Rooted in factory, Gomez produces no complaints

May 31, 1994|By JOHN EISENBERG

In Leo Gomez's first year in professional baseball, eight years ago in Bluefield, W.Va., he had a rich-kid roommate who drove a Porsche.

"Why do you play baseball?" Gomez asked him one day.

"Because I like it," the kid said.

Gomez shook his head. "You should give up your spot to someone who needs it," he said.

The kid didn't think that was a real good idea, considering that JTC one of the advantages of being an American, particularly one rich enough to drive a Porsche, is getting to do what you choose with your life.

But the kid didn't know where Gomez was coming from -- literally. He didn't understand that baseball was one of the few ways out of the workingman's life that was Gomez's destiny, and that those circumstances had hardened Gomez's view of the game, draining it of any romance.

"Baseball is a sport for some people, a job for others," Gomez was saying in the Orioles' clubhouse before last night's game against the Tigers. "As much as I enjoy it, for me it's always going to be a job. Because of my circumstances."

Because the game was just about the only way to make his life turn out better than it was supposed to turn out growing up in a tough, little place called Canovanas, Puerto Rico, with three brothers, two sisters anda father who worked construction for 40 years. And while he is a lot smarter and less naive than he was eight years ago in Bluefield, his attitude about the game hasn't changed.

"I'm just happy to have a good job," he said yesterday.

Thus, when the Orioles gave away his job not once but twice in the past year -- to Mike Pagliarulo and Chris Sabo -- there wasn't a single complaint from Gomez.

"I understand how this game works, that you have to keep proving yourself every year," he said. "Hey, it's a business. I was injured, and the front office had to make sure they had a third baseman."

Thus, when Sabo went on the attack from the bench and pointed out that Gomez wasn't Mike Schmidt, that Gomez hit .197 last year, that Gomez basically didn't deserve to play as long as Sabo was on the team, there were no whining volleys in return from Gomez. We heard not a single thing, in fact, even though Gomez is the team's hottest hitter and Sabo is completely out of line and everyone knows it.

"I played with a lot of guys in the minors who complained all the time," Gomez said. "A lot of them are out of baseball."

The Orioles have had their complaints in the past about Gomez's defensive range, clutch hitting and work habits, but they can't complain about his attitude, which is not only as good as it gets, but also the primary reason he was ready to start hitting when he got a chance.

In an age when players complain about everything from the food on charter flights to getting dropped in the batting order, Gomez, 27, has the approach of a pro's pro: Keep your head down, keep your mouth shut, keep your bat and glove ready.

"If you're patient, if you take care of your own business, and if you're good enough, good things will happen," Gomez said. "That's why you're not going to hear me complain.

"If they want to pay me to sit, I'm not going to complain. I want

to play, of course. I will always say that. But the front office is going to do what it wants to do no matter what I say. I don't have the kind of power to change their minds.

"Sure, when they signed Sabo I knew there wasn't a place for me to play. But this is my job. I'm sure I could get another one doing something else, but nothing like this. So I said I was going to go to spring training, work hard, wait and see what happened, and just be ready. Tim Hulett has made a career out of that. I learn from watching a guy like that."

Then Sabo went on the disabled list with a bad back, and Gomez suddenly was back in the lineup at third. He has hit .341 with 21 RBIs in his past 23 games, and leads the team in multi-hit games. Schmidt couldn't do it any better, no matter what Sabo says.

There's no guarantee that it will last beyond tomorrow, of course. certainly wouldn't be hard for Sabo to win back a job from a player the Orioles were eager to trade in spring training.

But the point is this: No matter what happens, you won't hear Gomez stirring up the kind of turbulence Sabo stirred over the weekend. Nor will you see him take for granted his place in the Disneyland that is the major leagues.

Understand this about Leo Gomez: He worked for a year in a factory after high school, and probably still would be there if not for baseball. And he knows it.

"I got into baseball because it was a way to help my family," he said. "I have done that, which makes me happy, but I want to do more. I'm no different from anyone else, really. I just want to do everything to make sure I keep my job."

ORIOLES TONIGHT

Opponent: Detroit Tigers

Site: Oriole Park

Time: 7:35 p.m.

TV/Radio: HTS/WBAL (1090 AM)

Starters: Tigers' Mike Moore (4-4, 5.85) vs. Orioles' Mike Oquist (1-0, 0.69)

Tickets: 500 scattered singles remain, not including 183 bleacher and 275 standing-room tickets that go on sale when the gates open.

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