- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Most of Gio Gonzalez’s spring training rental apartment is bare. It’s not surprising. It’s been mere hours since he moved into it, ditching the hotel room he’d holed up in for the first two weeks of the Washington Nationals’ workouts in February.

But Max and Yoly Gonzalez already have made it a home.

On the stove three pans are brimming with Max’s latest creation, arroz con picadillio. As he fills a plate with rice, beans and a mouthwatering ground beef-tomato concoction, he assures his diners that the food is not spicy, though it does come with a warning.

“Remember,” Max says, his voice equal parts Jersey City tough guy and hard-working Cuban immigrant, “I don’t have all my tools here.”

His son, Gio, sits quietly across the table as his father points to an open space off the living room that’s been set up to look like an office. Could be a guest room, Max suggests. Gio lets a tired smile cross his face.

Gio is the one living here for the next month, the one toiling under the sun in Viera, Fla., each day as he becomes the No. 2 starter in the rotation. But wherever Gio is, his family isn’t far behind.

“With my plan that I have for my family,” he says, “It’s going to benefit all of us.”

Gio talks mostly in “We’s”. He’s an All-Star and the owner of a five-year, $42 million contract with the Nationals that could last seven years and be worth $65 million when all is said and done. Gio did that, earned that. Still, he constantly thinks in the plural.

“I figure,” he says, “I have this chance to keep us all together. … My family, they’ve done so much for me. The memories they gave me, I don’t want to lose that.”

When the Nationals approached Gonzalez this winter about a contract extension, days after dealing away enough of their farm system to fall from No. 1 to No. 12 in Major League Baseball as ranked by Baseball America, he jumped at it. Then he bought himself a Lamborghini, his mom a Rolls Royce and his dad a Ferrari.

“We had a lot of struggles,” Gio says, before he seems to consider this an understatement and revises it.

“Are you kidding me? We didn’t have nothing. I remember paying for haircuts with quarters. That’s why when I buy my parents any car they want, I do it as, ‘Man, we came from nothing to something.’ “

Building a life

The thumb of Gonzalez’s new red glove has the word ‘Hialeah’ sewn into it, an ever-present reminder of his roots.

A city of roughly 225,000 in the northeast corner of Miami-Dade County, Hialeah, Fla., is 96 percent Hispanic - and more than 62 percent of it is Cuban or Cuban-American. It’s the second-largest concentration of Cubans in the United States, and for Gonzalez it will always be home.

“I represent Hialeah,” Gonzalez says. “I put Hialeah on the map everywhere I go.”

Someday, he says, he’ll have a street and a field named after him, just like the one named for former Marlin Alex Fernandez on West 66th Street in Hialeah. The one Gonzalez grew up playing on. “One day,” he has told Fernandez, “I want to be that guy.”

While Gonzalez is talking, his cellphone rings and the sound of at least a dozen teenage boys having their day made comes blaring through. The call is from the Hialeah High School baseball team, which Gonzalez works out with in the offseason and helps sponsor. They just received the delivery of new cleats Gonzalez sent.

A few weeks later, under the bleachers at Roger Dean Stadium in Jupiter, Fla., after Gonzalez’s second spring start ended in a downpour, he works a crowd of more than 25 family, friends and many of those high schoolers. As Gio makes the rounds, Hialeah assistant coach Jon Hernandez watches, shakes his head and smiles at his old friend.

“I’ve known him since we were in diapers, pretty much,” Hernandez says. “Let me tell you, [Max and Yoly] were my parents growing up, coming from a broken home. … Family has always come first for Gio. Family first, baseball second.”

But it’s baseball that has given the Gonzalez family the life it lives now. It is baseball that brought Gio from playing backyard ball in a narrow space, “with rocks, broken glass, old TVs, and trash piled up in the middle,” to the pristine fields of the major leagues.

From a life where his parents worked tirelessly to provide for their three sons, to one where Gio can take care of them all.

Building a star

Max Gonzalez used to toil under the boiling Florida sun installing billboards in the Miami area. Gio was in middle school when Max, now 48, fell off one and cracked his ribs. From there, he owned a small scooter store while Yoly worked at various jobs, including one weighing scrap metal, to help the family make ends meet. All the while, Gio was training and working for the day he’d be where he is now.

“He has not lost sight of [those sacrifices] one step of the way,” said Dallas Braden, Gonzalez’s mentor and former teammate with the Oakland Athletics. “Now, because he can, he’s showing them, emotionally and monetarily, exactly what you mean to me.

“He’s taking them all for the ride, and he’s taking them first class.”

Gio often is asked about his curveball, the one Max taught his son with hours of repetition on the side of their home. Gio threw so many his forearm would cramp, and that’s when he knew he was breaking it off right. The pitch has movement so unique Nationals catcher Wilson Ramos said he’d never seen anything like it after catching Gonzalez’s first bullpen session of the spring. “The best left-handed breaking ball in the game,” Braden called it.

But the pitcher Gonzalez is today is a far cry from the kid he was a few years ago with Oakland. The one who surrendered a few home runs in one inning in the minor leagues on a windy day and, instead of focusing on the next pitch or the next batter, decided to pick a blade of grass and toss it into the wind “as if to say, ‘You got lucky,’ ” Braden recalled.

“Do I love that attitude? Do I love that, ‘[Forget] you,’ approach? Yes,” Braden said. “I love it. Did it come out at the most inopportune time and look just as bad as it could possibly have looked? Yes it did. And I had to let him know.”

The Gonzalez family is an emotional bunch, and there was a time that every pitch called a ball would elicit a gesticulation as if it just cost Gio the winning run in the World Series. But keeping those emotions in check - on the field and in the clubhouse - was part of Gio’s assigned education from Braden. It didn’t take him long to know when Gonzalez needed to be “slapped in that jacked up hairline of his and told ‘Hey, you are a little out of line right now.’ “

And, sometimes, that applied to Max and Yoly and the rest of Gonzalez’s familial entourage, too. Their pride often knows no bounds. They introduce Gio to everyone. From the passengers next to them on planes to the man working the car wash. They want everyone to know their son, and they don’t want to miss a minute. Sometimes it can cause friction, but never with ill will.

“Give it five minutes,” Braden said. “If Gio hasn’t told you how good he is, just wait for his mom and dad to do it.”

In the last calendar year, Gonzalez went from an All-Star to trade bait to the owner of a long-term extension. And while all of it was great, the last part came at a price. It separated him from Braden. Gonzalez calls himself Braden’s little brother. “I miss him all the time,” Braden said.

“But it was nothing that I didn’t know was in his future the minute that him and I played catch the first time together, just understanding what that left arm of his has in it,” he added. “He’s worked hard to get here. At the same time, I really hope he understands that it’s not over.”

Making a new home

If all goes according to plan, Gonzalez will be involved in some extremely meaningful games during his stay in Washington as an integral part of what already is the best rotation the Nationals have ever had.

When general manager Mike Rizzo set out to find a top-of-the-rotation left-hander this offseason and zeroed in on free agent Mark Buehrle, it seemed devastating when Buehrle chose to sign with the Marlins. Instead, it seems Rizzo hit the jackpot with Gonzalez, who is younger, cheaper and, many feel, more talented.

But signing the contract wasn’t just about the money and the family and watching his plan come to fruition. During Gonzalez’s trip to D.C. in January for his introductory news conference, he and his entourage went on a whirlwind tour of the nation’s capital. And he thought about the city’s history and people such as Martin Luther King Jr.

“You’ve got people that actually preached here, man,” Gonzalez said. “The good word. I like that.”

He’ll take the mound for the first time this season Saturday, ‘Washington’ stitched across his chest. Traded for the fourth time and finally as the centerpiece, he’s a National now. All of the Gonzalezes are. And however long he has in that uniform, he plans to make sure they know they didn’t make a mistake on him. He plans to build a legacy, as a pitcher and a person.

“I want to let the Nationals know: You didn’t get lowballed on your deal,” he said. “I’m going to be exactly what you wanted.”

• Amanda Comak can be reached at acomak@washingtontimes.com.

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