The only thing his Arizona Diamondbacks teammates dislike about Luis Gonzalez is his pine tar. He's partial to a particularly heavy, gummy brand that's meant for fastening horseshoes to hooves. The tar makes his bat so sticky, it's a wonder he can drop it without first having surgery. Some of the Diamondbacks hate the substance so much that they treat Gonzalez's bats as if they were infected. They even made him get his own bat bag because the tar was finding its way onto their wood.
Even though it's goo, it's Gonzo's goo, which gives it a certain cachet. Says Arizona third baseman Matt Williams, who tried the pine tar before deciding it was just too much like glue, "It's bad stuff, but you look at the results that Gonzo's gotten the last few years, and you figure it's at least worth a shot. Whatever he's doing is obviously working."
Before joining the Diamondbacks, before the 1999 season, Gonzalez batted .300 only once and never had more than 23 home runs in any of his eight full major league seasons with the Houston Astros, the Chicago Cubs and the Detroit Tigers. Since then he has hit .324 and averaged 38 homers and 122 RBIs. Last year, during which he would have made more headlines if Barry Bonds hadn't made history, Gonzalez batted .325 (10th in the National League), whacked 57 homers (third), drove in 142 runs (third), had a .688 slugging percentage (third) and amassed 419 total bases, which was second to the 425 of the Cubs' Sammy Sosa and tied Gonzalez with Lou Gehrig (1930) for the 10th-highest single-season total in major league history. The lefthanded-hitting Gonzalez capped his year with a bloop single off New York Yankees closer Mariano Rivera in the bottom of the ninth inning of World Series Game 7—the hit that scored Jay Bell to give the Diamondbacks a 3-2 win and their first championship.
There is no single reason for the 34-year-old Gonzalez's late-career improvement, not even his trademark open batting stance, in which he sets his front foot far away from the plate, as if he were trying to get a head start on the walk back to the dugout. "People tend to think it's the stance, and that's certainly been a big part of it," he says, "but what's happened the last few years really came about because of a lot of factors, both physical and mental." His transformation from a journeyman into one of baseball's premier power hitters is the result of listening to good advice, working diligently to make radical and subtle adjustments, and having a run of good fortune.
The luck came first, before the 1998 season, when Gonzalez signed as a free agent with Detroit. His metamorphosis might never have happened if he hadn't played that one season in Tiger Stadium. One of his teammates, outfielder Bobby Higginson, watched him spray balls around the park every day in batting practice, with Gonzalez all but ignoring the overhanging rightfield porch that was only 315 feet away. "He had these quick hands and wrists," says Higginson. "I just told him he ought to think about trying to hook the ball a little more, because he was obviously capable of putting some more balls in those rightfield seats." Gonzalez began working on rotating his hips more in order to turn on pitches, and he finished with 23 homers, eight more than he'd hit in his previous best season.
Still, Gonzalez wasn't completely satisfied. If he was going to take full advantage of the short porch, he needed to handle inside pitches better. He had always been a so-called dive hitter, one who takes a big stride toward the plate to make sure he can reach pitches on the outer half of the strike zone. That enabled him to knock outside pitches to left and left centerfield, but he was often tied up by fastballs that bore in on him.
"The pitcher's idea with guys like Gonzo who dive across the plate is to jam them," says Diamondbacks hitting coach Dwayne Murphy. "Suddenly they're swinging with short arms, and they can't generate any power." So in the last month of the 1998 season Gonzalez began experimenting with his stance, dropping his right foot away from the plate to keep from getting jammed. He was encouraged by the results, but Detroit apparently wasn't: It traded him to Arizona after the season for outfielder Karim Garcia, who has since played a total of 132 games for three clubs, batting .235. The Diamondbacks had to throw in $500,000 to close the deal, one of the biggest steals in recent memory.
In his first spring training with Arizona, Gonzalez made his new open stance even more pronounced. He set his front foot farther from the plate and turned his back foot slightly in toward the pitcher, which kept him from diving at pitches. It made him look a little like a man trying to hold his ground in a stiff wind, but there was no doubt about whether it worked—Gonzalez started the season with a 30-game hitting streak. "The key for Gonz, and for most hitters, is getting his arms extended on his swing," says Murphy. "Now he's getting great extension whether the ball's in or away. Pitchers still try to bust him inside and get him to make those arms short, but he's so quick inside that it's almost impossible to do."
Since there is no longer a location that is a particular weakness for Gonzalez, the plan of attack against him usually involves changing speeds. He kicks his front leg high before he swings, a timing mechanism that pitchers try to disrupt with off-speed pitches. When Gonzalez slumps, it's usually because the strategy is working and he has started to lunge at those deliveries.
The 6'2" Gonzalez has gradually bulked up from 180 to 195 pounds since he began working with a personal trainer, in 1996. But even before he added muscle, teammates and coaches looked at his quick, strong hands and wrists and saw the makings of a power hitter. When Gonzalez was with the Astros, Yogi Berra, then a Houston coach, told him he should use a heavier bat than the 34-inch, 32-ounce model he was swinging, and Gonzalez eventually moved up to the 34/33 that he uses today. "That may not sound like a big deal," says Murphy, "but when you generate the kind of bat speed Gonzo does, an extra ounce can make a real difference."