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Starting Point

Gifts that go beyond passing fame


It was a sweet and memorable moment when Luis Gonzalez hit that ninth inning, bases-loaded single to win the World Series for the Arizona Diamondbacks. As he leaped and high-jumped his way toward first base in a burst of glee that spread to the whole stadium, I thought back to the fall of 1987 when I was a teammate of Gonzalez.

We were college ballplayers at the University of South Alabama in Mobile, with home games played at Eddie Stanky Field. Calling myself a teammate is something of a stretch. I was a freshman walk-on, one of four redshirts. Gonzalez was a third year All-American player hotly pursued by big league scouts.

As a lowly scrub, I didn’t play an inning that year. My role was to drag the infield before games, shag baseballs hit over the outfield fence during batting practice and clear the bleachers of peanut shells and beer cans after the games. It was baseball’s boot camp.

Nearly all the first-string players were indifferent to us redshirts. But not Luis Gonzalez. In the same way he went to bat to lead the team in hits, he went to bat for us lowlies. Quietly, he provided us with proper practice uniforms and he gave an occasional pat on the back that the scrubs thrived on. He encouraged us to practice hard and be patient for our turn at bat next season. He also secured for us rooms in the baseball dorm.

For Gonzalez, there was no caste system. Once at a team get-together, he said that baseball players should be part of the community, especially by reaching out to children. He asked for volunteers to make weekly visits to local schools to tutor and give talks on clean living, sportsmanship and pursuing dreams.

Lou chose two of us, both loquacious, to join him -- Mike Mordecai, now in the major leagues and who won a World Series ring with the Atlanta Braves, and myself. On trips into the poor neighborhoods of Mobile -- including W.H. Council Elementary School, which Satchel Paige and Hank Aaron both attended -- I came to know Gonzalez well. He had a genuinely caring heart, a ferocious desire for community service and a humility that made him other-centered, not self-centered. The school visits were as important to him as the Division I games in which he starred.

At the end of the year, Gonzalez signed with the Houston Astros. Several others on the team eventually went to the majors, and a dozen or so, including me, later lucked out and made it to the minors.

When sportswriters say that Gonzalez is one of baseball’s real articles, I know that at least they have that right. In the enclosed self-consumed world of big-money baseball -- too often peopled by pampered, one-dimensional athletes with oceanic egos and whose emotional development was arrested in early adolescence -- Gonzalez is in a league of his own. He is well regarded among big league clubhouse attendants for his generosity and thoughtfulness. That he happened to hit a Series-winning hit is a moment of passing fame. What he does when no fans are cheering and few are watching -- the graciousness I saw up close over a decade ago -- is his true and lasting contribution.

John McCarthy directs Elementary Baseball and Home Run Baseball Camp in Washington, and coaches a training program in the Dominican Republic.

National Catholic Reporter, November 23, 2001