MILWAUKEE -- You won't hear any whining from the mouth of Jonny Gomes. Good luck trying to draw the mildest of complaints from the Reds left fielder. A Mohawk-headed grinder, Gomes isn't happy-go-lucky. But give him a tractor-trailer full of lemons, and he would find a way to build a chain of lemonade stands from Cincinnati to his hometown of Petaluma, Calif. "There's nothing I want more in my baseball world than to be in the middle of the lineup during all of this team's success," Gomes said. "That's what I've got going on now. I'm pretty happy."
Gomes, 29, was the very last offseason addition the Reds made this winter when they re-signed him as a free agent to a one-year, $800,000 contract on Feb. 22. Even though he had 20 homers and 51 RBIs in only 281 at-bats as a part-time player last season, he was unemployed all winter. It only served to motivate an already motivated Gomes. Now batting .265 with 17 home runs and having smashed his previous career high with 84 RBIs, he moved into a full-time role in left field in May by hitting .364 for the month. The season has added another chapter to what's already been a baseball version of a Horatio Alger-like story. As a teenager, Gomes had concerns far greater than where he might play professional baseball for large sums of money. There were times in his youth that Gomes, his mother Michelle and older brother Joey, lived literally hand-to-mouth. Occasionally homeless, the Gomes family would sometimes have to spend the night in a shelter. "It's two totally different aspects of life -- a hard time in baseball vs. the hard time in life," Gomes said. "The hard time in life is you don't know where your next meal is going to be." Gomes' pride in his hometown of Petaluma stems from the citizens' generosity. His family often had friends give them a place to sleep and meals to eat. "We were surrounded by great people. Our friends took us in all the time," Gomes said. "I never wanted to go to the shelter. Sometimes it was the last option. I felt like that was rock bottom going there. My mom would go way more than we would, because we could stay at our friends' houses and stuff. "We rallied together. Talking about it, it might seem like, 'Oh my gosh,' or a tough story. It really wasn't while you're there. It was tough, but it was just the hand we were dealt. We just rolled with it. We didn't drop our heads and feel sorry for ourselves."
His baseball talent would eventually lift Gomes out of poverty. Drafted in the 18th round by the Rays in 2001, he debuted in the Majors with Tampa Bay in 2003. Brother Joey is also a professional ballplayer and just finished his season with an independent league team in Schaumburg, Ill.
That didn't mean a full escape from scary life-altering moments. In 1997 while in high school, Gomes was a backseat passenger in a car accident that killed his best friend, Adam Westcott, who was seated next to him in the car. Gomes, who has numerous tattoos, carries the initials "A.W." on one of them.
On Christmas Eve 2002 after he turned 23, Gomes suffered a heart attack even though he was in exemplary health and had good habits. He didn't realize it because he had indigestion, and stopped breathing 27 hours later. An emergency angioplasty procedure to unclog an artery saved his life.
Gomes hasn't forgotten Petaluma and has the town's 707 area code on his gloves and shoes. He also wears T-shirts in the clubhouse that affectionately say "Petalocos 707" on the front and has passed them out to several teammates.
"I had so many chances with the fork in the road to take a wrong turn," Gomes said. "It's the same in baseball. You can go 0-for-8 or 0-for-12. Instead of trying to nip it in the bud and fixing it, you can start swinging harder and trying to hit that three-run homer when no one is on base."
This season, Gomes had such valleys that offset the early-season peaks, including a 27-game stretch stuck on 99 career home runs from July 19-Aug. 24, during which he batted .196 with two RBIs. The elusive homer finally came off left-hander Madison Bumgarner in a 12-11 win over the Giants in San Francisco.
"One thing that he has that I truly admire -- every day he doesn't change because he's going 0-for-4 or 0-for-20," Reds shortstop Orlando Cabrera said. "Even when he was struggling to get that 100th home run, he was Jonny Gomes every day. This guy wants to win. He's battling. He's trying to do something, but he is still the same guy. He gained a lot of respect from me during that period of time."
Reds fans have taken a liking to the hard-nosed play of Gomes, who rarely has a clean uniform and always plays aggressively. Sometimes that gets him thrown out on the bases, and occasionally it results in a misguided throw over the cutoff man, but fans appreciate his all-out style of play.
"He comes to play and loves to play," Reds manager Dusty Baker said. "He has an aggressive, get-after-it personality. Sometimes that is his best attribute. It can be a detriment sometimes. I think he'll learn to calm down at the right times with it. This is the most at-bats Jonny has ever had, the most he's ever played. It's a period of adjustment for him, too."
Gomes is definitely savoring the opportunity to return to the postseason, especially since he was a spectator the last time his team was there. In 2008, the Rays went to the World Series, but Gomes struggled that season and was left off the playoff roster. He was non-tendered that offseason and signed a Minor League deal with Cincinnati that winter.
"Two years down the road, I'm batting fourth or fifth for a first-place club and playing every day," Gomes said. "Those were two things I didn't know would ever happen again. There were no guarantees."
And once again, there are no assurances that Gomes will return to the Reds. The team holds his $1.75 million club option for 2011, and there have been no indications either way that it will be picked up. The odds seem good, based on the relative bargain of the deal compared to the numbers produced. But the Reds have young outfielders entrenched in center (Drew Stubbs) and right (Jay Bruce) and another talented young outfielder in Chris Heisey.
Having had odds stacked against him so many times, Gomes takes nothing for granted -- ever.
"With the offseason I had last year, anything is an option. It taught me to keep all of my options open," Gomes said. "I think signing the day before Spring Training started and still focusing on this team and giving them all I had and not holding a grudge for waiting so long -- I'm just happy to be in a big league uniform."
|"There's nothing I want more in my baseball world than to be in the middle of the lineup during all of this team's success."|
|-- Jonny Gomes|