Orioles' Gomez got his drive from San Isidro

' THIS IS WHAT I AM, THIS TOWN'

December 26, 1991|By JOHN EISENBERG

SAN ISIDRO, Puerto Rico -- To find Leo Gomez, take the beach road east out of San Juan along the northern coast of the island, turn inland through the town of Loeza and past a collection of shanties, and there he is: in the front room of his apartment on the main road, the door open to the breeze, his 2-year-old son bouncing a ball in front.

Missing him is almost impossible, for rare is the person in this small workingman's town who doesn't know all about Nando. That's the name he goes by here: Nando, somehow evolved from Leonardo.

They know he lives in a small, tidy apartment attached to his wife's grandmother's house. They know he drives his father's old purple wreck. They know he might be taking grounders over at the field behind the middle school, or working out in the little batting cage in his basement, or maybe over at the cage in Loeza, getting seven swings for a quarter.

They know the details, not just because Gomez became the Orioles' third baseman last season, but because he came home in October with a bag of gloves, wristbands and batting gloves and gave them to children. Because he didn't big-time it. Because he says things like this: "It is very important to me that I never change just because I am in the big leagues. This is what I am, this town. And I will never forget it."

When he says he is San Isidro, he means he is what San Isidro represents, which is, above all else, sweat and modesty. It is an unpretentious burg, the houses small, simple and clean, a place where any gain is the result of labor, not bloodlines.

It brings into perfect focus the story of Leo Gomez. The part about his driving six hours a day to play winter ball. The part about his taking all those extra ground balls last season after the Orioles told him they were worried about his defense.

The part about his asking for an American roommate when he came to the United States in 1985, so he could better learn English. The part about his playing a month of winter ball this season, instead of resting on his success. The part where he says, "Anything my parents want, I will give them."

It all illustrates a basic earnestness that doesn't often surface these days on the sports page. We have come to be skeptical when we see it, but here is one time suspicions can safely be laid down. Here is a kid with big brown eyes and close-cut dark hair who, at 24, is going to try to do the right thing.

It's not difficult to see where he got it. His father, Alejo, worked construction for 40 years, at first pouring concrete and 'u hammering nails and later becoming a foreman. Leo and his three brothers and two sisters grew up watching their father leave for work before sunrise, followed soon by their mother, a school dietitian.

Alejo Gomez's work never was easy, especially in the 100-degree Puerto Rican summers, but his kids never lacked for anything they needed. "He worked his butt off," Leo Gomez says.

Leo gave them a little bit of trouble for a while. A self-confessed "wild man" in high school, he fought often and dated five girls at the same time. "I was afraid of him," said his wife, Lee.

But even then he demonstrated a purposefulness, a trait shared by many Puerto Rican major-leaguers, on whose island the high TTC

schools and colleges do not play baseball.

"I played in a Sunday league," Gomez said. "I was more into basketball, like a lot of kids here. I wanted to sign pro here, but my father knew there wouldn't be money in it. So I stuck with baseball."

Alejo Gomez had watched one of his older sons, Marcos, make it as far as Class AAA, and understood Leo had similar ability. Alejo took Leo down the street to the field every day after work.

"He'd get home at 4, sit for maybe 15 minutes, and say, 'Let's go,' " Gomez said. "I look back on that and it's amazing. Coming home from a long day of working construction, and then going right back out in the sun."

All the work paid off in November 1985. Gomez had been out of high school a year, working at a computer factory, when he heard word of atryout camp in nearby Caguas. There were 70 players there, 10 third basemen. Gomez was the only player signed.

His minor-league line went straight up. Today, he has a wall littered with awards. Carolina League Player of the Month. Eastern League All-Star. Orioles Minor League Player of the Year.

Soon he was good enough to play in the Puerto Rican winter league. He signed with the team in Ponce, all the way across the island, a three-hour drive. He played little but made the drive every day.

"Basically I did it for 15 practice swings a day" in batting practice, he said, shaking his head. "I was exhausted going back and forth. I think I lost 12 pounds. But I needed the money, and I kept thinking something would come of it. I finally started playing my fourth year."

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