EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

October 3, 2013

Jonny Baseball

Behind the antics and wild looks is one of the game's most respected players

On Pro Baseball
Christopher Smith

---- — BOSTON — He is known for his unkempt beard, tattoos and crazy stunts.

He wore an Army helmet to celebrate after the Red Sox clinched the AL East and drop-kicked his helmet before crossing home on his walkoff homer earlier in the summer.

The statistics and the zaniness, though, hardly tell the Jonny Gomes story.

Gomes finished the regular season with a .247 batting average and he spent more innings on the bench than he probably preferred.

Gomes’ 366 plate appearances were 170 fewer than fellow outfielder Daniel Nava had and about half Dustin Pedroia’s American League-leading 724. And his defense is hardly Gold Glove-worthy.

Despite being a platoon player, Gomes receives the highest respect from every Red Sox player and coach. He arguably has the strongest voice in Boston’s clubhouse — a voice most would think only a superstar could possess.

That leadership is a big reason why Boston is making its first playoff appearance since 2009.

“People talk about whether you’d rather have a five-tool player or a chemistry guy,” Gomes said. “I’d take a five-tool player. This game needs good players. When guys talk about how they (Boston’s front office) brought baseball chemistry guys in — Shane Victorino, myself, (Mike) Napoli — look at the numbers. They’re good baseball players.

“It’s not like we’re a bunch of rodeo clowns just having a good time listening to loud music and having fun. These guys are Gold Glove/Silver Slugger/All-Star/world title/world champs. Good players.”

Gomes, who posted a .344 on-base percentage — has never won a Gold Glove or Silver Slugger award. He has never been selected to All-Star team either. What he has done, however, is win, win, win, win ... and win some more.

Winning follows the 32-year-old left fielder wherever he goes. Gomes has been on first-place teams in Tampa Bay, Cincinnati, Oakland and now Boston within the past six years. And there is a reason for that.

Baltimore pitcher Jason Hammel, who was with Gomes in 2008 when the Rays won the AL pennant, said: “He’s always had leadership qualities. Vocal guy. He definitely keeps a very fun clubhouse, but the other thing is that he’s a bulldog.

“He’ll fight for you. I was on the field when the benches cleared in spring training against the Yankees in 2008. And he was the first guy into the middle of the scruff.”

BASEBALL JUNKIE

What Gomes lacks in pure baseball skill, he makes up for in baseball smarts.

He is an influential voice in the clubhouse, on the bench and in the field because he knows the game so well.

His knowledge of baseball extends beyond what is happening today. The extrovert knows baseball history. He respects the game tremendously and he has great confidence in his abilities.

Red Sox catcher David Ross recently described Gomes as a “baseball junkie.” Gomes enjoys chatting with his teammates about last night’s game as well as what happened in 1988.

“It would be like someone talking about cars,” Gomes said. “You’re not going to be talking about just the exhaust. You talk about everything.”

David Ortiz said, “Since way before a game is started until the game is finished, he’s watching. He’s on top of his game always. Playing or not playing, he’s a guy that will give you 120 percent all the time.”

‘EVERYONE IS DRIVING’

Gomes was born and raised in Petaluma, Calif., about 40 minutes away from the Oakland Athletics’ O.co Coliseum. He attended games there before the upper deck, better known as “Mount Davis”, was built in the mid-1990s. He was a fan when the Athletics made three consecutive World Series from 1988-1990.

When playing for the A’s in 2012, he would tell his teammates he went from wearing Oakland Athletics pajamas to an Oakland Athletics uniform. And he often would point to a hole in the wall at that stadium and tell his teammates, “That’s not rust. That’s not old. That’s history.”

Gomes’ goal last year was to help the young Oakland players realize they had a huge home-field advantage. He stressed to them that opposing teams didn’t like playing at the Coliseum because it’s difficult to hit homers there, so much foul territory exists and the stadium is comparable to a “graveyard” as he described it.

Oakland ended up going 50-31 at home in 2012 and won the AL West. Gomes batted .262 with a .377 on-base percentage in 99 games — but his influence went way beyond his statistics.

His imprint similarly has been placed on the 2013 Red Sox despite Boston being more of a veteran club than the 2012 Athletics.

From Gomes to Victorino to Napoli to Pedroia to David Ross to Ryan Dempster to Ortiz to Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Boston is filled with veteran leadership.

“Just because it’s a veteran team that doesn’t change who I am,” Gomes said. “It doesn’t change what I bring. We don’t need a leader on this team. All of these guys know how to play the game. All these guys know the pros and the cons and the scenarios of the game and how to play the game. You don’t have to lead by example because we’ve created an identity on this team on how to play.

“No one’s more important than the next. We win 1-9. So I can sit back and wait for David Ortiz to hit a three-run homer. We all take turns driving the bus.”

Gomes will speak up if something must be said.

“His delivery is precise with at times a little bit of flair to it,” Red Sox bench coach Torey Lovullo said. “He doesn’t mince his words. He gets his point across perfectly. He’s got a great sense of humor — a little bit of sarcasm in there. But when he wants to get his point across, he knows what he wants to say and how he wants to say it.

“He has showed us what helps him get ready for a big league game and how to perform.”

Gomes — who had six go-ahead hits this year — said his time spent in the National League helped him immensely.

“Your baseball knowledge really kind of excels and fills up when you go to the National League,” Gomes said. “I truly think the American League is a more talented league ... but the strategies, the double-switches, the pitch counts, everything in the National League you really have to pay attention to.”

LEARNED FROM THE BEST

Gomes has played for some great managers, including Lou Piniella, Joe Maddon, Dusty Baker, Davey Johnson and Bob Melvin, each of whom has won multiple Manager of the Year awards.

He also has been around the block a few times in life, dealing with events that have made him a “life veteran.”

In addition to spending some time homeless as a youngster, it’s well-documented (first reported by WEEI.com) that Gomes has had by his count five near-death experiences.

As a high school freshman he was able to escape from a sleeping bag that went up on fire when a candle dropped on it. Also in high school, Gomes was in a car crash that killed one of his good friends.

As a senior, he and a group of buddies were camping when someone fired rounds out of a shotgun in their direction and Gomes took cover behind a car.

Gomes also suffered a heart attack in 2002 and said he also once came face-to-face with a wolf.

So how did those events help develop Gomes into the leader he is today?

“In the past I’ve really tried to make it a point to play every game like it’s my last,” he said. “That turns out (to) be exhausting at times. But I just think my love and passion for just life and health and my love and passion for this game stands out.”

Winning might follow Gomes simply because of his positive attitude.

“A lot of people don’t understand about how it’s such a long season and a grind,” Hammel said. “If you start worrying about things, (it’s not good). The guy has a great head on his shoulders. He knows how to go through the grind. He knows how to get through those ups and downs and kind of keep an even keel.”

Follow Christopher Smith on Twitter @SmittyOnMLB