OAKLAND - At an earlier age than most, Petaluma's Jonny Gomes discovered life wasn't fair. Baseball, however, was different.
On a diamond, he didn't feel the shame connected with the clothes he wore or the place he called home. Much to his relief, baseball uniforms didn't have brand-name labels.
As a teenager, he lived for a month with his mom and older brother, Joey, in a homeless shelter. But for a few hours each day he had baseball, which let him shake the feeling that being poor defined him.
"Everyone was wearing the same uniform," Gomes said. "No one was the hot shot. No one was the kid who lived in the big house. We were at baseball practice. We were just one team. I was able to do well in those situations and I always looked forward to that."
The sport became a refuge for Gomes, 29, the Cincinnati Reds left fielder whose success has been fueled by a burning desire to escape poverty's powerlessness.
His passion has helped the former 18th-round draft pick out of Santa Rosa Junior College survive despite being dismissed and demoted since entering the big leagues with such promise. He finished third in the American League Rookie of the Year voting in 2005 with Tampa Bay. Then, on the cusp of stardom, his career slowly nose-dived.
Now 14 months removed from starting the 2009 season in Triple-A and five months away from being largely ignored on the open market by all 30 big-league teams, Gomes, like Lazarus rising from the dead, is in the midst of the best season of his career.
His circumstances, of course, have changed. Now financially secure, he married his longtime girlfriend, Kristi Widlak, last year and he beams when talking about his first Father's Day with their 8-month-old daughter, Zoe.
In one fundamental way, though, Gomes has remained unchanged. He still plays baseball as if it's his only refuge, which explains his hell-bent style and refusal to be cast aside.
"He brings a great energy to the field and it's genuine," said Reds third baseman Scott Rolen. "It's not a show. He's not trying to get on SportsCenter. He's competing and he's trying to win ballgames. With that, you get enthusiasm. With that, you get genuine emotion. It's a great thing for this ballclub and, to take it a step further, I think it's a great thing for the game of baseball."
The muscle-bound 6-foot-1, 225-pound Gomes is often called a throwback, an old-school player who was suspended twice in 2008 for fighting while coming to the defense of teammates. Contributing to his rugged persona is his mohawk, tattoos and this: No player in Tampa Bay Rays history has been hit by more pitches.
His teammates in Cincinnati have called him Rocky, a reference to his pregame sprints up and down the stadium steps.
"He is literally bringing 100 percent of whatever he has every single day," said Reds outfielder Jay Bruce, 23. "I mean, he's had to earn everything he's got. I have a ton of respect for him — as much as I have for anyone in the game."
Last year, after enduring his third minor-league demotion since 2007, Gomes earned a promotion with the Reds and made the most of it. He hit .267 with 20 homers and 51 RBIs in 281 at-bats while playing under a minor-league contract. He hit a homer every 14.1 at-bats, ranking 10th in the majors among players with at least 300 plate appearances.