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Swinging For the Border

July 06, 2009
July 06, 2009

Table of Contents
July 6, 2009

LEADING OFF
Inside: THE WEEK IN SPORTS
COACH ED THOMAS
BASEBALL
PRO BASKETBALL
SOCCER
NASCAR MIDSEASON REPORT
Departments

Swinging For the Border

Padres slugger Adrian Gonzalez honed his sweet stroke in a pair of cities on either side of the U.S.-Mexico line—one that he'd love to call home for the rest of his career and the other too dangerous even to visit

The concessionstands at Petco Park in San Diego offer a deal that makes health freaks shudderand recessionistas swoon. It is called the 5 for $5, inspired by a laggingeconomy, reminiscent of a bygone era. For a fiver Padres fans can gorge on thefive ballpark food groups: hot dog, peanuts, popcorn, chocolate chip cookie andsoda. But the 5 for 5 still isn't the best value at Petco, not with a27-year-old first baseman in the prime of his career who, for the relativelylow price of $3.125 million, is among the major league leaders in home runs,plays Gold Glove defense, reaches base more than 40% of the time, hits to everypart of the field, attracts fans from both sides of the border and does it allin a stadium seemingly built for him to fail and in a lineup that often"protects" him with a .245 hitter. "Adrian Gonzalez," saysteammate Cliff Floyd, "is the best bargain in baseball."

This is an article from the July 6, 2009 issue

Nobody is goingto take up a collection plate, but Gonzalez makes less than the major leagueaverage ($3.15 million) and much less than a lot of average major leaguers.Gonzalez is the rare arbitration-eligible All-Star whose long-term deal makeshim affordable to a struggling small-market franchise. Considering that thePadres are trying to strip their payroll to $40 million, have tried for eightmonths to unload ace Jake Peavy and are in the midst of a cumbersome three-yearownership transfer that has prompted players to compare themselves withcharacters in Major League, the fact that they control Gonzalez's rightsthrough 2011 gives them some relevance and hope. "If I were in anothercity, I might be in a hurry to leave this situation," says Gonzalez, hischin framed by a trimmed black goatee. "But here, it's different."

San Diego sprawlson one side of the border, Tijuana on the other, and Gonzalez belongs to both.He was born in San Diego, moved to Tijuana when he was a baby and back to SanDiego when he was in fifth grade. As a boy in Tijuana, he and his olderbrothers, Edgar and David Jr., would hit bottle caps with broomsticks in thestreets. As teenagers in San Diego they would hit 90-mph cutters off thestate-of-the-art pitching machine in their backyard. "They had the best ofboth worlds," says their father, David Gonzalez, who owns anair-conditioning business. Once a first baseman on the Mexican national team,he understood that the ultimate modern ballplayer would blend American andLatino baseball cultures.

Adrian logged asmany as 120 games a year, playing on manicured fields in San Diego's South Bayduring the week, then crossing the Otay border and playing on potholed fieldsnear the Tijuana airport over the weekend. By 15 he was a regular in Tijuana'sfamed "Sunday games," hitting against former pro pitchers who stilltouched 90. A self-made first baseman, Gonzalez does everything righthandedexcept hit and throw. His style is an elegant amalgamation of Southern and BajaCalifornia. The way he fields a ground ball, off to the side with one hand, issmooth and instinctive. "That's from Mexico," Gonzalez says. The way heapproaches at bats, poring over scouting reports and game tapes, is obsessive."That's from the United States," he says.

And the way heswings, his bat level through the zone, hands inside the ball? "That,"he says, "is from Tony Gwynn."

With ocean to thewest, desert to the east and Los Angeles to the north, the Padres have spentdecades trying to expand their market south. In the mid-1990s, tired of losingLatino fans to the Dodgers, they launched a bold initiative to take back theBaja. They opened a team store in Tijuana, rebuilt local Little League parks,offered bus rides to games from Tijuana and played a regular-season seriesagainst the Mets in Monterrey. The campaign was designed to foster loyaltyamong the next generation, but Gonzalez was already on board. He and hisbrothers sat in the field-level seats at Qualcomm Stadium—"Jack MurphyStadium," corrects Edgar—fuming when the ownership group led by Tom Wernergutted the team in 1993 and rejoicing when John Moores put it back together andfunded a World Series run in '98. Adrian wore number 19 at Eastlake High inhonor of Gwynn; when his girlfriend, Betsy Perez, graduated from nearby BonitaVista High, he hired a plane to fly over the ceremony dragging the banner: ILOVE BETSY, #19. They married two years later and now live in the GaslampQuarter, a short walk from Petco Park.

"AdrianGonzalez is the perfect representative of this region," says EnriqueMorones, a civil rights activist who was in charge of the Padres' aggressiveLatino relations program in the '90s. "You ask people from San Diego abouthim, and they will tell you, 'He's one of us. He's a San Diegan.' Then you askpeople from Tijuana about him, and they will tell you, 'He's one of us. He's aTijuanense.' And they're both right."

The Gonzalez boyshad their most fantastic childhood dreams come true—Adrian is entrenched atfirst base for the Padres, while Edgar, 31, is a backup at second—except thatMoores is in the process of gutting the team and selling it to a group led byformer Diamondbacks CEO Jeff Moorad. Again, the brothers have a field-levelview of a turbulent era. When Morones ate lunch recently with Tijuana mayorJorge Ramos, Ramos told him, "Well, at least they have AdrianGonzalez." That could be a new slogan. At week's end Gonzalez had alsoscored or driven in more than a third of San Diego's runs.

This month,according to the Elias Sports Bureau, Gonzalez became the first player of thelive-ball era to draw multiple walks in eight straight games. The choiceconfronting managers—face Gonzalez or cleanup hitter Kevin Kouzmanoff—has beena no-brainer. "It's become like it was with Barry Bonds," Dodgersstarter Randy Wolf says. "You don't pitch to [Gonzalez], because when youdo, he hurts you."

The Marlinsdrafted Gonzalez out of Eastlake with the first overall pick in 2000 andprojected him as a power-hitting lefty, sending moonbeams over the rightfieldfence. But Gonzalez was more comfortable slapping line drives to left, muchlike Gwynn, and in 2003 Florida shipped him to the Rangers, whose minor leaguecoaches believed they could unlock his power by persuading him to pull theball. One hitting instructor at Double A even advised Gonzalez to yank ballsfoul in batting practice. The more home runs he tried to belt to right, themore ground balls he wound up rolling to second.

Blocked at firstbase by Derrek Lee in Florida and Mark Teixeira in Texas, Gonzalez was shippedto San Diego in a six-player deal in 2006, a trade that's kept the Padres frombecoming the Nationals. Upon hearing news of the deal, Gonzalez thought, "Iget to play on Channel 4!" He also joined an organization that appreciatedhis inside-out swing, even encouraged him to hit to the opposite field, awayfrom Petco's 411-foot fence in right center. Gonzalez was voted team MVP in'06, but San Diego renewed his contract in '07 for only $500 more than the$380,000 major league minimum. He had few options other than to play out theyear, take the Padres to arbitration the following winter and make them paythen.

"But Adriandidn't want that grind," says his agent, John Boggs. "He was justbeginning to come into his own and didn't want to get sidetracked." Justbefore the start of the '07 season Gonzalez opted for the security of afour-year, $9.5 million contract with a club option, and Boggs made sure thathe did not forfeit any years of free agency. "It's been a great deal forme—a great deal," Gonzalez says. "Maybe I could have made a little moremoney by waiting, but I don't believe in being greedy. I'm O.K. with my teambeing able to afford me." If he had not signed the contract and gone toarbitration, the Padres might have had to trade him. "If he had gotten RyanHoward money," San Diego G.M. Kevin Towers acknowledges, "it could havebeen hard."

It was Howard whoboosted Gonzalez's stock as much as anyone, triggering his evolution from gaphitter to power hitter. In July 2007, during a lull in a game against thePhillies at Petco, Gonzalez started talking to Howard at first base.Conversations on the base paths are typically casual, but Gonzalez asked Howardwhat size bat he used and why. Howard said that he prefers a heavy one, notonly because it generates more power but also because it keeps him fromoverswinging. Gonzalez promptly traded his 34-inch, 31-ounce bat for a 35-inch,33-ouncer, and his home run totals rose from 24 in '06 to 30 in '07 to 36 in'08. "I changed my whole approach after that," says Gonzalez. He didnot, however, change his stroke. He was still hitting to the opposite field—hewas just hitting home runs to the opposite field.

Before a springtraining game this season, Gonzalez noted that lefthander Joe Saunders waspitching for the Angels. "Saunders is going to pitch me away," he toldhitting coach Jim Lefebvre, "and I'm just going to shoot the ball toleft." "You're a power guy," Lefebvre replied. "Why are youjust trying to shoot the ball to left?" Gonzalez pointed to a grassy hillover the leftfield fence where families were setting up picnics. "When Isay I'm going to shoot it to left," Gonzalez clarified, "I mean I'mgoing to hit it up there." In the first inning he hit a home run onto thathill, scattering picnickers. Of Gonzalez's 24 homers through Sunday, 10 havebeen to centerfield, seven to left and seven to right, an unusually democraticdistribution.

Going opporequires muscle that not many players have. At 6'2", 225, Gonzalez lookslean compared with Howard, but his strength is in his wrists. "The guy hasa crusher grip," says physical therapist Bob Foley, a former amateur boxerwho trains Adrian and Edgar in the off-season. Foley takes the Gonzalezbrothers to an alley in San Diego and has them flip 500-pound monster-trucktires, throw medicine balls off the sides of buildings and do pull-ups fromgymnastics rings attached to fire escapes. When a UPS truck rolls down thealley, they get to take a breather.

Teammatesdescribe Gonzalez as earnest and intense, but he embraces the unorthodox. Whenthe Padres were mathematically eliminated early last September, Gonzalezdecided to take a strike against every pitcher he faced to see who was willingto challenge him. The exercise had to hurt him statistically, since he fellbehind in counts, but it helped him predict how specific pitchers wouldapproach him this season. Lefebvre has even begun using Gonzalez as a teachingaide, asking him at the end of every hitters' meeting, "Adrian, what do youthink?"

For Gonzalez, thetough times are the off days, when there are no games and Tijuana beckons. Heyearns to visit the Little League field that bears his name, stop at a tacostand, head down to Rosarito Beach with his wife. But last year was the mostviolent in Tijuana's history: 843 people were killed, many of them casualtiesin a drug war between groups of the fractured Arellano Félix cartel. OscarManuel Robles Arangure, the father of former Padres infielder Oscar Robles anda close friend of David Gonzalez, was kidnapped in late April, according towitnesses, by six armed and masked assailants. He was returned to his familythe next day, but police in San Diego and Tijuana have told the Padres not tolet any players cross the border. David Sr., however, crosses once a week towork at the air-conditioning company he started in Tijuana when he was 21.Although David takes different routes and different cars, Adrian says, "Itell him not to go."

Adrian has notbeen to Tijuana since the fall, but his presence is undeniable. When the Padresthrew a party at their Tijuana store this month to push his All-Star candidacy,they handed out 9,000 ballots and all of them were filled. Gonzalez isreluctant to exploit his heritage for marketing purposes, but the team mustgauge his drawing power to decide whether to offer him an extension. Re-signingGonzalez will be difficult. He will command at least four times more than$3.125 million, and the Padres do not know what their payroll will be or evenwho will be responsible for it. But Gonzalez is uniquely qualified to help anew owner stabilize his fan base and reach south.

That he can dofor free.

Now on SI.com
Lee Jenkins on the scene for Manny Ramirez's return to the Dodgers atSI.com/bonus

"At least they have Adrian Gonzalez." Thatcould be the Padres' slogan.
"I don't believe in being greedy," Adriansays.
PHOTOPhotograph by RON CHENOY/US PRESSWIREGOING, GOING, GONZO The 27-year-old Gonzalez modeled his swing after Tony Gwynn's, then added power after a chat with Ryan Howard.PHOTOJOHN W. MCDONOUGHFIRST-RATE Gold Glove defense has only enhanced Gonzalez's status as an outrageous bargain.PHOTODOUG PENSINGER/GETTY IMAGES FIELDOF DREAMS Side by side in the stands as kids, Edgar and Adrian are nowsidekicks on the diamond.