Padecky: Major League Baseball veteran, Petaluma native Jonny Gomes waiting for sport to return

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To know Jonny Gomes is to hear someone who would make a lousy politician. He speaks in a straight line. Direct. Clear. No drifting to confusion or uncertainty. No hiding a thought, an opinion, wondering how it’ll be received. Gomes takes the doubt out of being close.

There was no hint of a surprise that was to come when Gomes spoke of what baseball has meant to him. Now a minor league instructor for the Arizona Diamondbacks, Gomes has no problem explaining to the hopefuls what the sport has done for him.

“It wasn’t just a game to me,” said the Casa Grande graduate, who grew up in Petaluma but now lives in Scottsdale, Arizona. “It was my life. It was my best friend. It could change my mood, bring me up when I felt down. It was my everything. I was married to the game.”

That obsession carried him to the big leagues, 13 years in Major League Baseball. He played for seven teams, including two stints with the A’s. Played in a World Series. Made some very nice coin. Gave a very emotional speech from the stage during Kansas City’s World Series victory parade in 2015. All the words and the emotion behind them cannot be repeated here, as some of them might stiffen the back of those who use “gosh” as an expletive.

Two sentences are PG-13 suitable.

“You want a PC (politically correct) person? I’m not a PC person!”

The Royals crowd went nuts. That’s vintage Gomes. His personality is connected to an electrical socket somewhere. His emotions are like his eyebrows. They go everywhere he goes. Like his opinions.

And again he stayed true to his nature when he was asked if there would be any lingering effect from the Houston Astros’ cheating scandal that rocked the sport this past offseason. Would time diminish the tarnish?

“It’s never going away,” Gomes said. “Ten years from now they’ll be some guy sitting behind a dugout banging on a trash can. I’m actually surprised the punishment wasn’t more severe.”

MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred took the easy way out and left players free from discipline. If Manfred really wanted to know why electronic sign stealing was so disgraceful, embarrassing and like a hand grenade to the very integrity of the sport, he should have asked Gomes for his opinion. If Manfred had, he could have appreciated the gravity of the situation a bit more.

It had to do with weiging the three black marks that have smeared the sport.

“If I was a pitcher,” Gomes said, “I had these three choices: Face a batter that was on steroids. A batter who bet on the game. A batter who knew every pitch that was coming. I’d rather face the first two. It’s the worst way to cheat, knowing the pitch that was coming.”

Gomes, 39, is not a newbie. He knows the parameters of acceptance in baseball. Letting the infield grass grow or cut it down depending on the skills at the plate. Watering the infield to slow down sprinters. Nodding in respect at the base runner on second who is savvy enough to steal signs by looking at the catcher. Studying a pitcher’s release point to see a different angle for different pitches.

“That’s why offensive coordinators in football cover their mouths when they are sending in plays,” Gomes said. Or catchers and pitchers cover their mouths with their gloves when conferring on the mound. That’s gamesmanship.

“That’s fine,” Gomes said.

That’s Gomes’ knowable and acceptable universe, the one he has traveled in most of his life. It’s understandable. While not always pleasant, it’s at least familiar, workable. Answers are there, however painful. Solutions present themselves, however difficult. And thus we finally arrive at one of the few times I have ever heard Jonny Gomes pause after a question and not immediately respond. It had to do with America, not just baseball, shutting down because of the novel coronavirus.

“So what do you tell Arizona’s minor leaguers who have to stay at home like the rest of the us? It’s the same thing I would ask of college, high school or Little League coaches. What do you say to kids who love the game as much as you do, who want to advance to their dream of playing in the big leagues? What do you tell them when they ask you for advice?”

The silence lasted for a few seconds. But considering it was Gomes, it felt like forever.

“I’ve got nothing for you,” Gomes said. “I’ve never dealt with anything like this before. No one has.”

Another pause.

“I would tell them,” as he paused again, “to keep eating clean. It might be tempting to sit down with a couple bags of Doritos. Don’t do it. But then … for how long? No one knows when we’re coming back. I’ve got some players who come from backgrounds in which they have batting cages at home. Great. But how many times can you hit off a tee?

“But a lot of kids don’t have that. I got one kid in Chicago who throws a whiffle ball into curtains at home.”

I expressed a certain laugh when I heard that. Never heard Tom Seaver use that as a training technique. I did something similar as a kid when it rained in Florida, holding a pingpong ball like a knuckleball and throwing it at a chair.

“But you know you can’t judge him for that,” Gomes continued. “You can’t judge anyone at what they are doing right now. How do you tell someone how to train now? For what? For how long? Do you go light or go heavy? If you do pushups and you’re a pitcher, would you risk a shoulder injury?”

Gomes is frustrated as he helps the kids with base running and outfield play. For the moment, “hang in there” is not the greatest teaching tool. What possibly could take baseball’s place in his life right now, considering how he is “married” to the sport? What, oh what? In that, Gomes is fortunate.

How about being married to Amber? How about Amber due to deliver a baby on Sunday? How about that baby being the fourth Gomes kid in the house who is 10 years old or younger? How about that for a distraction? How about that for madness, you might say in these sheltered times?

“I think I’m meant to be a father,” he said. “I love it. Right now I’m dominating on my mountain bike. I have a thousand-rep April. Every minute on a bike is a rep. Every pushup is a rep, every pullup is a rep. And every minute you run.”

Right now also was the right time to ask — “You gonna stop at four? You already have an infield. Going to fill out more of the team?”

As usual, Gomes was at the ready.

“Yeah,” he said. “See, I want to reload the Gomes Tribe. I don’t have a lot around me. Many have passed. I don’t have a lot from my beginnings.”

While some of us may have been born with a silver spoon in our mouths, Gomes was born holding a paper plate. Baseball was his outlet, his zest, his daily ritual. It was as close to him as breathing air. Check that. IS as close to him as breathing.

Having four kids, five kids, six kids too? Is there room for all that? Of course, Jonny Gomes would say. He has two families. What’s wrong with challenges? This is easier, he would say, than trying to make the big leagues after being drafted in the 18th round in 2001, then sticking around for 13 years. Framed like that, I think Jonny Gomes is hoping for quintuplets after this one. That way he’ll have a full roster.

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