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Gomes Is Pleasant Surprise In Tampa
By Marc Topkin
• 2005 All-Rookie Team
• Rookies Play Big Role In Penant Races
• Ryan Howard Clears His Own Path
• Huston Street Shows No Fear As Rookie Closer
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla.--Jonny Gomes made quite an impact on the Devil Rays in a little more than half a season, helping shape their improved second-half attitude, hitting 21 home runs and establishing himself as a legitimate candidate for Rookie of the Year.
It might seem like a surprise.
But considering where he came from, and how far he's come, it really isn't a surprise at all.
This is a kid who survived a rough childhood, with his single mother working odd jobs and long hours to have the money to keep Jonny, and older brother Joey, a Rays minor leaguer, in sports and out of trouble.
A kid who survived a horrific May 1997 car accident that killed his best friend and left Gomes emotionally scarred, with Adam Paul Westcott's initials tattooed on his right arm.
A kid who survived a stunning December 2002 heart attack that could have ended his baseball dreams at age 22 as well as his life.
And a kid who worked his way from being an unheralded 18th-round draft pick to a dangerous middle-of-the-lineup hitter, sharing the lead among American League rookies with 21 homers and with six triples, ranking first with a .372 on-base percentage and .534 slugging percentage, and second with a .282 average and seven outfield assists.
"It's really what I hoped for since I was a little kid in the backyard," Gomes said. "It's farfetched that it came this fast. My goal leaving the Mexican (Pacific) League wasn't to be in the running for rookie of the year.
"All I wanted was just an opportunity. That's all I wanted since I started playing was an opportunity, If I failed, I'd be the first to say I couldn't play. But I'm just having fun riding the wave of success I have now."
Fun is an integral part of Gomes' success. He can be loud and proud, and doesn't get too concerned with who hears him. Former Rays manager Lou Piniella gave Gomes a large share of the credit for the confidence and tougher attitude the Rays displayed throughout their impressive 39-34 record after the all-star break.
"Gomes is definitely a character, I've got to give him that," teammate Aubrey Huff said. "There are not too many rookies who could get away with the stuff he pulls, but for some reason he gets away with it. I think the only reason he can get away with being so cocky is cause he's like that 24/7."
Gomes may have annoyed a few opponents along the way this season, but he makes no apologies.
"I don't think it's in my job description that they gave me as far as DH/right field/left field, but I put it upon myself to keep the guys loose and to have fun," he said. "We're definitely here for one reason, and that's to win. And winning is fun. Everything tastes better when you win; everything looks better when you win. So the more you win, the more you'll have fun.
"I call it a case of the 'screw-its'. There are a lot of people who don't understand how lucky they are. I do, just from my background. I feel it's my job to rub off some of my life experiences."
He's had plenty, but nothing as shocking as the heart attack that started after dinner at a Mexican restaurant on Dec. 23, 2002. Gomes felt chest pains, figured it was a result of the food, and went to bed. He kept thinking it would go away, but it got worse as the day went on. He spent Christmas Eve in the hospital with what was eventually diagnosed as a heart attack.
Tests showed that a heart valve had pinched off. "To this day, they have no idea why it happened," Gomes said.
You Gotta Have Heart
Gomes was cleared to resume playing and has had no further issues. If anything, he has shown a lot of heart, coming out of Santa Rosa (Calif.) Junior College, where he walked on, to sign for $20,000 plus some college money, playing most of four seasons in the minors and last winter in Mexico--where he was mistakenly referred to as Jonny Gomez in the league statistics--on his way to winning Baseball America's Winter Player of the Year, then getting sent down twice this season before finally getting the chance to crack the lineup for good.
He did so with gusto, including hitting the second-longest homer in eight seasons at Tropicana Field, a 474-foot blast that beat Detroit on July 9.
"People looked at him as a one-tool player. I don't think, as a kid, they saw enough foot speed or athleticism," Rays general manager Chuck LaMar said. "But the two things that will forever stick out, and look like they're going to make Jonny Gomes a fine major league player, is not only his power, but his makeup.
"His makeup is truly what separates him from a lot of the other young players. He loves to be on the field, he loves playing the game. He's aggressive and he can't be talked out of anything."