I was unsure about the kind of mood Miguel Gonzalez would be in at Anaheim Stadium on Saturday, July 16. He had pitched there the night before for the Chicago White Sox against the Angels, in the first game for both teams following the All-Star break. He pitched credibly, going six-plus innings, but was on the wrong side of a 7-0 loss. (The Angels would sweep the weekend three-game series, outscoring the White Sox 16-1).
But if there were any leftover irritants still swirling inside Gomez from Friday, he kept them there. His handshake is firm, his manner congenial toward someone he’s meeting for the first time. He said he had a limited amount of time to chat, and yet talked like he could have gone on for hours.
Gonzalez, now 32, is still revered by those who know him in San Fernando, where he went to high school. And not just because he purchased a new baseball scoreboard back in February for Pioneer Park here where he played Little League baseball as a kid — without actively seeking publicity or expecting anything in return besides “thanks” from a grateful community.
“Miguel is a big-time character guy,” noted Armando Gomez, his varsity baseball coach at San Fernando High, after hearing of Gonzalez’s purchase.
“San Fernando has always been important to me. It’s where I grew up. That’s where my family’s from, that’s where my friends are from,” said Gonzalez, whose family moved here from Guadalajara, Mexico. “I started when I was 11 years old. It was the first time I started playing. Before that, may parents didn’t know much about it. We came from Mexico and there was nothing for kids. As big as baseball was — and it’s even bigger now with little league teams — before there wasn’t anything like that. So my dad didn’t really know anything about it.
“But I would practice (at Pioneer Park). I would go practice with my cousins and uncles on the field, and we’d have a really good time. And that’s how I learned to play baseball. Once I got into Little League, I knew what it was. And it became natural to me. It’s always fun to give back to the community. And that’s what we did.”
His route to the major leagues was arduous. He signed with the Angels as a non-drafted free agent in 2004 out of Mission College and toiled in their minor league system (as well as played winter ball in Mexico) before being taken by Boston in 2009 as a Rule 5 Draft selection. Baltimore eventually got him, and Gonzalez made his major league debut in 2012. He’s had to overcome injuries to his knee and to his elbow, the latter requiring Tommy John surgery which kept him from playing in 2008. And his 2015 season with Baltimore was diminished by a groin strain and shoulder tendonitis.
The Orioles, somewhat unexpectedly, released Gonzalez just before the 2016 season began. After Gonzalez cleared waivers, the White Sox signed him to a minor league in April (for roughly a tenth of the $5.1 million Baltimore was to pay him this season) and he became a fixture in the White Sox rotation in June.
Despite his current overall record — 2-5 with a 4.28 earned run average entering Wednesday’s scheduled start against Seattle — Gonzalez has made a favorable impression.
“I like him,” said Don Cooper, who’s spent 28 seasons in the White Sox organization and has been the team’s pitching coach since 2002. “He’s prepared. He works hard. He’s got experience. He throws strikes with all his pitches.
“He’s not a guy who’s gonna dominate a game because of velocity. He’s not a guy who’s gonna jump out at you, [make you] say ‘wow, look at this fastball, this curveball.’ But his whole package together gives him a chance to get people out and dominate in a different way.”
Manager Robin Ventura remembered Gonzalez throwing well against Chicago. “And I think that holds more than anything else — how you see a guy when you play against him,” Ventura said. “He always had good control, kept you off-balance. He could always spin a good curveball when he needed it. And he was the (AL) East, which is a tough division.
“For us there is stability with him. You know what to expect. And that’s important for us; you have to trust that the guy’s not gonna walk a lot of people and get himself in trouble.”
Nonetheless, Gonzalez is in a precarious position. His contract is only for this season. He’s not only trying to help the White Sox make the playoffs — they trail Cleveland big in AL Central but are within range of Boston and Toronto for the two AL Wild Card spots — he’s trying to convince Chicago to keep him or another team to add him in 2017.
It must be hard not to have the mind exaggerate each win or loss.
“If you keep things simple, and keep them in the moment, things will happen for a good reason,” Gonzalez said. “Obviously, you’ve got to perform. If you don’t, teams won’t want you.
“Every time I go out there and pitch, I’m not only pitching for one organization. Because you never know what’s going to happen — especially guys like myself under a one-year contract and don’t know what’s going to happen next year. We have to try and do the best we can every time we’re out there.”
Ventura, who played 16 major league seasons with four teams (including the White Sox and Dodgers) from 1989-2004, can empathize.
“It’s always tough for each player to be able to do that. And it’s always a tough spot to be in. For him, he realizes that if it’s for us or somebody else, somebody’s always watching,” the manager said.
“That’s the important part to remember; that you have to put that on the back burner and focus on what you’re doing that day. I think your focus becomes a little tighter when you’re on a one-year deal, just because it’s so important. And you can’t allow yourself to drift into negative thoughts like ‘I’m blowin’ it,’ or ‘I need to do more’ than you’re capable of doing. For him, I think he’s done a really good job of…keeping his focus tight. [But] he’s a team guy, willing to do anything. And I don’t see that changing, whether he signs a contract with us or doesn’t sign a contract.”
For now Gonzalez will simply go about his business, pitching every time the White Sox hand him the ball. Baseball — and life — will take him where it takes him.
But a love for San Fernando will always be with him.
“I’ll be a Tiger the rest of my life,” he said.