Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of Sunday stories leading up to the All-Star Game at Target Field.
It was said that Cool Papa Bell could flip the light switch and be in bed before the room got dark.
Carlos Gomez might be just as fast, but he’d never make it. He’d flip the switch, then stop to chat, practice his swing, pantomime someone else’s swing, ride his scooter, wrestle with his son, check his fan mail, or bounce around on the balls of his feet just because he can’t stand still.
Gomez multi-tasks at warp speed. Last week in Milwaukee you could find his name and face in so many places, you had to wonder if baseball’s newest technology is superstar teleportation.
His face beams from highway billboards, on bobbleheads stuck to miniature outfield fences, and on a recent cover of Sports Illustrated. In the story, teammate Ryan Braun said Gomez Googles “rich-people conversations’’ so he can chat up other members of his new tax bracket.
Gomez surprised one of his biggest fans by inviting her to throw out the first pitch, and visited a local school.
Last year, he made the All-Star team, won a Gold Glove and finished ninth in the NL MVP balloting; this year he’s far better. His OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage) last year was .843; this year it’s .988. His speed has made him the Brewers’ regular leadoff hitter; his power has made him their temporary cleanup hitter, with Aramis Ramirez on the disabled list.
Gomez is among the first Brewers to arrive at Miller Park each day, and usually among the last to crawl out of the ice bath and leave. In between, you can see him on the field taking early batting practice, pounding home runs that make big-league managers stop in mid-sentence, then taking ground balls at shortstop and threatening to fire fastballs past his teammates from the mound, all the while laughing and gesturing.
The man can talk with his hands. Entering the weekend, the former Twin ranked among the top 10 in the National League in hitting (.323), home runs (11), steals (10), on-base percentage (.394), slugging percentage (.594), OPS, hits (62), runs (35) and doubles (15). He also had 30 RBI.
There is one saving grace for the Twins in Gomez’s emergence as a spectacular five-tool center fielder and potential MVP: Former Twins General Manager Bill Smith no longer needs to hide behind ferns when fans talk about the Johan Santana trade. The Twins correctly identified Gomez as a potential star. They just gave up on him three years before he became a competent big-leaguer, four before he became a standout, and five before he became one of the best all-around players in the game.
“Look at that,’’ Orioles manager Buck Showalter said last week while watching Gomez launching massive home runs to left in batting practice. “He’s just absurd.’’
And absurdly likeable. Gomez may be the most joyful player in baseball. He is the rare individual you would pay to see play, and the rare baseball star who would probably pay to play.
“I have to continue to work to get better and to prove myself,’’ he said last week. “This is not good enough.’’
Loving what he does
His improvement is the product of diligence and ambition. You could call it hard work, but Gomez looks like he enjoys every minute.
He arrives early and uses a scooter to traverse the corridors between the players’ parking lot and the clubhouse. Between swings in early batting practice, he pantomimes other players’ stances. Instead of shagging balls in center field, he’ll play shortstop during batting practice because “it’s more of a challenge, and it makes playing center field feel easy.’’
He tapes his left wrist because of an old surgery, and wears a sleeve on his right arm in part, he says, because it “looks cool.’’ Before games, he will sit between two other former Twins, pitchers Matt Garza and Kyle Lohse, and quiz them on how they would pitch to him.
“Hey, I don’t deserve any credit,’’ Garza said. “He’s such a hard worker. I remember when he first came up, he was an out. Now he’s one of the premier hitters in the league. That’s all due to his perseverance and his fortitude. He’s determined to be a great player, and I don’t think there’s anything that can stop him.’’
Built powerfully at 6-3, 220 pounds, Gomez is the rare player who makes big-league ballparks look small. He has thrown runners out at third from the warning track. He has launched home runs that threaten to send Bernie Brewer to concussion evaluations. He has stolen bases with a few strides and a dive.
“I can get better at everything,’’ he said. “I’ve been around a lot of good baseball players, and every day I learn something new from them. I talk a lot to the pitchers, like Kyle and Garza, and they give me a lot to work on with my mind.’’
When the Twins traded Gomez to Milwaukee for shortstop J.J. Hardy, the Brewers told Gomez to feel free to swing for the seats. He didn’t become a star immediately, but General Manager Doug Melvin saw enough promise that in the spring of 2013 he signed Gomez to a three-year, $24 million contract, drawing ridicule because of Gomez’s undisciplined plate approach.
Now Melvin looks prescient and Gomez has become the smiling face of a first-place team.
“He’s got more confidence now,’’ Melvin said. “We’ve allowed him to play his game, which is an aggressive game, knowing there will be some mistakes. With those kinds of tools, he’s no different than a pitcher who has that good fastball who might take an extra year or two to develop. We live in an impatient world, but we have to separate that from the game we work in. Everything is Instagram and texting and e-mailing and the results have to be there right now, and every game gets analyzed that way. But this game requires patience.’’
Brewers manager Ron Roenicke agreed, with a chuckle. “He’s really fun, and he’s really challenging,’’ Roenicke said. “He’s got energy, he’s a great teammate, he plays hard. And he’s very good. The challenging part is the stuff that he goes a little too far with.’’
A flair to his game
Gomez might be the only player in baseball who sprints around the bases on no-doubt home runs but occasionally lapses on balls that stay in the park. “You say, ‘Maybe, Carlos, not only could you have been on second on that ball — you could have been on third,’’ Roenicke said. “He’s emotional.’’
Gomez was at the center of a brawl with the Braves last year and the Pirates this year as opponents took exception to his flamboyance.
“When American players go to a Latin country to play, they come back here and understand and respect the way we play,’’ said Gomez, who grew up in the Dominican Republic. “It’s not about showing people up. Showing them up is hitting a home run and staring at the pitcher. I don’t do that.
“Americans who have played in our countries know that we’re not planning what we’re going to do when we hit a home run, we just do it. I don’t scream at pitchers if they throw me three sliders in a row. I will go fix myself and come back and try to get it the next time. If you get irritated, that’s what I want. If you get concerned with this, you’re the only one who is going to have trouble.
“I think emotion is good for baseball. This is not 1970. This is 2014.’’
Which should mark another year in which Gomez visits old friends at the All-Star Game. “To come back to Minnesota to play in the All-Star Game, this would be special for me and my family,’’ he said. “I got my first All-Star berth in New York, where the team gave me my first opportunity to play in the big leagues. To go to Minnesota, which gave me the opportunity to be in the big leagues for two years, it would be amazing.’’
The updated version of Gomez Googles “rich people conversations.” He had one at Miller Park the other week.
Before a game against the Yankees, Gomez and his son were riding a scooter when they came upon Yankees pitcher Masahiro Tanaka, who signed a $155 million contract this winter.
Gomez pulled up and, through Tanaka’s interpreter, said, “Welcome.’’
“I thought that was a neat picture — players from Japan and the Dominican Republic enjoying each other’s conversations through an interpreter,’’ Melvin said. “Then Carlos took his son on his little scooter out to center field, and they rolled around on the turf.
“Carlos makes the game fun.’’