numbers, but Bill James, the statistical analyst on the Red Sox payroll, notes that the park factor in Petco for home runs for lefthanded hitters the last three seasons was 59, with 100 being the average big-league park. That means it was 41 percent harder for a lefty to homer in Petco than anywhere else, as the boys at BaseballAnalysts.com were quick to point out.

There are more numbers here, courtesy of ESPN's Stats and Information crew. But suffice to say that across the board, Gonzalez's production was far better when he was living out of a suitcase than when he was sleeping in his own bed.

So why didn't Padres management try to make a few adjustments that would have made life more tolerable for its biggest star? Gonzalez has a provocative theory on the subject.

"The way the stadium is built makes it really hard to bring [the fences] in and stuff,'' he said, "but at the end of the day, when you have a stadium like that it works for a team trying to keep money down. Hitters are the ones who make the most money. So if you have [Padres third baseman] Chase Headley hitting .260 with 11 home runs and 60 RBIs because of the ballpark, instead of .280 with 18 and 80, his arbitration number is going to be a whole different number. So on the offensive side, you're saving a lot of money.

"Pitching, you can always find pitching. If you can throw strikes in that ballpark, you're going to have success.''

Blessedly for him, that's no longer his concern, outside of the odd interleague game or potential October rendezvous. The same holds true for the other NL West parks that he recalls with something less than nostalgia.

Wicked Pitch of the West

"I'm never going to go up to the plate [in Fenway] thinking I have to overswing,'' he said. "That's a good feeling to have, so I'm definitely excited about that.

Adrian Gonzalez
Analysts say it was 41 percent harder for a lefty to homer in Petco Park than anywhere else, a home park drawback that Adrian Gonzalez won't have to deal with anymore at Fenway.

"But for me, it's not just Fenway, it's the fact I don't have to hit in San Francisco, I don't have to hit in Dodger Stadium. The biggest park in the AL East is Tampa, which is a smaller version of Dodger Stadium.''

"I would say the pitching is comparable in the AL East vs. the NL West. Actually, I think if you go team by team, the NL West has better pitching. The Yankees have great pitching, but outside of the Yankees in that division, I guess Tampa Bay comes behind them.

"Where in the NL West you're facing Ubaldo Jimenez, you're facing [Tim] Lincecum, you're facing [Matt] Cain, [Jonathan] Sanchez, Clayton Kershaw, Chad Billingsley, you name it. Every single team's got guys. I guess the easiest team right now in the NL West is Arizona, and they're a bunch of young guys that throw the ball well.''

Here's something else that playing for the Red Sox instead of the Padres will change for Gonzalez. No AL East manager is likely to walk him 10 times intentionally, the way Joe Torre did last season in games against the Dodgers.

"Any situation, first inning, it didn't matter, he'd give me four [fingers, signaling a free pass],'' Gonzalez said. "With Joe Torre, it was pretty much, 'I'm not letting you beat me and I'm not letting the pitcher make a mistake so you can beat me.'

"The only time I got pitches against the Dodgers was when there was nobody on base, and the pitches I got were still not good to hit.''

Overall, Gonzalez was walked intentionally 35 times last season, three fewer than Albert Pujols, who led the big leagues with 38 free passes. In the last 20 years, only five players have drawn 35 or more intentional walks in a season: Barry Bonds, Pujols, Sammy Sosa, Ryan Howard and Gonzalez.

About his bats, and that swing

The most distinctive feature of Adrian Gonzalez's bats, which are made by Trinity Bats, a small company not far from Angels Stadium?

Not the size: 34 inches, 31 ounces.

Not the wood: flame-treated ash.

Not the precise hand-sanding, or the black lacquer finish, or the fact that Josh Hamilton and Vladi Guerrero also use the bats of this modest competitor to the huge batmakers.

No, it's the notation on the barrel, below the player's signature, where the model number is listed. For most players, it's their initials, and often their uniform number.

On Gonzalez's bats, it says Pro Model PS 27.1

As in the book of Psalms, Chapter 27, Verse 1.

A passage that Gonzalez recites from memory, giving a new twist to that old saying, speak softly and carry a big stick.

"The Lord is my light and my salvation -- who shall I fear?''

"I use it,'' he says, "as a way of professing my faith.''

For Gonzalez, the words carry some weight, even more so when they're backed up by the 161 home runs he has hit over the last five seasons, topped by the 40 he bashed in 2009.

And there's a chance they'll resonate even more in Fenway, where Padres general manager Jed Hoyer predicted, after trading Gonzalez to the Red Sox, that with his opposite-field power, he'll be a "monster."

Here's the beauty of it: Gonzalez won't have to train himself to go the other way, like David Ortiz did, to take advantage of The Wall. It's the only way he has ever hit. In his approach to hitting, Ted Williams, he's not.

"[Williams] always emphasized a slight uphill swing,'' Gonzalez said. "My swing's not that way. As much as I'd like to try to be like him, I couldn't make my swing like him. One, if I try to pull the ball, I'm hitting ground balls to the first baseman. You might want to be like somebody, but you can't.''

If you insist on making comparisons, another San Diego icon, Tony Gwynn, comes to mind, and Gonzalez was always a big Gwynn fan, even wearing his No. 19 in high school. But you can't really say that Gonzalez patterned his swing after Gwynn, unless you want to believe a little tyke can be that precocious.

"Growing up, my swing has always been a left-center swing,'' he said. "The first home run I ever hit in Little League, when I was 6, 7 years old, was to left-center. I don't remember a pull home run till I was 12 years old. I always hit the ball to the opposite field since I was little. For me, it was more of a challenge to pull the ball to right field.''

It's a swing that he refined from hours spent in the batting cage his father David built in their backyard.

"I think it's just my swing path,'' he said. "Everybody has always said since I was young, 'What a beautiful swing, what a beautiful natural smooth swing.' My swing has never been in the direction where I get outside my body. I've always stayed close to my body and bring it that direction [pointing to left center] so my finish is always long because of that.

"It's just the way my direction goes. My swing direction goes from here, then comes around. Most of the balls I hit to left center with authority, they're pitches inside, but just because of the way my hands and my swing go, I hit it at an angle this way, and it goes to left field and left center.''

Oh, people have tried to change him, minor-league hitting instructors determined to put some pull in his repertoire, but in the end, he always goes back to what he's done naturally. It has helped, of course, that he was successful in the minors, otherwise he might have had to do it their way.

"A lot of coaches say I close my shoulders too much. You're supposed to stay square. I'm like, that's where I get my power from. I get back, and go from there. If I try to stay here, I don't have the same torque, the same power. I lose the outside part of the plate. As a hitter, you want to cover the whole plate. I can cover inside and cover away the way I hit. Coaches eventually said, 'OK, let's back off.'''

When Gonzalez comes to spring training in February, he will encounter a number of familiar faces. Red Sox bench coach DeMarlo Hale was the Rangers' first-base coach when he was with Texas. Hitting coach Dave Magadan was with him for a half a season in San Diego. Staff assistant Rob Leary was field coordinator when he was with the Marlins. Mike Cameron was a teammate on the Padres. Josh Beckett was another hot prospect drafted No. 1 a year before he was by the Marlins. Kevin Youkilis faced him in Double-A. Marco Scutaro played against him in the Caribbean Series. John Lackey faced him plenty in spring training in Arizona and in interleague play with the Angels.

But other than a brief hello, Gonzalez really doesn't know David Ortiz, the slugger whose mantle he is expected to inherit one day. But there are things he has noticed, he said, from afar.

"There is a similarity,'' he said, "of staying behind the ball. Our bodies don't really go forward into the swing. They're kind of just up and down. That's something I've learned from watching Ortiz and [Manny] Ramirez, working with [Rudy] Jaramillo, working with [Merv] Rettenmund.

"You learn that if you want to have success in the big leagues, you've got to wait for the ball to come to you. You can't go get it. That's one of my biggest things that I do. Everything I work for, everything I do in the cage, is to stay behind the ball and let the ball come to me.''

Goodbye and hello

And then there are the things for which you can no longer wait. A time to move on. A time to begin anew. After the trade from the Padres, Gonzalez took out a full-page ad in the San Diego Union-Tribune, thanking the fans:

My wife Betsy and I have been fortunate to call the San Diego area home - both during childhood and the past five seasons with the Padres. While my baseball career continues on the 'other' coast, family, friends, and Padres fans will remain close to our hearts. It was a dream come true to play for the hometown team for five wonderful years. It was a privilege to put on a uniform bearing 'San Diego,' and to live and work amidst so many wonderful people. This is truly an amazing city.

It is a city, Gonzalez said, that will remain home. His family is there. So is Betsy's. The work of their foundation, aimed at underprivileged kids, will go on.

"My wife and I make ourselves be a part of this community,'' he said. "We go out and do things in the community. We don't just go hide in our house.''

But a child who grew up gliding seamlessly across the border between two countries is now committed to mastering the art of making a difference on two coasts. That's a message, he said, he delivered to Red Sox CEO Larry Lucchino when they were wrapping up trade talks.

"When we're in Boston,'' he said, "we're going to be active. I told Larry, if something comes up, let me know. We've already talked about working with the Jimmy Fund. We're going to be involved.''

There's a good chance, he said, that he and Betsy will live in the city, at least at first. "She loves the rowhouses,'' he said.

He is working hard on rehabbing his shoulder, pointing toward being ready to start swinging again in March. If he can play in 10 spring games, he said, he should be ready for the April 1 regular-season opener in Texas.

There are still questions about his health to be satisfied, and a contract extension to be negotiated. As for the rest? It will be no different than it was in Tijuana, playing alongside his proud father and two brothers. No different than at Eastlake High, or the Marlins, his first-big league team, or the Rangers, or the Padres, wearing the uniform of his hometown.

Adrian Gonzalez will stand alone, a bat in his hand, a serene confidence in his bearing.

Who shall he fear, indeed.

Gordon Edes covers the Red Sox for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.