Luis Gonzalez is one of the more generous players in the game,
but when he quietly slips a clubhouse attendant a $100 tip or
buys dinner for front-office employees, he doesn't believe he's
doing anything extraordinary. Lots of well-to-do people are
willing to share their wealth with those less fortunate than
they are, and here's the way Gonzalez looks at it: Everyone's
less fortunate than he.
Gonzalez, the Arizona Diamondbacks' 31-year-old leftfielder, has
healthy 11-month-old triplets, a wife who allows him to get some
extra shut-eye, a mother who emigrated from Cuba and taught him
to appreciate life in the U.S., a job that pays $2 million a
year, and red-hot hitters on either side of him in the Arizona
batting order, which means opposing pitchers are all but forced
to throw him strikes. Furthermore, he has put together the major
leagues' longest hitting streak this season--30 games, snapped
on May 19 by the San Francisco Giants--and through Sunday had a
.374 batting average, third best in the National League.
"Believe me," says Gonzalez, "I know how lucky I am."
So do the people who work with him. "My father used to say the
true test of a man is how he treats people who can be of no
benefit to him," says Diamondbacks manager Buck Showalter. "You
want to know what kind of guy Luis is, you talk to clubbies,
doormen, bellmen, cabbies. By that measure he's one of the
best." By that measure Gonzalez is royalty.
Arizona director of public relations Mike Swanson: "There's
eight or nine of us at a Japanese restaurant in Tucson during
spring training--clubhouse guys, equipment guys, front-office
people. One of those places where they chop up the meal in front
of you. Not cheap. Gonzo walks in, grabs the check and pays for
everyone. He doesn't even eat with us! He calls it friendship
dues. If you're his friend, he takes care of you."
Diamondbacks equipment manager Chris Guth: "We're in Cincinnati
a couple of weeks ago, during the NHL playoffs. He sets it up so
about a dozen of us can all go to a sports bar to watch the
Coyotes-Blues game. He paid for the beer, the food, even the cab
rides back to the hotel. When they tried to close the place
before the game was over, he talked the manager into staying
open for us until the game was over."
Arizona clubhouse attendant Shawn Moore: "I picked up his dry
cleaning the other day. Right around the corner, not even two
blocks. He gave me $100."
So go the Gonzo tales, from city to city. One time last year,
while he was with the Detroit Tigers, who were on a road trip to
Baltimore, he flew a video operations employee in for a day so
the guy wouldn't miss the Tigers' fantasy football league draft.
This year Gonzalez has been repaid for his munificence in a
variety of ways. On May 15, the day he extended his hitting
streak to 27 games with two hits and an RBI in a 9-2 Arizona win
over the Colorado Rockies, he also won the Diamondbacks'
clubhouse Preakness pool. Having won the Kentucky Derby pool two
weeks earlier, Gonzalez, like Charismatic, was two legs up on
the Triple Crown. "Let's go downtown and look for wallets,"
teammate Andy Benes said to Gonzalez. Yet after the game Lucky
Luis was bouncing around the dressing room with a smile that
seemed wider than his head because of a foul ball he had hit
down the rightfield line. It was caught by a fan who won $5,000
as part of some wacky Bank One Ballpark contest. "I wanted to
run up in the stands and give him a high five," said Gonzalez.
For Diamondbacks fans the feeling is mutual. One quarter of the
way into its sophomore season, Arizona is the most improved team
in the National League. Through Sunday the Diamondbacks, who
finished last season 65-97, were in second place in the West
with a 24-21 record, just a game and a half behind the Giants.
Though the Diamondbacks bolstered their rotation in the
off-season by spending $84.4 million on free-agent starters
Randy Johnson (4-2, 3.40 ERA) and Todd Stottlemyre (4-1, 3.59,
but on the disabled list with a torn rotator cuff), it's
Arizona's improved offense that has been the big surprise--and
no one has been more startling than Gonzalez. Hitting third in
the order, smack between comeback kids Jay Bell (.297, 14
homers) and Matt Williams (.332, 14 homers and a league-leading
49 RBIs), Gonzalez, a lean lefthanded hitter, has surpassed even
the most optimistic projections for his first season in the
A gap hitter with a career .268 average entering the season,
Gonzalez through Sunday had hit safely in 37 of the 40 games in
which he had played in '99 and was fourth in the league in total
bases. He has shown some power throughout his nine big league
seasons (all or parts of seven spent with the Houston Astros),
averaging 12 home runs a year, including a career-high 23 with
the Tigers in 1998. But Gonzalez has really muscled up this
season, having cleared the fences 10 times and driven in 33
runs. He says his off-season work in Houston with Herschel
Johnson, personal trainer to Astros' power-hitting first baseman
Jeff Bagwell, added about 10 pounds of muscle to his wiry 6'2"
frame, bringing him to 200 pounds. No, he's not related to Texas
Rangers strongman Juan Gonzalez, it just seems that way.
So why has it now all come together for Gonzalez? "I just think
the older you get, the more you realize what you can and cannot
do at the plate," he says. "This is a game of confidence, and
when you get enough confidence, you feel like the pitchers can't
get you out, no matter what they throw."
When the Diamondbacks were talking trade with Detroit after last
season, they were hoping to pry outfielder Bobby Higginson from
the Tigers. Arizona settled for the journeyman Gonzalez after
Detroit kicked in $500,000 in the deal for 23-year-old Karim
Garcia, who's now the Tigers' fourth outfielder. "We were hoping
for maybe .270 to .280, 15 homers and 70 RBIs," says Arizona's
managing partner Jerry Colangelo. "Needless to say, we're pretty
happy with the way things have worked out so far."
Says Showalter, "Luis doesn't strike out. He puts the ball in
play. He hits down and through the ball, and he's not susceptible
to one pattern of pitching. One thing [Astros' general manager]
Gerry Hunsicker told me after we made the deal was, if Luis gets
a streak going"--like the 23-gamer he had with the Astros in
1997--"watch out. He can be fun to watch."
Gonzalez got this year's streak going in the sixth game of the
season with a homer off Atlanta Braves righthander Greg Maddux.
The streak ended as the longest in the National League since the
Chicago Cubs' Jerome Walton hit in 30 games in a row in 1989.
Even as Gonzalez attracted national attention for the first time
in his career, the weight of the streak never stripped the smile
off his face. "He's real laid-back, real low-key," Williams
says. "I don't think he worried about the streak one way or the
Naturally, Gonzalez had his share of lucky breaks and strange
twists while he had the hot bat. Against the Montreal Expos on
May 11 he was robbed in the sixth inning by centerfielder
Rondell White, and he was still hitless through nine innings.
But with the score 3-3, the game went into extra innings, and
Gonzalez came to the plate with two outs and no one on in the
bottom of the 10th. He launched a towering fly ball into the
pool area of the BOB beyond the right-centerfield fence. Game
over. Streak alive, at 24 games. "That's when I first started
thinking something special was happening," says Gonzalez.
Something truly special happened to Luis and his wife,
Christine, last June, and as a result he has been on another
amazing run: 11 months without a decent night's sleep at home.
While Luis has been putting up some impressive numbers at the
plate, Alyssa, Megan and Jacob have been piling up stats too:
five cases of formula and three 84-packs of diapers every week.
"Changing diapers is like working on an assembly line," says
Gonzalez. "Once you get the third baby done, the first one is
ready to be changed again."
When the Diamondbacks are home, Gonzalez says he usually gets up
at 6 a.m. and spends an hour with the babies before Christine
takes over. She orders him back to bed, and Luis attempts to get
a couple of hours of sleep before turning his attention back to
baseball. While it may seem draining, Gonzalez insists his
frenetic family life has brought a sense of serenity to his
career. "I have learned to relax since my kids were born," he
says. "I used to stress out after a bad day. I'd go home and try
to figure out what I had done wrong that day. Now I just let it
roll off me and go home and look at my kids. How can I get upset
Gonzalez says he learned to appreciate life long before his
babies were born and even before he earned his first major
league paycheck. His mother, Ame Silverstein, left Cuba with her
family when she was eight, in 1956, moving to Tampa, where her
parents found work at a cigar factory. (Ame and Luis's father,
Emilio, were divorced when Luis was in high school, and Ame
later married Kenneth Silverstein.) If the Diamondbacks ever
travel to Cuba for an exhibition game, as the Baltimore Orioles
did earlier this season, Gonzalez says someone else will have to
play leftfield for Arizona. "I would decline to go out of
respect for my family," he says. "I watched that Orioles game.
It bothered me a lot. It was completely controlled by Castro."
Ame learned English upon her arrival in the U.S. and later
earned a degree in education at South Florida. For 30 years she
has taught elementary school in Tampa and taught her son to
respect other people, even the ones who can be of no benefit to
him. "I know this life isn't going to last forever," Gonzalez
says. "When I'm done, I want to be remembered as a guy who
played hard, treated people right and appreciated every day I
spent in the big leagues."
LUIS GONZALEZ (above), who in addition to this season's 30-game
hitting streak had a 23-gamer with the Astros in 1997, is one of
nine active players to have had at least two streaks of 20 games
or more. Here are the others:
PLAYER, CURRENT TEAM STREAKS
Albert Belle, Orioles 21 games, 1996, with Indians; 27
games, 1997, with White Sox
Wade Boggs, Devil Rays 28 games, 1985, 20 games, 1986, and
25 games, 1987, with Red Sox
Nomar Garciaparra, Red Sox 30 games, 1997, and 24 games, 1998,
with Red Sox
Juan Gonzalez, Rangers 21 games (twice), 1996, and 20 games,
1998, with Rangers
Tony Gwynn, Padres 25 games, 1983, and 20 games, 1996,
John Olerud, Mets 26 games, 1993, with Blue Jays; 23
games, 1998, with Mets
Rafael Palmeiro, Rangers 20 games, 1988, with Cubs; 24 games,
1994, with Orioles
Larry Walker, Rockies 20 games, 1998, and 21 games, 1999,
SOURCE: ELIAS SPORTS BUREAU