So this is what happened, yes it did, every last word, and it might seem superficial, silly, maybe even ridiculous, to describe what happened when Jonny Gomes sat among the firefighters and cops this week, talking ball.
Jonny, who was the toughest pitcher you faced? Who was the best hitter you saw? Who played defense better than anyone? Jonny, could you talk about what it was like to play in the big leagues for 13 years?
Not once did Gomes blink or bristle. Not once did he wonder why talking about baseball, a sport played by children, was so important in such a very adult setting. Gomes knew, just knew, the answer, just by looking at their faces.
“I think I was able to let them take a breath for just a sec,” Gomes said. “It might have been as valuable as any of the other positive things going on.”
Because they could leave a wasteland without moving a muscle. Imagine how that felt. They could float above it all with their imagination, imagining Gomes stepping in the batter’s box, to face Yankees reliever Mariano Rivera, the toughest pitcher he ever faced. No rubble in those thoughts. Just that cut fastball that will make Rivera a Hall of Famer. And Gomes, their homeboy who made good, adjusting his helmet as he always did. That’s not just an image. That’s a jet-pack sprint from reality and Gomes was happy to go with them.
“Santa Rosa’s on fire!” good friend Brandon Deering told Gomes by cellphone a week from last Monday. Gomes was home in Scottsdale, Arizona. While a Deering text had come earlier, these were the first words Gomes heard. Social media will never be as real or impactful as a human voice.
“My stomach was tossing and turning, not being able to help,” he said.
Gomes, 37, had no doubt what to do next. Never has. The man makes decisions without flinching. This was hellfire in the 707 area code. This is where Gomes grew up, at Casa Grande and SRJC. The Chamber of Commerce should rent this guy out. He wore “707” on his cleats and glove when he played for seven teams in the big leagues.
“I’ve traveled to about every state in America,” Gomes said. “And when I meet someone and they ask where I’m from I never say, ‘California.’ I say ‘Sonoma County’ and no one asks me where that’s at. Instead they say, ‘Oh, what a beautiful place.’ You don’t get that reaction everywhere. So I had to have my feet on the soil of 707.”
So this was how it was supposed to play. He would fly up immediately. He would ship a 21/2-ton truck to Sonoma County, the kind of truck that would turn a Ford Fusion into a place mat. Gomes would take the truck everywhere, helping out first responders and then guarding ravished neighborhoods at night. That was how it was supposed to play out.
Ah, as these wildfires have shown us, predictability is something best left to mathematicians.
Stay away, Gomes was told. Wait. We’re just trying to save lives right now. And so he did.
When his truck arrived, that plan was altered as well. A truck that large has gone on the roads infrequently. It would attract crowds, whispers and the inevitable resentment. Oh, here’s Mister Big Leagues big-leaguing us.
“I don’t need a cop to say anything good about me,” said Gomes, when asked if I could talk to someone who was there when he told baseball stories. “That’s not my speed. The cops are the heroes.”
The cops also are his friends as well as the firefighters. Gomes has community roots, the kind of roots that go deep because he put them there. Gomes has contributed to charities throughout his big-league career, anything from cancer to childhood leukemia to just about any disease that can cripple or kill.
So it wasn’t a stretch at all for Gomes to start an online donation site: www.gofundme/707Relief. For $25 you can buy one of his T-shirts: “Stronger 707 Together.”
In Arizona, Gomes was attached at the hip to the television news. Day by day the news and his anxiety was growing. His brother, Joey, was evacuated three times from his Santa Rosa home; his house stood.
“There were bombs (break-out fires) going off everywhere,” Gomes said.
Then he arrived and saw immediately how television did not accurately capture the width and breath of destruction. What he saw on Arizona television was looking through a keyhole. This week, first responders took Gomes on a three-hour ride through the burnt-out neighborhoods.
“Usually when you see a video of something,” Gomes said, “that’ll be enough. But when I was on the ride, Cardinal Newman was a scene and then Fountaingrove was a scene and then Coffey Park was a scene and it kept going and going.
“I’d go down a street and I’d see a boat. And then I’d look down the street and there’d be the trailer. I’d see burnt cars upside down; I know the owner didn’t park his car upside down. I’d see liquified metal wrapped around a tree like a ribbon.
“It kept going and going and going.”
Gomes is staying at a friend’s house, police officer Ryan Cogbill. For four nights this week he never saw Cogbill. “I’d see Ryan during the day,” Gomes said.
On Monday, Gomes will head back to Arizona. He misses his wife of 10 years, Kristi, and his three young children, Zoe, Colt and Capri. He’s expecting questions. What was it like, dad?
Dad will tell them and, well, he’ll also tell the kids that Joey Votto was the purest hitter he ever saw and Scott Rolen was the best fielder.
Gomes will go where his children ask of him but, if it’s all the same to them, Jonny would like to stay in that circle with those first responders, where he gave himself and them a break, when grown men were more than happy to think like a kid again, when baseball was indeed more than a sport.
To comment on Bob Padecky’s column, write him at firstname.lastname@example.org.