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02/20/09 4:25 PM EST
Gomes' life a lesson in perseverance
Slugging outfielder trying to work his way onto Reds' roster
By Mark Sheldon / MLB.com
SARASOTA, Fla. --- Only 28, outfielder Jonny Gomes has already lived through a heart attack, a car accident that claimed the life of his best friend and time living homeless as a teen. None of those life-changing moments has sapped his intensity for playing or his desire to keep things loose in the clubhouse. And if he makes the Reds as a non-roster player this spring, teammates will know immediately that he will really have their backs without being asked.
Last season during the playoffs for the Rays, Gomes was often the guy with the mohawk shown on TV from the top step of Tampa Bay's dugout, supporting and congratulating teammates. And he wasn't even on the postseason roster.
"That stuff isn't going to win you a ballgame. It's not going to lose you a ballgame either," Gomes said on Friday. "But with the long haul that we're in, we have to keep it a tight-knit family. There are so many peaks and valleys during a season, you have to keep the guys loose. Let them play for today and not drag a loss to the following day."
Gomes was also the one who frequented early-season highlights in a different way last year. When the Yankees' Shelley Duncan slid hard into Rays second baseman Akinori Iwamura in a Spring Training game, Gomes ran in from right field and jumped on Duncan to start a bench-clearing brawl.
Against the Red Sox in June, when Boston's Coco Crisp rushed the mound and pitcher James Shields, Gomes found his way into the bottom of the heap and was found punching Crisp on the ground. Both incidents earned Gomes suspensions from Major League Baseball.
"On the other side of those peaks and valleys and laughs and cries, we have to be a brotherhood," Gomes said. "Just like your family back home, if someone messes around with them, you have to step in and not get bullied around."
This year, after being signed to a Minor League deal, Gomes is looking for the proverbial fresh start and trying to fit his way into Cincinnati's crowded left-field picture. He was non-tendered by the Rays after he batted .182 with eight homers and 21 RBIs in 77 games. Optioned to Triple-A in August, he returned as a September callup but was not added for the postseason.
Not long ago, Gomes was one of the Rays' rising stars. Finishing third in the 2003 American League Rookie of the Year voting, he hit .282 with 21 home runs and 54 RBIs in 101 games. He had 20 homers and 59 RBIs in '06 but a .216 average. He batted .244 with 17 homers in '07.
If Gomes makes the Reds' roster out of camp, he will earn a base salary of $600,000, with another $200,000 in incentives possible. During his offseasons, Gomes works with former Reds star Kevin Mitchell on his hitting, and Mitchell was one of the people that gave Reds manager Dusty Baker a scouting report. If he gets back to his more-successful era, Gomes could be quite a bargain for Cincinnati.
"They said he's a heck of a guy, a great teammate that works hard," Baker said. "[He has] tremendous power and was on the way up and for whatever reason, fell. They said he was a better-than-they-give-him-credit-for outfielder. He works hard. He'll never be a great outfielder, but if he works at it, he'll be decent."
The past three seasons, Gomes was mostly used as a platoon player. After his rookie year, manager Joe Maddon took over the team, and Gomes didn't fit squarely into the plans. He lacks a conventional swing and was susceptible to streaky play, which isn't a good thing when you're not playing regularly.
"Not to be negative, their style of play, coaching and winning was a platoon in right field," Gomes said. "Over in Tampa when I was sitting on the bench, everyone was pretty much waiting for me to crack. They were waiting for me to flip a desk or demand a trade -- pretty much what other people have done in Tampa in my situation. But those things made me the person I am. I'm lucky to have a big league uniform on my back. I don't want to just take it for granted that I'm wearing it. I want to succeed in it."
Gomes doesn't take life for granted, either, because he has been at the very edge of losing it -- twice. On Christmas Eve 2002, after just turning 23, he suffered a heart attack. Because of his age and good health habits (eight percent body fat), he thought the chest pains he felt were indigestion from the big Mexican dinner he ate and didn't immediately seek treatment. In fact, he went to sleep through the night.
After 27 hours and only when he stopped breathing and collapsed, was the seriousness of the dilemma known. Gomes later learned he had a clogged artery and needed an angioplasty procedure.
"That's a whole other bag of worms there," Gomes said. "You're lying on that hospital bed there and look up and see the light. The doctor is telling you 'We don't know, we don't know.' You battle through it, and they tell you your heart rate needs to be down and it means you can't be active. It takes away pretty much my life. It was a good little adversity check young in my career."
In 1997, while in high school in Petaluma, Calif., Gomes was a passenger in a car accident that took the life of best friend Adam Westcott. One of the many tattoos he has includes the initials "A.W." For a time during his teenage years, it was reported that he and his mother lived in a homeless shelter.
"It's been a bumpy road," Gomes said of his life.
In baseball at the moment, the road is without a guaranteed destination. Besides Gomes, the Reds have Chris Dickerson, Jerry Hairston Jr. and Jacque Jones among those jockeying for the vacant spot in left field. It could end up being a platoon situation, which Gomes isn't opposed to. He felt good about his chances for making the team.
"The main thing is I came into camp 100 percent healthy, willing to do everything," he said. "It's an old-fashioned tryout. We're not trying to hurt feelings or make friends, we're trying to win ballgames. May the best 25 win."
Mark Sheldon is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.