Gonzo has become just a regular guy

KEN ROSENTHAL

March 18, 1993|By KEN ROSENTHAL

TEMPE, Ariz. -- After all these years, Rene Gonzales has finally made it, sort of. The California Angels expect to start him at either second or third base Opening Day. There's one doomsday scenario under which he could return to utility status, but Gonzo doesn't want to hear it.

"I'm not going anywhere," he says.

Is this the same Gonzo who Angels manager Buck Rodgers remembers as a "skinny kid" at Triple-A? The same Gonzo who had the misfortune of backing up Cal Ripken with the Orioles? The same Gonzo who hit .217 or below four straight seasons from 1988 to '91?

As Gonzales would say, absolutely, dude.

Brady Anderson might have been the biggest surprise in the American League last season, but Gonzales -- his former Orioles teammate, winter workout partner and Southern California soul mate -- wasn't far behind.

"At times, I was the go-to guy," Gonzales says. "They expected a lot from me. There's no better feeling than walking into the on-deck circle and hearing the guys on the bench yell, 'Get on for Gonz.' I never experienced that. It was never asked of me before."

Get on for Gonz. Can you imagine?

Gonzales, 30, played major-league ball in parts of seven seasons from '84 to '91, but only once did he get more than 170 at-bats. Last year, he became a regular at two positions, and responded with career highs in virtually every offensive category before a broken left forearm ended his season Aug. 10.

His numbers -- a .277 average, seven homers, 38 RBI -- might seem modest, but according to the Elias Baseball Analyst, Gonzales drove in the highest percentage of runners from scoring position in the AL (36.5 percent, minimum 50 chances).

His average in those situations?

A cool .323.

Rodgers, who managed Gonzales with Montreal's Triple-A club in '84, says he warned the infielder not to "go crazy" when he became a free agent last fall. Alas, Gonzales couldn't help himself. He asked the Angels for a three-year deal, although he now says the club proposed it first.

Gonzales has a history of getting carried away, but he's so likable, no one cares. In '89, he claimed to be competing for the Orioles' starting shortstop job. Juan Bell played short that spring -- this was just after the Eddie Murray trade -- and Ripken moved to third. Gonzales had it all figured out. He'd beat out Bell, and . . .

Well, one fantasy led to another. The Angels didn't give him three years. They didn't even give him a spot on their 40-man roster. But they did re-sign him, guaranteeing him $750,000 if he makes the team, and $1.5 million over two years if they exercise his option for '94.

Count on it. Gonzales again figured to be a reserve this season, but now third baseman Kelly Gruber is out until at least June after shoulder surgery. Gonzales will replace him at third, unless the Angels need him at second, where rookie Damion Easley is suffering from shin splints.

Got all that? Gonzales is working at both positions this spring, and the only way he won't start the opener is if Easley recovers swiftly and Gary Gaetti suddenly gets hot. Then, the Angels likely would start Gaetti at third, with the idea of showcasing him for a trade.

As it stands, Gonzales probably will get the nod, and Rodgers might stick with him even when Gruber returns. "If Kelly comes back and Gonzo is doing the job at third, that's too bad," Rodgers says. "I'm not moving Gonzo out of there."

Gonzo over Gruber and Gaetti. Can you imagine?

Gruber and Gaetti will earn a combined $7 million this season. Three years ago, Gruber hit 31 homers and 118 RBI. Gaetti has been in steady decline, but even his dismal '92 power numbers -- 12 homers, 48 RBI -- exceed Gonzales' career highs.

Dude, it's all relative.

Gonzales explains his sudden success in seven words -- "I got the chance to play, man." For four years, the Orioles viewed him solely as a utility man. They finally traded him to Toronto in January 1991 for minor-league pitcher Rob Blumberg, who is now out of baseball.

Now, Gonzales' long, winding journey appears complete. He was a scrawny 6 feet 1 and 155 pounds when the Expos made him their fifth-round draft pick in '82. Rodgers says in his first season at Triple-A, "he could take his best shot and not reach the left-field wall."

Since then, he has bulked up to 6-3, 215 pounds. He started at all four infield positions last season, but probably has outgrown his favorite, shortstop.

So, second or third, it is.

Gonzo's a regular.

Sort of.

At last.

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