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Marlins' Gonzalez shaped, inspired by family's dreams


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It's far to early for me to know whether I will like or dislike Fredi's in-game management. What I do know is that I already like him as a person. Maybe I'm a softie but this article really touched me.

 

Miami Herald, Sunday Focus

SUNDAY FOCUS | FREDI GONZALEZ

 

Marlins' Gonzalez shaped, inspired by family's dreams

New Marlins manager Fredi Gonzalez doesn't have to look any farther than his hard-working, humble parents for inspiration. 'I owe everything to them,' he said.

 

BY MICHELLE KAUFMAN

mkaufman@MiamiHerald.com

 

It was past midnight, and finally the house was quiet. The well-wishers had stopped calling, the television crew was gone, the scrapbooks were back on the shelves and her husband was fast asleep. Caridad Gonzalez, whose oldest son had just been named manager of the Florida Marlins, was alone with her emotions at last.

 

She was weeping.

 

For years, she had prayed she would live long enough to see Fredi become a major-league manager, and now that it had happened -- with the hometown Marlins, no less -- four decades' worth of feelings trickled down her face.

 

'I cried, and thanked God, and said, `Just give me a little more time so I can see Fredito manage the opener next season; and after that, do with me whatever you want,' '' she said. ``This has been the dream of our whole family, it took so much sacrifice, and it's a miracle that it came true.''

 

She thought back to Dec. 30, 1966, when she and husband Fredi boarded that fateful flight in Varadero, Cuba, and landed in Miami with one change of clothes and nine relatives, including her three young children, Fredi Jr. (2), Caridad (1) and Enrique ''Nini'' (7 months). She remembered how the 11 of them began their American dream piled into an efficiency near Jackson Memorial Hospital, and how she massaged Ben-Gay into her husband's aching back every night so he could wake up at 4 a.m. and lug crates at the Pepsi plant for $69 a week.

 

She was reminded of El Aguacate, the green dump truck her husband bought with their meager savings in the early 1970s. He hand-painted El Aguacate (The Avocado) in white letters on its side and took it to construction sites to make extra money. At dinnertime, he drove it to a gas station on Coral Way, where he worked the night shift. On weekends, that truck delivered Fredi Jr. to Little League games at Grapeland Park, near the airport, where he played for a team called Los Cubanitos.

 

It was at that park, under the direction of former Cuban great Emilio Cabrera, that Fredi Jr. became smitten with baseball. By the time he made the varsity team at Miami's Southridge High, it was a full-blown love affair.

 

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All those memories came rushing back to Caridad Gonzalez as she lay awake in bed Oct. 3, the night her 42-year-old son was named manager of the Marlins. She recalled July 4, 1971, one of the proudest days of her life, when, with $200 down, $169 closing costs and some government aid, they purchased the three-bedroom Cutler Ridge house they still live in 35 years later.

 

And her heart broke all over again when she remembered the nights she left her three children alone while she went back to college to get her teaching degree and her husband worked at the gas station. Fredi Jr. was 8 at the time, and he was in charge. Even then, he was a good manager.

 

''I'd cook them dinner, make sure they were bathed, and the three of them would sit there together in a room doing their homework and watching TV,'' said Caridad, who will retire in December after 30 years as a teacher at West Homestead Elementary. ``I instructed them not to open the door for anyone. My neighbor kept an eye on the house, and my husband called every hour to make sure they were OK. By the time we got home, they had put themselves to bed.''

 

The house, a few blocks from Southridge High, hasn't changed much since Fredi and ''Nini'' shared a bedroom there, except that now there are three small Marlins pennants hanging from the lamp post. A Marlins lamp globe is on order. The yard is perfectly manicured, a religious statue watches over the garden, and the inside of the house is immaculate, every trinket in its place. Fredi's trumpet still is in his old bedroom, a reminder of the nights he serenaded the family with Feelings.

 

Nearly every inch of the living room and family room walls is covered with family photos -- baby pictures, communion photos, Quinces photos, graduation portraits, wedding portraits, holiday photos. In the center of every family portrait are Caridad and Fredi Sr., arm in arm, beaming with pride.

 

As Fredi's baseball career progressed, the hallway evolved into the Fredi Gonzalez Hallway of Fame. His proud papa, who loves baseball as much -- if not more -- than his son, is happy to give visitors a guided tour in Spanish.

 

``Here is the lineup card from when Fredito filled in for John Boles and managed the Marlins in 1999, and look, there's his signature right there -- Fredi Gonzalez.

 

``Here's Fredito's baseball card from the Greensboro Hornets, and the Sea Dogs, and the . . . Oh, look, here's a story that ran in the paper when he managed the Miami Miracle, and here's a Marlins jersey he had framed for me for Father's Day.''

 

The elder Gonzalez leads the way into his small office, and the tour continues. One by one, he picks up the baseballs preserved in plexiglass boxes and explains their significance.

 

''Here's the ball from when the Miracle beat the Dodgers 5-2 at Pompano Stadium, and here's the ball from Fredito's first win as manager with the Erie [Pa.] Sailors, and here's a ball from his 500th win, and here's the ball from his first Triple A win,'' Fredi Sr. said. ``He gives me these things and probably doesn't even know that I've saved all of it.''

 

He has the 1982 letter from the New York Yankees, informing Fredi Jr. he had been drafted, and even has his son's membership card from Los Cubanitos' 1973 season. Every memento is in mint condition.

 

On the shelves are dozens of scrapbooks of the younger Gonzalez's career, one for each season. Fredi Sr. pulls down the Southridge book. In it is every boxscore, clipped from the newspaper and pasted down, as well as weekly team standings and game stories. There are similar books, made with the same painstaking detail, for the minor-league years in Bradenton, Greensboro, N.C., Erie, Charlotte, N.C., and Portland, Maine. And another book for his years as third-base coach of the Atlanta Braves.

 

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For nearly two hours, the proud father pulls memorabilia from shelves and closets.

 

''We have always supported all three of our children in everything they do, and I am very proud of all of them,'' said Fredi Sr., who has worked at Northwestern Meat Distributor for three decades and has no plans to quit. ``I have to admit, I cried at work when they showed Fredi's news conference on TV last week. How could I not? Not one cent have I ever spent on a lawyer to defend one of my children. They didn't grow up in a privileged neighborhood, but they stayed out of trouble and made something of themselves.''

 

Cari, Gonzalez's sister, works for DHL shipping company, and his brother, ''Nini,'' is the head of security at Felix Varela High School.

 

''Even though Fredi was the sports star, there was never any jealousy,'' ''Nini'' said. ``There was too much love for us to be jealous.''

 

Cari said: ``When I saw my brother on TV as the new Marlins manager, I couldn't stop crying. This is a dream come true for our whole family.''

 

Fredi credits his parents for his success. ''I owe everything to them,'' he said. 'They made sacrifices for us, and they taught me to stay grounded, to be honest and humble, and to work hard. My dad always said, `Don't talk about how good you are. Just go about your business and let other people talk about you.' He has been part of this dream from the start. I hope it won't be too hard on him when people start saying his little boy's a bum.''

 

From his mother, he learned loyalty. Caridad Gonzalez has had opportunities to transfer from cash-strapped West Homestead Elementary, but she wouldn't think of it. She loves that school almost as much as her family, so much so that she burst into tears when she told a reporter how proud she is that the school upgraded from a ''D'' to a ''B'' in the latest rankings. ''I want that in the paper,'' she said. ``I want the world to know.''

 

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Ask anyone who knows Gonzalez why he would make a good manager in the majors, and the same thing keeps coming up: his people skills.

 

Fred Burnside was Gonzalez's coach in 10th grade. The day after the coach announced he was leaving for Miami Dade College, he found a wood plaque on his desk. It was from Gonzalez. He had made it in shop class. It read: ``Thanks Coach. We'll Miss You.''

 

''I will never forget that plaque for as long as I live,'' said Burnside, now an academic advisor at Miami Southridge. ``For a 10th-grade kid to be that thoughtful is very unusual. Fredi always stood out.''

 

Miami Dade coach Steve Hertz, who was Gonzalez's coach in 11th and 12th grades, had similar recollections. ''Fredi was always a very mature kid,'' he said. ``He had great perspective on life and baseball and had a calming influence on his teammates.''

 

JC Battista was one of those teammates. They played together for Los Cubanitos, at Perrine Khoury League, Mays Junior High, and at Southridge. ''When Fredi spoke, people listened,'' said Battista, an account executive for Metro PCS in Tampa. ``He wasn't a jokester, but he was generous, and everyone felt good around him.''

 

A few minutes in the presence of the Gonzalez family is all it takes to understand where his warmth comes from. Knowing that a reporter was going to bring her 6-year-old daughter to the interview, Caridad Gonzalez went out and bought the girl a doll, and asked Cari and ''Nini'' to stop by with their kids. She also prepared a meal, as she has done most every night of her adult life.

 

Sometimes it's picadillo, sometimes it's arroz con pollo or ropa vieja, but there always is warm food on the table. Fredi's wife, Pamela, who was a bat girl at Southridge, calls Caridad from Atlanta for Cuban cooking tips.

 

After Gonzalez's inaugural Marlins news conference, general manager Admin Beinfest asked his new manager if he would like to go to dinner. ''Sorry, I can't,'' Gonzalez said. ``I have plans.''

 

There was only one place he wanted to be on that night, and it wasn't some trendy restaurant. It was at the dining room table in Cutler Ridge, surrounded by his biggest fans.

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