Nationals left-hander Gio Gonzalez learned curveball, so much more from his father

Thomas Boswell
Columnist February 25, 2012

Max Gonzalez, in his tough New Jersey accent, told his son Giovany many things when he was growing up in Hialeah, Fla., in a life that mixed hardscrabble, hard work and all-day glass-in-your-knees sandlot baseball.

Those scouts and the skippers, said the father, are never going to think that you are big enough to be a big league pitcher. They’ll see “6 feet” on the roster, know that it’s probably 5-11 and think: No way.

Tom Boswell is a Washington Post sports columnist. View Archive

“It’s going to be that way forever,” Max told Gio, so accept it, use it as fuel then show them. And Gio listened. The compact lefty is a prototype from Herb Pennock, Whitey Ford and Dave McNally to Ron Guidry, Johan Santana and Tom Glavine. But it’s a rare, and skeptically viewed breed.

When Gio was traded the first time, as the “player to be named later,” he shrugged it off. When he was traded again, as a throw-in, he doubled down on fitness. When the same team, the White Sox, traded him away a second time, he went to Oakland — baseball’s Pluto — and kept trying to improve, even as American League hitters crushed him in his first two trips up to the big leagues.

But by the fourth time he was traded in eight pro seasons, Gio Gonzalez’s worth was validated. At 26, he fetched a king’s ransom for the A’s: four big league prospects. As soon as the Washington Nationals got him, they locked him up with a five-year $42 million deal, plus clauses that can keep him under team control for two more seasons for $24 million more. The Nats didn’t think they’d added a puzzle piece. They saw a cornerstone.

When you meet Gio Gonzalez, you get Max and Yoly’s son — the hard, smart dad, and the softer give-the-kid-a-day-off mom. You know it because Gio tells you: His success, the $42 million, that’s about them and for them.

Max grew up tough, never got to play as much ball as he wanted and, when it rained on too-rare Sundays when he had a game as a child, he broke down in frustration and cried. But he never stopped studying the sport.

“If you give me four years of your life, I will teach you everything you need to know,” he told his son. And Gio promised that he would.

When his father taught him a curveball, it wasn’t a normal method. “I can’t explain it or show how to do it,” Gonzalez said. “It’s a different grip, a snap of the wrist he taught me. I’ve done it all my life. ‘Make it fall off the table, always 12-to-6,’ he’d say. Beside where we lived was a long narrow area like a hallway and I’d go out there and throw.” And throw and throw.

So what do you call your trademark pitch? Is it a Snap Dragon, an Uncle Charlie or the Yakker? “I just call it my dad’s curveball,” he said.

These days baseball has travel teams, academies, layers of youth leagues and year-round accelerated instruction that can help a Bryce Harper to the cover of Sports Illustrated at 16. Gonzalez came up the ’20s or ’50s way, playing ball “from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., old-fashioned sandlot ball,” he said. “Play anywhere you can, not usually on grass. Maybe break a window, then go someplace else to play, come home scraped up and worn out.” And happy.

Finally, Max and Yoly showed Gio how to act. Don’t think that you’re just scraping by, even if it’s the truth. Be generous, help others and make due, but with a smile. Mix with every kind of person.

“My dad was a father figure to a lot of kids,” Gonzalez said. “Where we came from, it wasn’t easy. My mom and dad, five brothers and sisters, we survived some way.”

“Nice people, always fun to be around their home,” said the Nats’ Chris Marrero, a friend and teammate on the same Hialeah High School team. “When we play the Marlins this year, Gio is going to pack that house [with guest tickets]. You won’t believe how many. Everybody liked him. Easy-going, friendly and he hasn’t changed. Now, Gio has stayed the same guy.”

These days, Gio says he tries not to act too much like, well, himself because players sometimes don’t know what to make of it. He’s so engaging he might reach out between the words of this story, shake your hand and then remember your name the next day.

“I’m free-spirited, like my family. We love company,” Gonzalez said. “But I want to blend in here, too, not say too much right away. Wait to be invited, don’t self-invite. So many [clubhouse] guidelines you don’t want to break. I don’t want to step on any toes.”

Baseball is a small world, yet big enough that only Marrero and Ian Desmond, also from the Miami area, are the only Nats who know Gonzalez as pitcher and person. He’s even a rumor and a line of stats to his teammates.

If you pitch in Oakland, they don’t even know who you are in San Francisco. In the A’s mausoleum, you’re a witness-protection hurler. This Oakland mystery man syndrome let Gio arrive in D.C. as unobtrusively as a one-inch dusting of winter snow, just a pleasant coating on the Nats’ rotation landscape next to Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann.

The “Gio Who?” days will end soon. “His performance will do the talking. He’s the real deal,”Marrero said. “He throws hard [91 to 96 mph], hits spots, throws breaking balls for strikes in all counts,” Marrero said. “That curveball — what an out pitch. He throws it at different speeds. . . . In high school, doing stretching, if you touched his arm, he was just more flexible than anybody else. That gives him the whip in his curveball.”

Gonzalez’s workload, never more than 160 innings his first six pro years, all injury-free, then over 200 the last two once he’d reached physical maturity, is often a formula for longevity. If Gonzalez pitches as he has the last two years (31 wins, 3.16 ERA and 368 strikeouts), or even in the vicinity, it will be one of the wisest long-term moves the Nats make. His stats the last two years are clones of C.J. Wilson, 31, who signed a five-year $75 million deal and Rays star David Price. The most similar recent lefties at age 24 and 25 are Jon Lester and Cole Hamels.

A 2011 ALall-star, Gonzalez is now entering his prime years. General Manager Mike Rizzo describes him as “super stuff and a vet at a young age who’s proven his value.” With just a few less walks allowed, “Gio becomes elite.”

One question remains. Will Max get to see his son pitch at Nationals Park this season? “You’ve got to be kidding me,” Gonzalez said. “He’s already got season tickets.”

For Thomas Boswell’s previous columns, go to washingtonpost.
com/boswell
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