Gio Gonzalez talks frequently of his pride in his home town of Hialeah, Fla., outside Miami: on social media, with reporters, during television interviews and everywhere else he talks.
“I represent Hialeah,” Gonzalez said in 2012. “I put Hialeah on the map everywhere I go.”
And he doesn’t just talk, either. Gonzalez remains close to the Thoroughbreds baseball team, which is now coached by a childhood friend and high school teammate, 28-year old Jonathan Hernandez. Gonzalez and Hernandez were both on Hialeah’s back-to-back state championship teams in 2001 and 2002, and Gonzalez has been close to the program since Hernandez joined the staff in 2010.
Initially, Gonzalez donated his time, working with the team’s pitchers in bullpen sessions and on their mental makeup. Two years ago, he donated cleats and shirts to the team. Last year, after he signed with Wilson, he outfitted the entire JV and varsity teams with new Wilson gloves. This year, Gonzalez gave everyone on the 25-man varsity roster Jordan Brand cleats, and is again helping out with new Wilson gloves.
(Gonzalez also wears Jordan Brand cleats himself, and has since 2012.)
And with a student body that doesn’t always hail from privileged backgrounds, Gonzalez’s donation was a hit.
“Oh, it was like Christmas all over again,” Hernandez said. “Obviously we have a lot of Cuban-American parents. They’re coming from Cuba, trying to provide a better life for their children. Being able to see their reaction was great. Honestly, it was like Christmas morning all over again. It was priceless. A pair of cleats will run $100 to $130. Sometimes it’s not feasible for the parents. So having Gio donate that to our program, it’s definitely a big help.”
Gonzalez continues helping out with coaching during his offseason; he was at the Thoroughbreds’ practice this Wednesday, and typically comes by once or twice a week. He will call or text Hernandez to find out the team’s practice schedule and then show up to help, concentrating on working with pitchers on their mental approach to the game.
“They feel comfortable around Gio,” Hernandez told me. “They’re not starstruck. He’s humble, a great guy to be around, and that’s what he does with our kids, he makes them feel comfortable. … He’s a kid from Hialeah, who busted his tail when he was younger. God gave him the talent and he made the most of it. Gio is pretty much an example for all these guys that with hard work and determination, you can get to where you want to go, depending on your work ethic and your dedication.”
Gonzalez is far from the only notable baseball alum from Hialeah; Charlie Hough, Camilo Vazquez and Bucky Dent, among others, also went through the school. And Hernandez said that Gonzalez makes it clear to the high school players that his connection is lasting.
“We tell them all the time, and Gio tells them, too, that yeah, he reps the Washington Nationals, but he also represents his family and the city of Hialeah,” Hernandez said. ”Just know you’re representing our city and our community; that’s one of the things we’re really big on, developing them not only on the field but off the field as well.”
The Thoroughbreds have made the region playoffs 20 years in a row; they were 19-6 last season, but graduated 13 seniors and will likely only have one senior in the starting lineup this year. But Hernandez is expecting another successful season, and he said Gonzalez’s contributions can only help.
“It’s more mental toughness than anything,” he said of Gonzalez’s lessons. “I mean, the guys really grasp his ideas. He’s a big leaguer, and he’s from Hilaeah; the guys are really fond that he takes time away from whatever he’s doing to provide some time for the kids.”