By Alan Matthews
May 4, 2004
Less than a week before the Florida state playoffs began, one of the nation's top high school teams got rid of its best player.
Giovanny Gonzalez, the ace lefthander for Monsignor Pace High in Opa Locka, Fla., was dismissed from the team along with his brother Max. Their dismissals came after a public argument between their mother Yolanda and Pace coach Tom Duffin that witnesses say stemmed from Max' lack of playing time.
After transferring from Hialeah High before the season, Gio Gonzalez quickly became Pace's ace. Max, a junior catcher and outfielder, struggled to get playing time on the talented team.
The situation had been discussed before but apparently reached a breaking point after Pace's regular season finale April 29, an 8-0 win over Florida Christian. Max did not play, and a witness said Mrs. Gonzalez and Duffin got into an argument that spread to the dugout, involving both Gio and Max.
"We're going to the playoffs and there was too much distraction going on," Duffin said later. "I did everything in my power to try and live with the situation, and it got to the point where it was a distraction and we had to move on.
"There was team policy rule that was broken, and the integrity of the baseball program is not going to be threatened and there's not one man that is bigger than the program. Every parent received a packet of the rules, and unfortunately it was something that just was not being treated the way we outlined it before the season started. There can not be exceptions made and we had to make the decision."
Yolanda Gonzalez declined comment. Gonzalez' father, Max Sr., said: "We don't know what happened. The coach hasn't told us anything. The coach never talked to my wife."
So Gio Gonzalez, one of the top high school pitchers in this year's draft class, will not get a chance to show scouts what he can do during the playoffs, which start this week, and Pace will try to win without its best player.
"(Gio) wasn't happy (with the decision)," Duffin said. "I mean, here's a kid who's on top of his game and of course he's not going to be happy about it.
"I've agonized over this and my whole objective as a coach was to do what is right for the kids . . . But ultimately as the leader of that team, I have to protect my program and the integrity of it."
"On a personal level, I know that there are some of the kids that feel sorry for him. But they know nothing malicious was done and they're all aware of what the consequences were.
This isn't the first time playing time issues have affected the Gonzalez family. Gio pitched in the first of back-to-back state title games as a freshman, leading Hialeah High to two Class 6-A championships. He allowed just 34 hits with 119 strikeouts as a junior, but after 2003 he and Max transferred to Pace, a smaller, private school about 10 minutes down the road.
The transfer was precipitated by Gonzalez' parents unhappiness with Max' playing time at Hialeah. "It had nothing to do with Gio," Hialeah coach Carlos Marti said prior to the season. "It was more about his brother and his parents."
Duffin, a 1985 graduate of Pace who still holds the school's season record for batting, said the Gonzalez family approached the school about transferring. When they enrolled, Duffin said no promises were made about playing time for Gio or Max.
"When they came to me in the summer I made sure everyone understood the expectations," Duffin said. "When they asked for the opportunity to come to Pace, I told them I hold nothing from the past and didn't want to get into (why they transferred) . . . They knew the guidelines and the rules and the regulations here."
When preseason practice began, Max was in contention for a starting spot, but Duffin said other players outperformed him and he was relegated to a reserve role.
Duffin said the team's morale took a hit, but Pace is still considered a favorite to advance to Tampa, where the state final four will be held later this month.
"We have won 24 and only lost one and we have to keep focused on what are job is. They want to get to Tampa and they know it's not going to be easy . . . Gio won six and we were appreciative of those six. He did a great job. But our kids won 18 other games."