GOODYEAR, Ariz. – Last Saturday and Sunday, in the middle of the four-day Memorial Day holiday weekend, former five-time National League All-Star Luis Gonzalez was in Cooperstown, N.Y., taking part in the festivities surrounding the family-friendly 6th annual Hall of Fame Classic and soaking in the aura of proven greatness.
On Monday, Memorial Day proper, Gonzalez – “Gonzo” to his expansive fan base – was back near his home in Scottsdale, Ariz., as an active participant in the 16u PG WWBA West Memorial Day Classic, surrounded by family and potential greatness. The two divergent scenes, separated by both miles and generations, were simply natural extensions of a lifestyle that embraces everything baseball.
“I flew back (from Cooperstown) yesterday afternoon,” Gonzalez told PG on Monday while standing near the first base dugout at a back-field on the Cleveland Indians’ side of the Goodyear Ballpark Complex. “I was watching GameChanger the whole weekend trying to keep up with these guys, so there are a lot of good apps and a lot of good parents out there who were keeping me updated.”
Rex Gonzalez, Luis’ brother, is the head coach of the T-Rex Baseball Club – the “these guys” Luis referred to – a team for which Luis’ son, Jacob Gonzalez, is the starting shortstop. Luis is usually content to sit in the stands with the rest of his family playing the role of proud parent, but on Memorial Day he was positioned in the first base coach’s box assisting his brother Rex with the coaching duties.
The T-Rexers had advanced all the way to the semifinal round of the 16u PG WWBA West Memorial Day Classic with a 4-1 record. They were eliminated in that round by the eventual tournament champion North Coast Reds, 17-11, in a wild affair in which Jacob Gonzalez went 2-for-3 with a double, three RBI and two runs scored.
“I love being out here,” Luis said at the conclusion of the contest. “My brother stresses fundamentals – although we didn’t show too many today, and those days are going to happen – and we want them to think about (fundamentals). This is a critical time for a lot of these kids – 15-, 16-, 17-years-old – and it’s when guys start developing and turning the corner to become good big-league players, or solid minor league players or solid college players.
“It’s important for us to teach them how to play the game the right way, and these (PG) tournaments are perfect,” he continued. “You’re playing great competition, you’re playing kids from all over the country, and the teams and the players know where they stand at the end of these things.”
It should surprise no one that Luis Gonzalez is still actively involved with baseball following a 19-year big-league career (1990-2008). He was selected by the Houston Astros in the fourth round of the 1988 MLB amateur draft out of the University of South Alabama and played for the Astros, the Chicago Cubs and the Detroit Tigers for nine seasons before joining the Arizona Diamondbacks in 1999.
Once he settled in Phoenix, his career took off. Gonzalez became not only one of the most popular players in D-backs’ history due to his willingness to interact with fans, but his easy- and out-going personality made him a valued teammate as well.
He enjoyed the best years of his career manning the outfield for the D-backs between 1999 and 2006, earning five NL All-Star Game selections and finishing third in the MVP balloting in 2001 when he hit .325 with 57 home runs and 142 RBI.
It was also at the end of the 2001 season that Gonzalez’s status reached “legendary” proportions. He will always be remembered by D-backs’ fans for delivering a game-winning single in the bottom of the ninth inning in Game 7 of the 2001 World Series against New York Yankees’ immortal closer Mariano Rivera that gave the D-backs the World Series Championship.
In 2,591 big league games, Gonzo batted .283 with 2,591 hits, 596 doubles, 354 home runs and 1,439 runs batted in. The Diamondbacks retired his No. 20 jersey in 2010, making him the first former player to have his number retired by the organization.
Gonzalez is in his fifth year as the Arizona Diamondbacks Special Assistant to the President & CEO, Derrick Hall. It is in that role that he was chosen to be the D-backs’ representative at last weekend’s Hall of Fame Classic. He will also be a part of the D-backs’ contingent at next week’s MLB First-Year Player Draft, an assignment he especially enjoys.
“It’s always nice to see when they show the top picks that they’re always Perfect Game players, all the guys who have played through (PG). It seems like all the highlights they show are from those Perfect Game tournaments,” Gonzalez said. “So this is competitive baseball right here and this is where kids figure out where they measure up against other guys and great players from across the country.”
Young players like Gonzo’s son Jacob are the beneficiaries, of course, and that fact isn’t lost on the 46-year-old former All-Star outfielder. He praised the competitive strength of tournaments like the 18u, 16u and 14u PG WWBA West Memorial Day Classics and the lessons they can teach young prospects.
“Some of these kids in the high schools, they think they’re good players and then they come out here and they get a reality check sometimes,” Luis said. “They’re facing good, young, stud pitchers from other teams from all across the country and it’s a good gauge for them to know how they match up and what they have to work on to try to become a better player.”
Jacob Gonzalez, a 15-year-old sophomore (class of 2017) at Arizona baseball power Chaparral High School in Scottsdale, is one of Luis and Christine Gonzalez’s triplets, joining sisters Megan and Alyssa.
The 16u West Memorial Day was the fourth PG tournament Jacob participated in, having previously played with the T-Rex Baseball Club at the 2013 14u Perfect Game MLK Championship – T-Rex won the championship at that event – the 2013 PG/EvoShield National Championship (Underclass) and the 2014 16u Perfect Game MLK Championship. He was named to the all-tournament team at the 16u PG MLK in January.
“This was a lot of fun, just getting to play with some friends from different high schools,” Jacob said of the 16u West Memorial Day experience. “You play with your own school all (spring) and then you come back and play with a different group of guys, it’s a lot of fun in that way. I like the competition; the competition is just a lot better here. You’re really facing the best of the best.”
He’s also very appreciative of the influence his dad has had on his emerging baseball career.
“With me being around the game when I was so young I really learned a lot, and it’s really helped me grow as a baseball player,” Jacob said, adding that he enjoys it when his dad helps out on the coaching side of things. “Sometimes it gets a little rough, but we have a lot of fun.”
“(Jacob has) been around a big-league locker room his whole young life, and he’s been around big-league guys,” Luis said. “I don’t push him because I don’t want to be that dad that chases him away from the game; he just loves playing the game.”
The T-Rex Baseball Club has a big summer planned, and will represent the state of Arizona at the 15u Perfect Game World Series in Fort Myers, Fla., July 26-30. Luis Gonzalez plans to slide comfortably back into his role as parent as opposed to that of coach on a full-time basis this summer but he’s not afraid to offer input as needed.
“If you look at (the T-Rex) organization across the board – we’re going to yell at them and different things like that, that’s part of the game – our biggest thing is to try to help them graduate and learn how to play the game the right way,” he said. “We’re old-school type guys. We respect the guys on the other side of the field and we want to play the game the right way, and that’s what we try to teach our kids.”
Luis Gonzalez doesn’t worry about young players overdoing it on the ball field, either, noting that kids like his own who absolutely love the game are going to want to be out there all the time. Rex and Luis want their young players to play with effort and passion but they will monitor the activity to make sure no one tries to do too much.
The influence former major-leaguers turned “Dad” or “Coach” have on the young prospects is immense, of course, and every year more and more former professional players are getting involved with Perfect Game because their sons are involved with Perfect Game.
This fraternity includes retired standouts like Roger Clemens (Koby, Kacy and Kody); Craig Biggio (Conor and Cavan); Tom “Flash” Gordon (Nicholas); Mark Guthrie (Kevin and Dalton); Mike Cameron (Dazmon); Dante Bichette (Dante Jr. and Bo); Manny Rodriguez (Manny Jr.); Tom Pagnozzi (Andy) and Walt Weiss (Brody), to name but a handful. Now Luis Gonzalez’s name can be added to the list.
“There are a lot of good, young prospects that are former big-league players’ kids that are playing these tournaments and a lot of former big-league coaches that coach in these tournaments,” he said. “It’s fun to go out there across the country and compete and see a lot of former players that are now coaching their young sons, and going out there and playing against them.”
Luis Gonzalez spent just about equal amounts of time with Hall of Fame ballplayers in Cooperstown, N.Y., and up-and-coming 15-year-old ballplayers back home in the Phoenix area last weekend. He transitions nicely between both places and both crowds.