One day last week, as teammates packed bags and readied for the escape from spring training, Gio Gonzalez walked to the center of the Washington Nationals’ clubhouse in Viera, Fla. He fiddled with the stereo until Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World” blared from the speakers. Gonzalez spun around to face nobody in particular and raised his fist, apparently, in salute to his own musical taste.
Gonzalez began his second spring with the Nationals under scrutiny after a report in late January connected him to a Miami health clinic that allegedly distributed performance-enhancing drugs. Gonzalez will take the mound Wednesday night at Nationals Park for his first start of the season as Major League Baseball’s investigation into him and other players named in the Biogenesis report remains ongoing.
But from the time he showed up for the new season, Gonzalez has not outwardly allowed the issue to distract him or detract from his effervescence. If the case weighed on him or angered him, or if he felt pressure to preserve his reputation, it has not shown.
Gonzalez asserted his innocence on the first day he arrived for spring training, and then he focused on bullpen sessions, Grapefruit League starts and pitching for Team USA in the World Baseball Classic. He received ribbing from teammates about his haircuts, bounded around the clubhouse and smiled constantly. The shadow remains. Gonzalez, for now, has outrun it.
“Gio hasn’t changed a lick,” Manager Davey Johnson said. “Every time I’ve see him, he’s grinning from ear to ear and wanting me to grin. He got to me [Monday]. He gave me his words of wisdom. I don’t put a whole lot of stock in that whole thing, anyway.”
Gonzalez has seldom addressed his connection to the report in public. He took reporters’ questions for roughly five minutes on the day he reported to camp. He issued a brief, in-person statement the day after ESPN reported he had not been sold PEDs. When Gonzalez received notification from the players’ association of a drug test of his blood and urine that came back negative, he informed reporters. After he made his first spring training start, he admitted to feeling relief at the ovation he received.
And Friday afternoon, before the Nationals played an exhibition against the New York Yankees, he spoke about how he has kept the situation in the background.
“Just having fun — continue with that mind-set of having fun,” Gonzalez said. “I tend to look at everything half full, on the positive side, and try to enjoy life as it is. You’re going to have your ups and downs and your obstacles in front of you. It’s how you overcome them and how you stay focused and stay on your target. That’s my goal right now. It’s just to help these guys as much as possible, to stay healthy, and do my part and to be on the page with them and try to win a World Series.”
Gonzalez said he has not heard from league officials recently about the case. The Nationals from the start have expressed confidence, both publicly and privately, in Gonzalez’s innocence and his chances of avoiding a suspension. All available evidence — the passed drug test, the ESPN report and Gonzalez’s staunch and immediate denials — stacks in his favor.
MLB, though, has yet to draw any conclusions. League investigators, still in the midst of gathering information, have yet to speak with any of the players named in Biogenesis records. But they plan to interview Gonzalez along with others, perhaps within the next month.
Gonzalez will try to manage that potential disruption as he has handled the rest of the case. At the start of the spring, it seemed as though it could hover over the entire season. By the end, it had internally become a dead issue.
“He’s been fine,” pitching coach Steve McCatty said. “He and I literally have not spoken about it since we’ve been here. Just a little couple little lines on text messages, and that’s hard for me to do because I don’t do that [stuff]. But he’s doing great. It was a non-issue to me.”
On the mound, Gonzalez has been unfazed. Over five spring training starts, he allowed three earned runs in 15 innings, walking six and striking out 16. For Team USA, he pitched for Manager Joe Torre, who works in the commissioner’s office. In his one WBC start, he allowed zero runs over five innings.
Gonzalez cherished the experience with Team USA, during which he learned a tip from pitching coach Greg Maddux about calming his nerves. Focus on something small, Maddux told him, and the noise and size of the moment will melt away.
The advice will help if Gonzalez finds himself in a setting similar to the last time he climbed the mound at Nationals Park. In Game 5 of the National League Division Series against the St. Louis Cardinals, the Nationals gave Gonzalez a 6-0 lead after three innings. He walked four batters in the next two innings and exited after five innings, the lead shrinking to 6-3, the collapse having started.
“Gio and I had one conversation” about the playoff start, McCatty said. “I said, ‘That’s over, and we will not talk about it again.’ No point. He knows. He pitched. Gave it everything he had that day. Maybe he got a little wired, whatever you want to call it. What’s the point in addressing it? Learn from it, and that’s all. I know he’s upset, but I think he’s handled it well.”
Gonzalez will return Wednesday night, still smiling, still slinging mid-90s fastballs and diabolical curves. He will be a testament to the Nationals’ dynamism: They can launch their season with Stephen Strasburg throwing seven scoreless innings, and then for an encore send to the mound a 27-year-old left-hander who last year won 21 games and finished third in voting for the NL Cy Young Award.
Before the year ends, Gonzalez will have to face more questions about his name landing in Biogenesis records. He and the Nationals anticipate he will be cleared. So far, they know it has not affected his baseball.
“It’s just been the same way,” Gonzalez said. “You’re going to get your ups and downs. You’re going to get your comments. But at the same time, you just got to keep moving forward. There’s nothing more to say or do about this, to be honest with you. It’s not even a story. To me, it’s like, ‘Move on.’ Just move on and look forward.”