Baseball history shapes Gomes' approach to game

Baseball history shapes Gomes' approach to game
September 9, 2013, 11:15 am
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(USA Today Sports)

One of the advantages of being a young guy on a team just a few years removed from its inception is being surrounded by veterans, some of whom were on their last stops before retirement.

In 2003 Jonny Gomes got his first proverbial cup of coffee with the then Devil Rays, appearing in eight games. An 18th-round pick by Tampa Bay in 2001, Gomes got an even smaller sip the next season, with five games. It wasn’t until 2005 that he earned a steady job on the big league team, appearing in 101 games.

Somehow, in 2004 he found his spring training locker in the big league clubhouse between those of veterans Tino Martinez and Fred McGriff. That would be McGriff’s last season, while Martinez had one more season with the Yankees.

“Tino Martinez on my right and Fred McGriff on my left. How the hell I got in the middle of that?” Gomes said, the sense of wonder still in his voice a decade later. “Normally, you want the kids away. And I was literally in my locker behind my clothes every day, and they were just talking behind me. And hearing their stories and how they go about their business, I was like, ‘Holy crap, I am so far behind.’ And that was a big eye-opener.”

It taught Gomes to watch and listen – and to do his homework. Gomes grew up in Northern California, a fan of the Oakland A’s. Their 1989 World Series championship, when he was 8 years old – as well as his older brother’s affinity for the Giants --  sealed the deal.

He didn’t necessarily grow up as a fan of the game’s history. But he learned to appreciate it when he was surrounded by it.

“People kind of forget when I came up with the Devil Rays, it was kind of the last stop for a lot of players – Tino Martinez, Fred McGriff, Wade Boggs, Rey Ordonez, Alex Gonzalez, Charles Johnson, Cliff Floyd, Troy Percival, Hideo Nomo,” Gomes said. “I think it started with being a young guy and not really wanting to, like, fit it, but wanting really to know this guy’s path, his history so when I sat down and talked ball with them I had an idea. And with that I had so much fun.”

And it wasn’t just his teammates. Gomes quickly realized he had a wealth of baseball history on his team and in his clubhouse.

“I think my big one would be Don Zimmer,” Gomes said of the former Red Sox manager who turned 82 in January and has been an advisor to the Rays since 2004. “I had so much fun coming up with a name and saying tell me something about him, or tell me about taking trains, and really wanting to know about it.

“On occasion I’d ask him for baseball stories, but I wanted off-the-field stuff. It’s kind of walking on ice to talk about it now, but bar fights, because that was common back then, fights inside the clubhouse, charging the mound, taking guys out at second, sharpening the spikes, throwing up and in to hitters, that type of stuff. And he had a bunch of Jackie Robinson stories, and there’s not many people still in the game with real-life Jackie stories. That was cool.

“And also over there was [Rays first base coach] George Hendrick in Tampa. And I’d be like let me go home and find something out about George Hendrick that I can ask him about. My God, this guy didn’t play high school baseball and was the first [overall] pick by the A’s [in the January phase of the 1968 draft].

“He goes to the A’s, and he doesn’t want to play. He’s the first pick and he doesn’t want to play. That’s not supposed to happen. So, they finally talked him into playing, he goes to Iowa, and he gets ran out by the KKK. And then he comes back and wins a [World Series in 1972].

“And his pants were uncomfortable so he put [the pants legs] down. He was the first guy to wear his pants down. I’m thinking, ‘This is my first base coach, all this stuff?’

“So, it’s not really watching old game tapes. It’s more like getting a little bit of information and trying to blow it up to so much more. There’s so many different stories. Even recently Kevin Millar, I know real well, but just the ’04 championship. When you break down what as going on in the clubhouse after the third loss [to the Yankees in the ALCS].  How the heck did you walk against Mariano Rivera with the game on the line [leading off the ninth inning of Game 4 of the ALCS]?  Big Papi, his walk-offs. What were you sitting on? Just stuff like that.”

What are some things from ‘way back when’ he’d like to see more of in today’s game? The answers from the hard-nosed outfielder shouldn’t surprise anyone who’s watched him on the field.

“There’s a lot of that stuff that could create injury. I’m not saying that I would want to hurt anyone. But I enjoyed how they broke up two [doubleplays] back then,” Gomes said. “I enjoyed the young shortstops getting out of the way, how athletic they were. Rey Ordonez jumping up. Robby Thompson getting out of the way. Mike Gallego. I’m not talking about blowing anybody up. But go in hard and how these middle infielders aren’t stone-footed, you can’t come in my safety area.

“And that’s one reason I go into second hard and I run hard to first is because the doubleplay is, I think, the ultimate enemy. And it’s the ultimate pitcher’s best friend. You talk about first and second one out. You break up two, you’ve got [runners on] first and third, two out, and you could have a three-run tater instead of the inning being over. So I think that’s one.

“Throwing up and in. I don’t think what they realize getting hit in the head could do. The starting pitchers how they’d go a long way. It’d never happen now. After the sixth inning, it’s like matchups. Whatever you’re not good at, that’s coming out of the bullpen. You can’t hit high velocity? The hardest thrower’s coming out. You can’t hit a slider? Here comes their slider guy. But I think that’s good for the game, too. But one thing I’d like is having guys break up two.”

In paying attention, asking questions, watching, studying, Gomes has begun to formulate a plan for when his playing days are over. Although most players are loathe to talk about post-playing scenarios, not wanting to jinx anything, Gomes has thought of that. He believes he would be a good manager.

Gomes has never appeared in more than 148 games, once, with the Reds in 2010. He’s appeared in 103 games so far this season with the Red Sox, above his career average of about 90 games a season. That kind of playing time has allowed him to sit on the bench and observe his managers and coaches, anticipating moves they might make. When he rattles off the list of managers he’s played for in 11 big league seasons, it’s like an all-star list of managers.

“Lou Piniella, Joe Maddon, Dusty Baker, Davey Johnson, Bob Melvin, John Farrell,” Gomes said.

“I’ll figure they’re getting ready for a pinch-hitter, so I’m already behind them with a bat and my batting helmet ready to go. Or I try to think of moves they’re going to make.”

Gomes, who turns 33 in November, isn’t ready to close the book on his playing career. He is, after all, signed through next season with the Sox. But, when that time comes, consider this fair warning for middle infielders.