The Five Lives of Jonny Gomes

THE HOME RUN THE RED SOX OUTFIELDER HIT IN GAME 4 OF THE FALL CLASSIC WAS THE TURNING POINT OF THE SERIES. IT WAS THE PERFECT CODA, TOO, TO A CAREER JOURNEYMAN'S SURVIVAL STORY, WHICH RUNS FAR DEEPER THAN FIVE TEAMS IN 11 SEASONS
December 23, 2013

IN THE movie, coming someday to a theater near you, Joey helps Jonny become a baseball hero with the heart of a lion, the skin of a rhinoceros, and the fight of a bald eagle. This film already exists in the minds of the Gomes brothers. Jonny calls it Grind to Shine, or Tough Times Go Away, Tough People Don't. Joey calls it Forever Moment. It starts on the Point Reyes peninsula in northern California, with Joey, the older one, leading Jonny toward the crest of a steep, wooded hill.

JOEY:Everybody could walk down the thing. And everybody could run down the thing. Everybody could even sprint down the thing—but that wasn't enough. Because the goal wasn't to get to the bottom. The goal was to almost get your heart to jump through your chest.

The boys reach the hilltop and look down toward Tomales Bay. Jonny takes off running. Joey follows. They crash down through the woods, around the trees, over the stones, a hundred miles an hour.

JOEY:When I was a kid, I was always trying to collect Forever Moments. Jonny—

Jonny jumps over a bush and disappears over a hidden cliff, yelling as he falls into the void. Joey runs to the edge, looks over and sees his brother on the ground 15 feet below, unharmed and apparently invincible.

JOEY:—his Forever Moments came in the form of either not dying or hitting homers.

BY THE time you see Jonny's best-known Forever Moment, the three-run homer in Game 4 that rewrites the script of the 2013 World Series, you realize that much of the Gomes brothers' film amounts to a list of reasons that that home run should have been impossible.

JONNY:[On the field at Fenway Park, talking into a TV camera after the Red Sox clinch the World Series] As soon as we went to Fort Myers [for spring training], the movie's already been written. All we had to do is press play.

If Jonny repeats himself during the film—often using lines about playing each game and living each day as if it's his last—the critics will understand that this sentiment comes from hard experience. Jonny's life and baseball career always seem to hang in the balance. At age 12 he's doing work on his grandmother's house when a hired hand shows up with a wolf on a leash. Jonny loves dogs but has never owned one, given that his family is occasionally homeless, so he approaches the blue-eyed wolf.

"No, no, no!" the man says. "It's a real wolf. You can't pet it."

The man ties up the wolf and goes around the corner to mend the fence. Jonny goes back to the wolf, thinking he's some kind of wolf whisperer, but the wolf rears up and knocks Jonny over with its front paws and stands above him with jaws ready to close around Jonny's throat. Jonny lies still, conceding defeat. This show of respect seems to inspire mercy. The wolf gets off Jonny's chest. Jonny walks away.

At age 15, living with his mother, brother and grandmother in Inverness Park, in a house without central heat, Jonny lights a candle and climbs to the loft that holds his sleeping bag. He drifts off to sleep and wakes up to the smell of smoke and the heat of blue fire. The candle has ignited his butane lighter, which has ignited his sleeping bag, which is melting to Jonny's skin. He wriggles out and runs downstairs and fills a pot in the bathtub and climbs back to the rafters and throws the water on the fire. Joey wakes up.

"What the f--- are you doing?" he asks.

"I just caught on fire," Jonny says.

"Turn the fan on," Joey says, and goes back to bed.

Jonny ignores the burns on his chest and falls asleep on a wet mattress that conceals a manila envelope containing pictures he has cut out of Sports Illustrated to hang in the bedroom he might have one day.

The boys play football, basketball and soccer, but their best sport is baseball. Jonny loves being part of a team. When you're all in the same uniform, nobody makes fun of your clothes.

JOEY:My junior year I asked our head coach, "Can you please schedule the top teams in the state?" I wanted a heavyweight fight every single game. Jonny never backed down. All Jonny needed to hear was "Is there a chance to win?" "Well, one out of a million." "O.K., I'm in."

At Casa Grande High in Petaluma, Joey becomes one of the best hitters on the West Coast. When the boys play together on an all-star team, Joey wins league MVP; Jonny, one year younger, gets left off the playoff roster. Joey persuades his remaining teammates to join his protest by drawing circles on their forearms with black shoe polish.

JOEY:My senior year, it was really easy to say, O.K., Joey hit .580, which is a stupid number. But the best pitcher that we would face that week? Jonny would hit a homer off that guy. He'd have struck out twice already, but Jonny would hit a one-ball, two-strike, 400-foot home run.

THE NEAR-DEATH experiences continue through high school. Jonny goes camping with some friends up at Boggs Mountain and runs across some angry gun-wielding rednecks. Shots are fired, but Jonny comes away unscathed. He goes walking at night in San Francisco and encounters a homeless man with a portable radio. The man pretends to talk with President Clinton. Jonny asks to talk with the president. The man pulls a gun and aims for Jonny. But he doesn't fire. Someone calls the cops, who arrest the guy and take the gun and tell Jonny it was loaded and the safety was off.

When Jonny is 16, he takes a ride down Hardin Lane in Petaluma, otherwise known as Rollercoaster Road. Four teenagers pile into a '91 Honda Accord: two girls in front, Jonny and his baseball teammate Adam Westcott in back. They career down the mountainside. The driver sees oncoming headlights and swerves to the right. The car fishtails, smashing a telephone pole, crushing Adam, who sits in the right rear seat. Two days later he dies of a brain hemorrhage. Jonny and the girls walk away, barely injured; he refuses to ride in the ambulance because he's afraid his mother will get the bill. It could have been him in Adam's seat. They both liked the girl riding shotgun and wanted to sit behind her.

Let's flip a coin, Jonny said.

Heads, Adam said.

Jonny flipped a quarter and it came up heads, and that's why Adam died and Jonny survived again.

The next season, Joey and Jonny's baseball coach wastes away before their eyes. Bob Leslie has terminal cancer of the mouth and jaw, and he should be lying in a hospital bed, but he figures he'll die anyway, so he may as well teach the boys a few last things. After a bad game in the middle of the season, he gives the boys an impassioned speech about respecting the game. He gets so worked up that a bandage on his jaw comes loose and blood goes flying. The boys listen. Leslie dies at age 31, nine days after his Casa Grande Gauchos win the section championship.

AFTER HIGH SCHOOL Joey wins a scholarship to Division I Santa Clara. Jonny, heading into his senior year, is unwanted in the best high school summer leagues. So he uses a friend's birth certificate to join and dominate a lower league instead. He uses a borrowed VCR to analyze tape and pinpoint the flaws in his swing. Lower half not rotating. Head and shoulders dipping back. Forearms not extending. Joey helps him fix his swing. They practice hitting, throwing and running every day of the off-season. A year later Jonny winds up at Santa Rosa Junior College, where he hits .127 with 23 strikeouts in 55 at bats as a freshman.

In February 2001, early in his sophomore season, Jonny plays in a tournament at Fresno City College. Dozens of major league scouts attend, but most leave before the night game between Santa Rosa and Cosumnes River. The night is so cold that Hank King considers leaving too. But he's only 29, in his first year as a scout for the Devil Rays, and he needs all the advantages he can get.

Around the third inning, Santa Rosa's muscular rightfielder comes to the plate. He takes a ferocious hack, swinging upward at a 45-degree angle and hitting a towering pop-up. King notices two things. One, the kid hustles around first base as if he's running for his life. Two, the ball hangs in the air for an eternity—almost eight seconds.

The kid comes up again. Another ferocious upward swing. Another towering pop-up. Another cloud of dust as the kid hustles for second, just in case.

Now King understands why the kid is batting seventh. Between innings, as Jonny runs out to rightfield, King calls him over and asks him to level out his swing.

Yes, sir, Jonny says.

King asks Jonny to run as fast as he can out to a sign on the fence in the right-center gap, plant one foot on the warning track and throw the ball back as hard as he can. Jonny takes off as if shot from a cannon. He plants and throws. The ball sails into the stands, 15 feet over King's head, and the scout feels the hair on his forearms standing on end.

Jonny comes up again, levels out his swing and lines one so hard over the shortstop's head that it whistles into left center. He beats the throw for a double and stands on second and gives King a look.

The night gets colder. King is gathering his things to leave when Jonny comes up one last time and cranks one over the scoreboard in left center.

KING:I swear the ball is orbiting the earth right now.

JOEY:They start exaggerating your story. That's when you know you've got a Forever Moment.

King goes back to the hotel, pours a glass of red wine and begins writing his first pro report. He calls Jonny an average major league player capable of hitting 20-plus homers. Next morning he goes back to the park. Santa Rosa is playing the 10 o'clock game, and the other scouts are back. King hopes no one will steal his prospect. But he needn't worry: When Jonny comes to the plate, a high fastball runs in and injures his left hand, knocking him out of commission for a month. No one else will see what King saw on the night he almost let Jonny go undiscovered.

After the tournament King waits for everyone else to leave before walking up to Jonny. The kid is lean and hard, and he looks as if he's done some living.

"Hey," King says. "Have you ever thought about being a professional?"

"Hum baby," Jonny says, using the phrase made popular in the Bay Area in the '80s by Giants manager Roger Craig.

"Have you ever run a 60 for anybody?" King asks.

No, Jonny hasn't. So he pulls a time out of the air:

"I can run a 6.5 60."

"There's fewer than 100 kids who can run a 6.5 60," King says. "Six-six? 6.7?"

"I can run a 6.5 60."

"Kid, if you can run a 6.5 60, you're Chad Curtis."

"Hum baby."

Later, when King invites Jonny to a regional workout for the Devil Rays, Jonny lines up to race the kid who's believed to be the fastest one there. Jonny leaves him in the dust, running a 6.5 the first time he's ever been clocked in the 60-yard dash.

The Devil Rays draft Jonny in the 18th round that year. He tells them, "You've got the wrong Gomes." Next year they take Joey in the eighth.

JOEY:If you just give an opportunity to us, that's all we need. It's almost like this: "We'll take it from here." Do you know what I mean? "We got it. We'll figure it out." And we're already running, sprinting down the hill.

BETWEEN 2002 and '11, Joey plays for the Hudson Valley Renegades, Bakersfield Blaze, Charleston RiverDogs, Montgomery Biscuits, Visalia Oaks, New Jersey Jackals, Mobile Bay Bears, Newark Bears, Joliet JackHammers, Edmonton Capitals, Schaumburg Flyers, Lake County Fielders and Grand Prairie AirHogs. Even with a career minor league batting average of .300, he never gets a chance to play in the big leagues.

JONNY:The road was paved for me by Joey. Every mistake he made, I didn't have to make.

Invited to spring training with the Devil Rays in 2003, Jonny hits a three-run pinch-hit homer off Phillies righthander Brett Myers, runs around the bases, goes to the end of the dugout, puts his head between his knees and bursts into tears. On the bus ride home he explains why to his teammates: Less than three months earlier he almost died again. A mysteriously clogged artery led to a heart attack that lasted 27 hours. Jonny got an angioplasty and nitroglycerin pills. The doctor told him that if he'd gone to sleep, he would not have woken up.

That September, in his first major league plate appearance, Jonny smacks a double off David Wells at Yankee Stadium. The next 10 years are a dizzying series of highs and lows, of game-winning homers and demotions to the minor leagues. Jonny finishes third in the American League Rookie of the Year voting for 2005, but the following season he hurts his shoulder and his average slips to .216. In '08 it falls even further. Over a full decade in the majors he plays more than 120 games only once. Through it all, though, one thing remains constant.

JOEY:Jonny was just always the warrior. Like he wasn't the Indian, he wasn't a chief. He was the warrior. And you have to have those guys.

On March 12, 2008, in a spring training game in St. Petersburg, the Yankees' Shelley Duncan slides into second with his spikes up and gashes the leg of Tampa Bay second baseman Akinori Iwamura. Jonny sprints all the way from rightfield to shove Duncan, helping ignite a bench-clearing brawl and earning a two-game suspension. When Red Sox outfielder Coco Crisp charges the mound in June, Jonny jumps on Crisp, throwing wild haymakers. Even as a .182 hitter who doesn't make the postseason roster, he's an unmistakable presence and influence on the Rays. They're done being pushed around by the Yankees and the Red Sox. They go all the way to the World Series. Years after he's gone, many Rays say Jonny was the best teammate they ever had.

JONNY:Win first. Win second. Me third.

The next year Jonny goes to the Reds, who rise from fifth place in '08 to first in '10. But they're swept by the Phillies in the Division Series, and Jonny goes 0 for 6. He joins the Athletics in 2012, and they improve by 20 games. But they lose to the Tigers in the Division Series, and Jonny gets only one at bat.

He joins the Red Sox in '13, and they go from worst to first. When Jonny starts in the Division Series, they win two games. When Jonny sits, they lose. When Jonny starts in the ALCS, they win two more games. When Jonny sits again, they lose.

Jonny goes back in the lineup. The Sox go to the World Series.

JONNY:Good baseball players, all these guys, there's not one that checks the lineup card. They wake up, they're playin' rightfield and battin' third today. And tomorrow. And if they go 0 for 4, four punchouts, they wake up and they're playin' right and battin' third.

Jonny goes 0 for 4 with a strikeout in Game 2 against the Cardinals and wakes up to find himself back out of the lineup. He gets only one at bat in Game 3, a fly-out that leaves him 0 for 8 in the World Series and drops his postseason average to .125. Today is Game 4 in St. Louis, Sox down two games to one, nobody hitting but Big Papi, Cardinals starters throwing smoke, their relievers throwing even more smoke. Boston loves Jonny—the crescent wedge of a beard that inspired all the other beards, the bat inscribed with the names of the marathon bombing victims. But what Boston needs right now is a few hits, a few runs, anything to bring the Series home to Fenway.

Halfway through batting practice Red Sox manager John Farrell tells Jonny that Shane Victorino has back spasms and can't go tonight. Just like that, Jonny is back in the lineup, playing leftfield. He comes to bat in the second inning of a scoreless game with nobody out and David Ortiz on first base. What everyone else sees is a ground ball, a 5-4-3 double play that ends the threat. But there's Joey in the bleachers down the leftfield line, seeing something else: a confident at bat, a low rocket that just happens to get fielded, a fierce sense of urgency as Jonny runs down the line.

JOEY:Jonny began to morph into the moment. It wasn't, "Oh, God, here we go again." It was, "You have just woken up the dragon."

The dragon goes to the clubhouse to be alone, using all his self-control to avoid trashing the place. He comes back in the fifth and fouls off four two-strike pitches before earning a walk. Two batters later Ortiz scores on Stephen Drew's sacrifice fly, tying the game at 1. In the dugout before the sixth inning, Ortiz rallies the Sox.

"We don't get here every day," he tells a circle of teammates. "Let's relax and play the game the way we know how."

Dustin Pedroia hits a two-out single to left center. After walking Ortiz, the Cardinals bring in reliever Seth Maness, a hard-throwing righty.

JONNY:His stuff gets me out. You know? So it wasn't like the starting pitcher that was just left in too long. I was the first batter he faced. You know? [Cardinals manager Mike] Matheny's like, "We need him." And that guy's gonna get me out ninety-five percent of the time. I'm telling you right now. But what's so great about this baseball game is the only thing that's a hundred percent is touchin' the dish. Ninety-five percent? Well, that leaves me five. I'm all right with that.

Maness throws a sinker, then another. One ball, one strike. Jonny goes into his mental Rolodex and remembers the walk-off homer he hit in July off Padres reliever Luke Gregerson.

JONNY:I had that swing from Luke Gregerson bottled up in my head. 'Cause, f---, that wasn't supposed to happen. Luke Gregerson is El Nasty-O. Sick. Filthy. And I don't hit righties. So let alone hit a nasty righty?

Another ball. Then Jonny fouls one off, making the count 2--2. Maness throws another sinker.

JONNY:I knew where that pitch had to be for me to hit it. And if it wasn't there, I wasn't gonna hit it.

It's there.

JOEY:That's what the Forever Moment was looking for. A crack in the door. A space that air can go through. And then the fire can turn into an inferno.

Jonny pounds it over the left-center wall and roars his way around the bases. The Sox take Game 4, and Game 5, and Game 6. The Forever Moments keep coming. There are a thousand that wouldn't fit in this story, a hundred more since October. Joey buys a collegiate summer-league baseball team. Jonny buys a mansion on a hill for his beautiful wife and three children. The film keeps rolling. It never ends, and they never die.

By the time he hits that three-run homer, you realize Gomes's life amounts to a list of reasons it should have been impossible.

Joey was the better prospect, but it was Jonny who got drafted first. "You've got the wrong Gomes," he told the Devil Rays.

Jonny flipped a quarter and it came up heads. And that's why his friend Adam died and Jonny survived again.

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PHOTOPhotograph by ROBERT BECK/SPORTS ILLUSTRATEDWHAT DIDN'T KILL HIM MADE HIM STRONGER Gomes has brushed off a series of near-death experiences, most recently in 2002, that threatened to derail his big league career before it started. PHOTODAMIAN STROHMEYER FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATEDFLEX TIME Already the team's bearded, rogue sherpa, Gomes (in the first game at Fenway after the marathon bombing, right) gave the Red Sox a more tangible boost with his Game 4 blast in St. Louis (opposite page). PHOTODAVID E. KLUTHO/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED[See caption above] PHOTOMIKE JANES/FOUR SEAM IMAGESGOMES IS WHERE THE HEART IS After playing together through high school, Jonny (with his brother, middle and bottom) and Joey (top) found themselves together again in the Tampa Bay minor league system. PHOTOCOURTESY OF PAUL MAYTORENA[See caption above] PHOTOKENT PORTER/THE SANTA ROSA PRESS-DEMOCRAT[See caption above] PHOTOMICHAEL DWYER/APFIGHT, THEN FLIGHT Gomes has won—and won raves from teammates—at most of his many major league stops, including Tampa Bay (top) Cincinnati (bottom right) and Oakland (bottom left). PHOTOBRAD MANGIN FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED[See caption above] PHOTOKELLEY L COX/USA TODAY SPORTS[See caption above] PHOTOROBERT BECK/SPORTS ILLUSTRATEDINKING IT ALL IN Before this year Gomes was hitless in his postseason career and had never won a series, but this October he became Boston's lucky charm: The Sox went 10--1 with him in the starting lineup. PHOTOCOURTESY OF THE GOMES FAMILYTHE GOOD LIFE Gomes (celebrating the Series win, right) has been able to give his wife, Kristi, and children, Capri, Colt and Zoe (below), the stability he yearned for as a kid. PHOTOELISE AMENDOLA/AP (WITH FLAG)[See caption above]

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)