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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.

Still, the offseason proved baseball executives weren't believers. They still viewed Gomes as the boom-or-bust slugger who hit .221 with 45 homers in 887 at-bats with Tampa Bay from 2006-08.

After failing to generate serious interest as a free agent, Gomes signed a bargain-basement $800,000 contract with the Reds in late February, the day before the first full-squad workout of spring training.

His lack of suitors seemed odd given his 2009 season, but Gomes said he was never bitter.

Instead of pouting, Gomes, who lives in Scottsdale, Ariz., spent the offseason perspiring, working out at the North Scottsdale Athletes Performance Institute. He dropped weight — realizing one-dimensional sluggers aren't quite as coveted in the post-steroids era — and readied for the offer he believed would eventually come.

"He never got frustrated," said Joey Gomes, 30, an eighth-round pick in the 2002 MLB Draft who is playing independent baseball in Schaumburg, Ill. "You have to understand, he is so mentally tough. He always believes something good will happen. And if you don't have that in this game, it just won't."

After reporting to spring training, Gomes took a meeting with Reds manager Dusty Baker to heart.

Baker challenged Gomes to become a run-producer in the middle of Cincinnati's lineup. Gomes' power is prodigious. In 2006, he became the 13th player in MLB history to hit 11 homers in a month. He is one of 29 players in baseball history to have three-homer games with two different teams.

But Baker asked him to shorten his mighty swing, on occasion, and use the whole field.

"He told me the time is now," Gomes said. "It was time to take my career to the next level."

And Gomes has done just that, hitting .290 with nine homers and a team-leading 50 RBIs for the Reds, who are ?-game behind first-place St. Louis in the NL Central. Entering Thursday's games, Gomes ranked fourth in the NL in hitting with runners in scoring position (.436) and was tied for fifth in RBIs. He was tied for first in the majors with seven sacrifice flies.

His home-run total may be down, but his value has never been higher.

"He has less homers," Baker said. "But he's got more RBI, less strikeouts and a higher batting average. Which guy is more valuable?"

Gomes' re-emergence may seem unlikely. But he's become an expert in survival.

At Casa Grande High, he was a passenger in a car crash that killed his best friend, Adam Westcott. Gomes, who suffered minor injuries, was in the back left seat of the car. Adam was in the back right.

At 22, he spent a week in the hospital after suffering a heart attack. One of his valves became clogged, which left doctors perplexed given his excellent physical condition. They told Gomes he would have died if he had gone to bed instead of having his mom take him to the hospital. Gomes, who tried to ignore the pain in his chest for 24 hours, had stubbornly resisted the hospital visit.

Gomes' ability to endure pain was formed as a child.

Jonny and Joey were raised by a single mother, Michelle, who gave birth to both before she was 20. Michelle divorced her husband, Joe Gomes, when the boys were toddlers.

Michelle says Joe provided child support, but was never involved in Joey and Jonny's lives. His financial assistance helped, but it often wasn't enough to make ends meet even as Michelle worked as a waitress, a hairstylist, a hotel maid and sold cosmetics, among other jobs.

At various times, the water or electricity was shut off. In 1996, they spent a month in a homeless shelter in Petaluma as part of a program designed to assist single mothers. Looking back, Michelle says it was a blessing. But Jonny, who avoided the shelter and spent many nights at the houses of friends, was humiliated.

During their childhood, the brothers avoided having friends spend the night at their house. They returned a high-end bat an uncle gave them, cashing in the money from Big 5 to buy new clothes.

When the electricity was shut off, they snuck a 50-foot cord across the yard and plugged it into a neighbor's outlet so they could watch TV.

Michelle, 48, laughs when she recalls taking the labels off the shoes she bought the boys at K-Mart, trying to convince them they were Filas. But some memories don't inspire laughter. At one point, she had to use Jonny's paper-route money to pay the phone bill.

"I carried that guilt for a lot of years," Michelle said. "What parent wants to take money from their child so they can pay a bill? But Jonny said &‘Mom, take my $50 off the top of the refrigerator.' And I did because I had no choice."

In an effort to give the boys a private-school education, Michelle moved the family to her mom's house in Inverness and used the money she didn't pay in rent to send them to Cardinal Newman. Michelle would make the one-hour commute to Santa Rosa to drop them off at school. She then drove 30 miles to Novato to work at Supercuts before picking them up.

The schedule was taxing, but it was ultimately the tuition that forced her to send them to Casa Grande in mid-year when Joey was a sophomore and Jonny was a freshman.

Joey says he and his brother have never spent much time dwelling on their difficulties.

"Of course, it was tough. We certainly had more distractions than other kids growing up," Joey said. "But Jonny and I have never talked about it that much. It's something we never wanted to be a crutch. It was just the way things panned out growing up. Was it easy? No. Did we deal with it? Yes. That was just our attitude."

Said Jonny, "I just wanted to help myself out and help my family out so I didn't have to live all my life like that."

And he's succeeded. Gomes has yet to hit the free-agent jackpot, but he's earned over $3.6 million in his career.

He's used some of that to help support his mom, who lives nearby in El Mirage, Ariz., and devotes much of her time to volunteering at a food bank.

Gomes is proud that he's able to support his family due to his hard work and he's eager to be the devoted dad he never had.

In fact, he's thought about Zoe's future and is already fighting the urge to spoil her — aware that the subtle pitfalls of wealth can rival those of poverty.

"I don't want her to remotely experience how I grew up," he said. "But at the same time it made me the person I am."

Gomes, who poured himself into a sport that became his sanctuary, knows it's possible to gain so much from having so little.

Zoe won't have to follow the same road. But he wants her to arrive at the same destination.

You can reach Staff Writer Eric Branch at 521-5268 or eric.branch@pressdemocrat.com

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