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Why Jonny Gomes is perfect teammate

After one year with the Oakland A's, Jonny Gomes is moving to the Boston Red Sox, who signed him to a two-year deal.

Published: Thursday, December 6, 2012 at 11:33 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, December 6, 2012 at 11:33 a.m.

At first blush, it sounds a bit like psycho-babble and empty of true impact, calling an athlete a “high character guy.” So you can give him your wallet and he won't steal your money? Yeah, OK. Great. Whatever. You can trust him with your credit cards. That's nice but, really, how much is a high character guy really worth?

In Jonny Gomes' case, that would be $10 million. Which shows you how precious the commodity is in pro baseball. Yes, a commodity. An asset. A high character guy unites a clubhouse, dissolves factions, promotes responsibility. No team in baseball has so routinely ignored that kind of player and that kind of attitude than the Boston Red Sox, yes, the Red Sox, 25 players taking 25 different cabs after a game. As if 25 players were speaking 25 different languages with no translator and no inclination to find one.

Or, as the Sept. 21 headline over an MLB.com story read: “2012 Boston Red Sox Are One of the Most Dysfunctional Teams in MLB History.”

That's why the Red Sox went after Petaluma's Gomes the way a thirsty man goes after a bottle of water. Gotta have it. Need it. Won't make it without it. Talk to any big-league manager and he'll tell you the same thing: His biggest challenge is getting his players to play for teammates first, themselves second.

“I am someone who wears his emotions on his sleeve,” said Gomes, an outfielder and designated hitter. “I am someone who is just as happy when a teammate hits a home run as when I hit one. I am someone who has the back of his teammates. I will defend them. You have to be a bit of a chameleon, able to handle different personalities from different cultures, especially now that baseball is global.”

Money has changed all of pro sports but never so dramatically as baseball, where the average player's salary in 2012 was $3,440,000, according to CBSSports.com. With nearly every player his own mini-corporation, the tendency can be for a player to pay more attention to what a teammate makes, as opposed to how he plays.

“I am surprised no one has picked this up: Jonny is the perfect teammate,” said Gomes' brother, Joey. “If you want him to be team captain, he'll do it. If you want him to be a role player, he'll do it. If you want him to bat leadoff, he'll do it. Jonny never complains about playing time. Jonny can't understand the whining. You're still getting paid, aren't you? You're still on the team, aren't you?”

That selflessness is at the core of Gomes' appeal. Of course, if Gomes' value was just inspiration, the Red Sox would have signed motivational speaker Tony Roberts to play left field. Gomes can hit rocket shots, not as often as he would like but enough that he is a game changer and someone to be respected. Which leads to a most obvious question — with Gomes' short answer a relevant insight into his personality.

How does Gomes resist the temptation of trying to send a ball over Fenway's Green Monster, the left-field wall only 310 feet from home plate?

“You don't,” Gomes said. “You go for it.”

That's Gomes all the way. He goes for it, every play, every day. It's his nature, of course, with added fuel coming from almost dying of a heart attack in 2002, not to mention being drafted in the 18th round of the 2001 amateur draft, which is almost like not being drafted at all. Adversity has been the coal in his furnace and he will never forget how much water was thrown into his furnace.

I have been sent up and down from the majors to the minors,” he said. “I have been platooned. I have been left for dead. When I was 30 I was the only active major leaguer to have reached 100 homers by that age without ever having a multi-year contract. I was starting to wonder, and I don't know if ‘unappreciated' is the right word, if it was ever going to pay off, all that grinding, all that hard work.”

Gomes has been granted free agency four times, traded once and played 7.097 vested seasons with four teams. Yes, he has struck out a lot — averaging a whiff every 3.7 plate appearances - but closer inspection reveals value in other types of numbers.

“In three of the last five seasons, I have made it to the postseason,” Gomes said.

Coincidence? The Red Sox don't think so.

“I can't say they were alone (in pursuit of his services),” he said.

Good teammate? This is how good a teammate Gomes is.

While with Tampa Bay on June 5, 2008, Gomes became involved in a bench-clearing brawl with the Red Sox. He threw punches at Red Sox outfielder Coco Crisp.

“I wasn't fighting Coco back then,” Gomes said. “I was fighting the situation. They (Red Sox) charged my pitcher.”

Gomes was defending his teammate. It's a matter of honor with him. Crisp came to understand that as well.

This past season, while both players were with Oakland, Gomes' locker was next to Crisp's.

That's the kind of teammate Gomes is. He doesn't take it personally. He acts on principle instead. In the very closed society of big-league baseball, word spreads faster than an Internet virus. Gomes can be trusted. Gomes looks out for people.

True to his image, Gomes started working with the Red Sox even before they signed him last Saturday. On the day after Thanksgiving, Gomes was having dinner with Boston pitcher Clay Buchholz in Scottsdale, Arizona.

“We're excited to have a guy like you on our team,” Buchholz told Gomes.

Gomes already has been in contact with outfielder Jacoby Ellsbury and infielder Dustin Pedroia. They received a glimpse of his sincerity but, just as importantly, his commitment to being a professional. That's no small statement to a team that had three pitchers drinking beer and having a ball in the clubhouse two years ago — during games. The 2012 Sox had physical exercise issues. The way too many Red Sox teams do, they had commitment problems.

So they should know that won't fly with Gomes.

His five-times-a-week conditioning program starts at 9 a.m. For an hour, Gomes does aerobic movements, explosive lunges, that kind of thing. He then lifts weights for 90 minutes. After a short break he spends an hour hitting and throwing “until I'm spent.”

Gomes then jumps in a cold hot tub — temperature 49 degrees — for three minutes. He then jumps into a hot hot tub — temperature 108 degrees — for three minutes. He repeats the process two more times. By 2:45 p.m. Gomes is done.

That's his usual workout. Leading by example has been Gomes throughout his career.

“I wonder how many players had to make some hard-earned money to buy a ticket to a big-league game,” said Gomes, who did exactly that as a Petaluma kid going to the A's games. “I have never forgotten — those people in the stands make the game. I also feel like I am the luckiest guy on the planet.”

Yes, to get paid $10 million — guaranteed — to play baseball for two seasons, that could take your breath away. Last Saturday, just before Gomes signed his contract, he had one of those moments.

“I definitely did (pause before signing),” Gomes said. “But if I was playing this game for the money (alone), I would have quit a long time ago.”

The $800 a month he received after first signing in 2001, that didn't go far when the rent was $300.

“I hustled and scratched and I didn't sleep at times,” Gomes said.

To hear him speak, the only difference between those days in 2001 and now? He can sleep better. He'll still grind and hustle and get dirty and he doesn't care whether he looks pretty doing it. Beauty, for Jonny Gomes, comes from the inside, not the outside.

“Either a guy has it or he doesn't,” Gomes said.

And he wasn't talking about the ability to hit a baseball. Rather, he was referring to the ability to applaud and support a teammate hitting a baseball. In some ways the second sentence is much more difficult to accomplish than the first.

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