- Jerry Crasnick, ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer
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Bob Uecker, a broadcast Hall of Famer with a maximum grade on the 20-80 scouts' congeniality scale, is still loving life as he eases back on his workload in the Milwaukee Brewers' radio booth. He'll spend this summer calling games in his inimitable manner, signing autographs, reminiscing about the 25th anniversary of "Major League" and giving Hank the Dog the occasional scratch behind the ears on a slow day.
Uecker also adheres to a singular baseball ritual. Each day in the clubhouse, hotel lobby or wherever life might take him, he makes sure to connect with Brewers center fielder Carlos Gomez for a little male bonding. The 80-year-old raconteur and 28-year-old human tools factory gird for faux battle, and smack hands with enough force to create an echo, while simultaneously shouting some preordained mantra to pump them up.
"We have to do it every day, even though he hurts the [crap] out of my hand sometimes," Uecker says. "He calls me Big Papi. He's one of my favorite players."
If Uecker wants a spot in the Carlos Gomez Fan Club, he might have to call ahead for reservations.
Gomez has yet to emerge as a national sensation, but Brewers fans, opposing pitchers and baseball's WAR mongers know all about him. In the course of hitting 24 homers, stealing 40 bases and playing out-of-this-world defense in 2013, Gomez logged a wins above replacement of 8.9, tying Mike Trout for first in the majors in the Baseball-Reference.com rankings.
With a strong start this season (he's hitting .333 with a 1.023 OPS), Gomez continues to embrace the predictions of stardom thrown his way when he signed with the New York Mets out of his native Dominican Republic in 2002. Given the baggage that Ryan Braun carries in the aftermath of his Biogenesis suspension, it's easy to see Gomez emerging as a more prominent face of the Milwaukee franchise in the years to come.
Indeed, Gomez and shortstop Jean Segura adorn the cover of Milwaukee's 2014 media guide, and Gomez was the center of attention Saturday when he received his first career Gold Glove Award before 42,828 fans at Miller Park. Latinos account for only about 13 percent of the population in Milwaukee County, but it's growing, and Gomez has the kind of appeal that can transcend cultures.
Braun, who marvels at Gomez's energy and fun-loving nature, is part of the fan club. He recalls how Gomez told him that he once ran a 3.7-second 40-yard dash in track shoes back home in the Dominican.
"I don't know what Usain Bolt runs," Braun says, "but that has to be some kind of all-time world record."
Braun is understandably dubious about the 40 time, but he has seen Gomez hit monstrous home runs in batting practice and chase down balls most humans can't reach in center field. He's also convinced Gomez could throw 95 mph if the Brewers ever decided to put him on the pitcher's mound.
"I can't imagine anybody having a package of tools that's more impressive than his," Braun says. "I've said it before, but he's the only guy in the league who has all five tools and can rap in multiple languages."
He's cost-efficient, too
Gomez is also one of baseball's biggest bargains, thanks to a three-year, $24 million extension that he signed with Milwaukee in March 2013, a mere eight months in advance of free agency. The deal blends two terms that rarely appear side-by-side in the world of baseball economics.
The first is "Scott Boras client." The second is "team-friendly contract."
The contrasts are stark. While Gomez will earn $7 million this season in return for hitting leadoff and playing a premium up-the-middle position, Hunter Pence is making $16 million in the first year of a five-year, $90 million deal with San Francisco. And Jacoby Ellsbury and Shin-Soo Choo, two other outfielders represented by Boras, signed nine-figure deals in the offseason that make Gomez's payday look meager in comparison.
Spend a few minutes with Gomez, and it's clear he was the driving force behind the agreement. He signed the contract out of deference to his father, Carlos Sr., and mother, Belgika, who have moved into a bigger house in a more upscale neighborhood since he began drawing a major league paycheck.
"From the first day I played in the big leagues, I told my dad, 'That's enough. You're not gonna work anymore,' " Gomez says. "My mom and dad gave me everything. I told them, 'It's time for you guys to enjoy life and have everything you deserve.' "
Gomez comes from humble means. He grew up in a family of five in the Dominican city of Santiago, where material possessions were frequently lacking. Carlos Sr. worked as a delivery driver for a bank, and there were days when a plate of rice and eggs had to suffice for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Young Carlos aspired to a better life through sports. He played basketball, ran track and dabbled in judo and kickboxing as a youth, but baseball was the obvious route to success. After eliciting interest from the Tigers, Braves, Cubs and Yankees, he signed with the Mets out of a tryout camp for $60,000.
Amid the obligatory prospect hype, the Mets aggressively pushed Gomez through the system. He skipped high-A ball, and was 21 years old when he made his big league debut in 2007. Gomez played with such unbridled enthusiasm, former Mets general manager Omar Minaya feared he might range over from right field and crash into center fielder Carlos Beltran. But Minaya never worried that the Mets might be rushing Gomez.
"I don't think you push the good ones too fast," says Minaya, now a senior vice president with the Padres. "With the good ones, it helps their development. I think that made him better."
Ultimately, Gomez needed two scenery changes to achieve his breakthrough. In February 2008, the Mets sent Gomez and three other players to Minnesota for Johan Santana. Almost two years later, the Brewers traded J.J. Hardy to the Twins for Gomez to fill their center field void and create an opening for shortstop prospect Alcides Escobar.
For years, Gomez encountered coaches who told him he needed to shorten up on his swing and slap the ball on the ground to take advantage of his speed. Finally, in 2012, he told Milwaukee manager Ron Roenicke that he was ready to start taking a big-boy hack and show the same power in games that mesmerized his fellow Brewers in batting practice.
Gomez swings with such ferocity, he occasionally has trouble staying upright in the batter's box. But his slugging percentage has increased each year since 2009, from .337 to .357 to .403 to .463 to .506. And he's checking in at a tidy .632 through 14 games this season.
"For five or six years, I tried to hit the ball on the ground and bunt and hit it the other way," Gomez says. "I know people wanted to help me to do my best, but it wasn't working. I finally said, 'I'm tired.' If I was going to be out of baseball, I wanted to at least try it my way."
The Brewers use words such as "passionate" and "energetic" to describe Gomez, who has tried to bottle his enthusiasm in the past, only to find that too much self-constraint cramps his style. In Minnesota, the notoriously old-school Twins asked him to tone down his on-field smiles and emotional displays lest he be accused of showing up opponents. But Gomez felt stifled by the directive.
"Even a tough day for me is a good day," he says. "It's the way I play the game. I tell everyone, 'You don't respect the game when you don't play hard enough.' Every time I step on the field, I play 101 percent. That shows respect for the game and my teammates and the other team."
The Atlanta Braves might beg to differ with that characterization. Gomez was the focal point of a clash between by-the-book sensibilities and no-holds-barred enthusiasm last year, creating such a scene rounding the bases after a home run off Atlanta's Paul Maholm that former Braves catcher Brian McCann angrily threw up a roadblock at home plate. Gomez took to Twitter and apologized for his "unacceptable" behavior, and vowed to set a better example in the future.
Jogging out home runs is no longer an issue. According to Tater Trot Tracker, Gomez's 16.18-second sprint against Atlanta on Opening Day is the fastest home run trot this season. It's slightly less than half the 32.91 seconds that David Ortiz needed to circle the bases on a recent homer.
"It's like Carlos told people, 'I run fast on a home run because it's fun,' " says Brewers general manager Doug Melvin. "You get criticized if you go too slow and criticized if you go too fast."
As Gomez's game continues to evolve, Brewers fans have come to view him in a different light. Their early sense of exasperation has yielded to a sense of anticipation over his next brilliant catch or long home run. Fans, like scouts, know what it's like to "dream on" a player with such stunning natural gifts.
During a winter banquet stop in Madison, Wis., Melvin reminded season-ticket holders how perceptions can change when a player matures, cuts down on the mistakes and lets his talent carry him rather than try to force the issue.
"I told people, 'I remember coming here two years ago and fans asking me, 'How much longer can we put up with Carlos swinging at bad pitches or running into outs or throwing to the wrong base?' " Melvin recalls. "Now he's one of our more popular players."
Gomez is eternally grateful to the coaches who helped him smooth out the rough edges along the way. Former big leaguers Brett Butler, Gene Richards, Mookie Wilson and Juan Samuel were among the instructors who helped shape and mold his game. As a young player in the Dominican, Gomez loved to watch Andruw Jones, Manny Ramirez and Rickey Henderson play ball. Lo and behold, during his tenure with the Mets, Gomez had a chance to spend time with Henderson, learning the fine art of base stealing.
Gomez enjoyed an even greater thrill and a personal "dream come true" when Willie Mays gave him his first career Gold Glove during an offseason event in New York. Gomez joined George Scott, Cecil Cooper, Sixto Lezcano and Robin Yount as only the fifth Gold Glove winner in Brewers history, and became the first Milwaukee player in 31 years to receive the award.
So what's next on the horizon? Gomez needs to build upon his .338 on-base percentage of last year if he's going to be a standout leadoff man in the majors. But a 30-homer, 30-steal season is a realistic goal.
"Last year was a good season," Gomez says. "But it's not good enough."
At 28, Gomez is experienced enough to understand the hard work that's required, yet starry-eyed enough to dream big. Patience, opportunity and skill have coalesced at One Brewers Way for Milwaukee's new outfield star, and it's an entertaining sight to behold.
Carlos Gomez's game is quickly evolving, making him one of baseball's biggest bargains.