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Alex Gonzalezs idea of self-expression is the game itself


By Juan C. Rodriguez

Staff Writer

Posted June 10 2003

c/o:Miami Herald


No one knew. Not his parents. Not his siblings. Not his childhood friends.


Maybe they just didn't listen closely enough.


Alex Gonzalez never said a word. Yet not a day passed that he didn't reveal who he was and what he wanted.


The dull pop of the ball hitting the concrete block barrier in Gonzalez's back yard was his voice. It conveyed ambition he never thought to verbalize.


By the time the Marlins signed Gonzalez as a 17-year-old free agent from the Venezuelan state of Aragua, the wall separating his childhood home from the neighbor's was pockmarked. As his arm strength increased, as his voice intensified, larger chunks of concrete would fall.


"The house is still there with that wall," Gonzalez said. "It has like 70 holes in it. If we patched it two or three times it was too many. I'd get home from school, would get my ball and glove and start throwing."


Baseball remains his most candid form of self-expression.


The one place he's incapable of camouflaging himself is on the field.


Gonzalez couldn't do it in 2000, when former Marlins manager John Boles reprimanded him for not hustling, and offensive shortcomings would fester into defensive miscues.


The sourpuss exterior hasn't softened measurably. He still wears it like armor, but it only veils so much. Gonzalez continues to communicate in his own indelible language.


He speaks through double plays, making a midair throw before the approaching runner can take out his legs. He speaks through at-bats, passing on pitches in the dirt and ripping strikes into the gap.


Is Alex Gonzalez any happier? He shouts the answer every day.


"I think he turned the page last year, at least defensively and away from this whole stereotype of having a bad attitude," third baseman Mike Lowell said. "He's not a bad kid, he's just a quiet kid, and he comes across as not being enthusiastic, but he plays the game hard."


Added catcher Mike Redmond, Gonzalez's teammate for most of the past five seasons: "Sometimes he doesn't look like he's enjoying himself, but I do know that he's playing hard and he is enjoying himself.


"He may not always show it, but I've seen quite a few more smiles this year than I ever have. I know that's not only because he's hitting better. I think he's hungry."


Way back when


The initial pangs began early. The oldest of five children, Gonzalez inherited his parents' enthusiasm for the game. Father Claudio was a gifted amateur outfielder. Mother Maryuri was a competitive softball pitcher for 16 years.


Both knew their son was special.


"When he was 4 or 5, you could see it," Maryuri said. "He always had a lot of faculties managing the glove, a big glove, his father's glove. ... We always supported him. His father always said he had the potential maybe not to be in the big leagues, but to be a professional player."


The degree to which Gonzalez desired that end was never obvious. His skills on a basketball court rivaled those on the diamond. He played on national teams in both sports until he was about 12. That's when two events conflicted and Gonzalez had to choose.


He stuck with baseball, but family and friends still didn't have a true sense of his passion. Unless Gonzalez had a glove in one hand and a ball in the other, it was almost imperceptible.


"I wasn't the type of fan that was in the stadium all the time," he said. "When they would put the games on television, I would watch the first couple of innings and maybe the last couple. I liked [baseball]and had it in my blood, but it wasn't about sitting and watching a full game.


"It was personal. I'm pretty guarded with my things, but [my parents] saw the talent. I never said it to my mother or father or to my friends. I was quiet until it came time for me to sign."


The time came in 1994. Gonzalez had a test the day Marlins scout Levy Ochoa, now with the Giants, gave him his tryout. He didn't perform half as well on the exam as he did for Ochoa.


Gonzalez wrote his name on his test paper, picked up his equipment bag and left for the field.


What Ochoa saw had him back in three days with a contract in hand.


"He did everything for me," Ochoa said. "I hit a grounder to see his arm from shortstop that I didn't think he would get to. I yelled, `No, no, no!' for him to let it go because I didn't think he would get there. When I looked up, he caught it and threw.


"I let him catch his breath and hit it the other way. Same thing."


Phillies outfielder Bobby Abreu grew up two blocks from Gonzalez. Abreu signed his pro deal with the Astros four years earlier. It motivated Gonzalez to intensify his quiet pursuit. "He was never a kid to tell us, `I want to make it to the big leagues' or `I want to do this,'" Maryuri said. "In that, he was always very reserved. ... He would never tell us anything. For him to let go two or three words, you have to ask him with about 50. Now he's a little more open.


"A lot of people characterize him as having a bad temper, but the people who know him know he's always been [private]. He's always had good emotions, been a good friend. He's always with his same group, friends and neighbors. He treats them the same like always."


Whom to thank


Gonzalez credits former manager Jeff Torborg and his staff for his newfound consistency. Upon taking over before the 2002 season, Torborg, infield coach Perry Hill and third base coach Ozzie Guillen, a fellow Venezuelan shortstop, all talked with Gonzalez.


They guaranteed him a clean slate despite repeated and well-documented episodes of not hustling and careless errors coinciding with poor at-bats. They knew Gonzalez had never been popular in the clubhouse and heard about the "Seabass" moniker.


If Gonzalez was willing to bury it, so were they.


"I told him, `You better hustle. If not, you're not playing,'" Guillen said. "I'm going to embarrass him if I see something I don't like because I want him to do good. He knows I will. That's why every day he has to run the balls out. You don't get a hit, you still have to play the game the right way and be a pro.


"I talked to him, Jeff talked to him, and Alex has been unbelievable from the first day until now. We have nothing to complain about him." Just when he settled into a comfort zone, Gonzalez dislocated his left shoulder and missed most of the 2002 season. He hasn't regressed in 2003.


Gonzalez, arguably, has been the Marlins' most consistent offensive and defensive player. A protracted slump may be all that derails him from a second All-Star Game appearance.


His .333 average entering the week was tops among National League shortstops and ranked him fifth overall. Only five National League players have a higher on-base plus slugging percentage than Gonzalez (.981).


Defensively he has committed three errors and is tied for third among major league shortstops with a .988 fielding percentage, just behind the Dodgers' Cesar Izturis and Rangers' Alex Rodriguez (both at .989).


After making the 1999 All-Star team, Gonzalez plodded through his next 21/2 seasons. His hit total plummeted and error count rose, souring a disposition that many found foul to begin with.


When Guillen played for the Braves in 1999, he saw Gonzalez fail to run out a late-season grounder.


"I screamed at him from the dugout, `Run the ball!'" Guillen said.


"I didn't like the way he was playing against us. It was so bad -- I don't know if it was John Smoltz or somebody -- I told them to drill him. I don't think he was playing the game the way it should be played."


Gonzalez doesn't totally disagree with Boles' benching him. He admits to at times letting his offensive frustration disrupt his defense.


Yet something else was affecting him. Gonzalez said as much with his spotty effort.


"I would see other players not run out grounders and they wouldn't take them out," Gonzalez said. "If you are going to do something, you should do it for the whole team. That was one of the things that bothered me.


"That was their mentality, that if I made an error, it was because I wasn't hitting. That happens to players. There are times like you feel lost at the plate, that you feel lost defensively. Those are things that happen."


Gonzalez added that he felt undue pressure while Boles was managing. He felt the coaches wanted to change his personality. Now an adviser with the Dodgers, Boles doesn't think Gonzalez was held to a different standard.


"There's a lot of pressure to being a major league baseball player," Boles said. "In his case, making the All-Star team the first half, maybe the pressure did accumulate, but I know it was never a case where anybody intentionally tried to put the guy under the gun.


"I never really had difficulty with Alex. He was a private guy. You have to go through the growing pains. He went through them and I personally went through them as his manager. I think too much time was devoted to Alex's comfort level or happiness level. When it got down to it, it was `OK, you're a major league baseball player. You're paid to produce, so let's see you do it.' And he's doing it."


Added Guillen: "I remember Kevin Millar told me, `If you change Alex Gonzalez, you'd be a supercoach.' He never thought Alex Gonzalez could be changed."


`alex is alex'


Gonzalez hasn't changed. His preferred greeting remains a frigid look and quick nod rather than a warm "hello." He still struggles at maintaining eye contact.


Those outside of Gonzalez's inner circle can engage him in conversation. They just can't wait for him to initiate it.


His voice isn't any more audible in the clubhouse, just on the field.


"Alex is Alex," Guillen said. "Alex is quiet, and when he makes mistakes he feels like people think he doesn't [care] about it. That's the way he is, on the field, off the field, since he was a baby. A lot of people [criticized] him because they thought he didn't care about the game, and that's not true. ... Alex is the Alex Gonzalez we want him to be."


Added Boles: "You don't expect everybody to be Johnny Sunshine and gregarious. You just hope guys maximize their ability. Normally they do that when they feel good about themselves and what they're doing."


How does Gonzalez feel about what he's doing? How does he feel about the game?


Put him in the batters' box or in front of a concrete block wall and let him give you the answer.

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Defensively last season he was great, but his offense was horrible.


Let's just hope he doesn't fall apart after the All-Star break hitting wise, like he did back in '99...

He was putting all together before he got hurt. He would of posted some great numbers last year if it wasnt for the injury....

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