LOS ANGELES -- On commencement day at Eastlake High School in 2000, Adrian Gonzalez spent a sliver of his anticipated signing bonus from the Florida Marlins to purchase some aerial advertising. Gonzalez's girlfriend, Betsy Perez, was graduating the same day at the same time from nearby Bonita Vista High but he still wanted to be part of the ceremony. So he hired a pilot to fly over the Bonita Vista campus in a plane dragging a banner that read: "I Love Betsy, #19." For Gonzalez, who lived near San Diego and wore No. 19 as a tribute to childhood hero Tony Gwynn, it was a dramatic gesture. And considering how often that anecdote has been repeated over the years, including a regular recitation on the Dodger Stadium scoreboard this season, it might have been the only one.
Gonzalez has a lefthanded swing so sweet it appears passed down from another San Diego native, Ted Williams. He plays first base with such grace that the position might as well be a birthright. He bats right around .300 every year and usually bangs at least 20 home runs. He's a natural, but he's not a ringleader. Teammates say he doesn't talk a lot. Family members say he doesn't show much emotion. He treats the game like hard labor.
For five years, Gonzalez thrived for the Padres in San Diego's small-market tranquility. For a year-and-a-half, he withered under Boston's big-city glare. He didn't have the right personality, or so the Red Sox assumed. "He does it a lot differently than most of the guys," Dodgers manager Don Mattingly said. "He's more serious. He does his work, goes about his business." But the postseason affects people in strange ways, and so does Yasiel Puig. The combined effect of those two potent influences has turned Gonzalez into October's most unlikely instigator.
His metamorphosis seemed to begin Monday evening in Game 3, when he hit a fourth-inning double off Cardinals starter Adam Wainwright, and waved his arms wildly at the Dodgers dugout from second base. The celebration, clearly a new practice for Gonzalez, was so awkward that he stumbled in the midst of it. At some point in the moments following that outburst, Gonzalez obviously irked Wainwright, who accused him after the game of "Mickey Mouse stuff." Wainwright could have easily criticized Puig, who two batters later flipped his bat and raised his arms on a hit that didn't even leave the park, but he reserved his only jab for Gonzalez. In the postgame press conference, when Wainwright's comments were relayed, Gonzalez was uncharacteristically droll. "Mickey Mouse is only an hour away," he cracked, "so it fits us."
The news cycle may have moved on from that entertaining exchange, but Gonzalez did not. After sending a 428-foot moonbeam into the right-field pavilion Wednesday -- the Dodgers' first home run of the National League Championship Series -- Gonzalez flipped his bat high in front of the Cardinals dugout, as if Puig had given him pointers. Then, upon reaching the Dodgers' bench, he used both hands to flash what any 8-year-old would recognize were Mickey Mouse ears.
"You're in the playoffs," Gonzalez said. "You've got to have fun."
Gonzalez later tucked another homer inside the right-field foul pole, and even though he didn't break out the ears after that one, he did clinch a 6-4 Los Angeles win and sent this amusement-park NLCS back to Busch Stadium, where he will be received as the wicked witch. "They were up 3-1 last year and lost," Gonzalez said. "We're looking to do the same thing."
The Cardinals are still in control, leading 3-2 and heading home, but the sport's best pitcher is waiting for them in Game 6. The Dodgers will ask starter Clayton Kershaw to extend a season that appeared doomed four months ago. How L.A. wiped away that 9 1/2-game deficit is due mainly to Puig's call-up and Hanley Ramirez's return, but also the team's rollicking personality.
The Dodgers wouldn't die Wednesday, not with Will Ferrell doing the introductions and Ken Jeong the rally cries, not after everything they have already survived. Starting pitcher Zack Greinke wriggled out of a bases-loaded, no-out jam in the first inning, and a first-and-third, one-out quandary in the third, both thanks to Yadier Molina double plays. The Dodgers went from no home runs in the series to four in the game -- two by Gonzalez, one by leftfielder Carl Crawford, another by catcher A.J. Ellis -- matching a postseason franchise record.
"I think if you look at it now, we've kind of become America's team, because everyone wants to see a seventh game," Mattingly said.
That's taking it a little far, especially in middle America, but the Disneyfication of the series has to favor the underdog. "I'm going to retire (the Mickey ears) so they're not talked about again," Gonzalez announced at the postgame press conference, much to Crawford's dismay.
"Once you start it, you've got to keep going," he retorted. "I'm pretty sure it rubbed them the wrong way and they're going to use that as some kind of fuel, so you might as well keep it going, Adrian."
Gonzalez, already nicknamed "Mickey" in the Dodgers clubhouse, didn't need a hard sell. "Hey, if Carl wants them, it's for him."
He broke into a grin that was seen in San Diego about as often as a snowfall and in Boston as an earthquake. Everybody reacts to October differently.
Back go the Dodgers to St. Louis, all ears.