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Swinging For the Border
July 06, 2009
Padres slugger Adrian Gonzalez honed his sweet stroke in a pair of cities on either side of the U.S.-Mexico line—one that he'd love to call home for the rest of his career and the other too dangerous even to visit
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July 06, 2009

Swinging For The Border

Padres slugger Adrian Gonzalez honed his sweet stroke in a pair of cities on either side of the U.S.-Mexico line—one that he'd love to call home for the rest of his career and the other too dangerous even to visit

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Blocked at first base by Derrek Lee in Florida and Mark Teixeira in Texas, Gonzalez was shipped to San Diego in a six-player deal in 2006, a trade that's kept the Padres from becoming the Nationals. Upon hearing news of the deal, Gonzalez thought, "I get to play on Channel 4!" He also joined an organization that appreciated his inside-out swing, even encouraged him to hit to the opposite field, away from Petco's 411-foot fence in right center. Gonzalez was voted team MVP in '06, but San Diego renewed his contract in '07 for only $500 more than the $380,000 major league minimum. He had few options other than to play out the year, take the Padres to arbitration the following winter and make them pay then.

"But Adrian didn't want that grind," says his agent, John Boggs. "He was just beginning to come into his own and didn't want to get sidetracked." Just before the start of the '07 season Gonzalez opted for the security of a four-year, $9.5 million contract with a club option, and Boggs made sure that he did not forfeit any years of free agency. "It's been a great deal for me—a great deal," Gonzalez says. "Maybe I could have made a little more money by waiting, but I don't believe in being greedy. I'm O.K. with my team being able to afford me." If he had not signed the contract and gone to arbitration, the Padres might have had to trade him. "If he had gotten Ryan Howard money," San Diego G.M. Kevin Towers acknowledges, "it could have been hard."

It was Howard who boosted Gonzalez's stock as much as anyone, triggering his evolution from gap hitter to power hitter. In July 2007, during a lull in a game against the Phillies at Petco, Gonzalez started talking to Howard at first base. Conversations on the base paths are typically casual, but Gonzalez asked Howard what size bat he used and why. Howard said that he prefers a heavy one, not only because it generates more power but also because it keeps him from overswinging. Gonzalez promptly traded his 34-inch, 31-ounce bat for a 35-inch, 33-ouncer, and his home run totals rose from 24 in '06 to 30 in '07 to 36 in '08. "I changed my whole approach after that," says Gonzalez. He did not, however, change his stroke. He was still hitting to the opposite field—he was just hitting home runs to the opposite field.

Before a spring training game this season, Gonzalez noted that lefthander Joe Saunders was pitching for the Angels. "Saunders is going to pitch me away," he told hitting coach Jim Lefebvre, "and I'm just going to shoot the ball to left." "You're a power guy," Lefebvre replied. "Why are you just trying to shoot the ball to left?" Gonzalez pointed to a grassy hill over the leftfield fence where families were setting up picnics. "When I say I'm going to shoot it to left," Gonzalez clarified, "I mean I'm going to hit it up there." In the first inning he hit a home run onto that hill, scattering picnickers. Of Gonzalez's 24 homers through Sunday, 10 have been to centerfield, seven to left and seven to right, an unusually democratic distribution.

Going oppo requires muscle that not many players have. At 6'2", 225, Gonzalez looks lean compared with Howard, but his strength is in his wrists. "The guy has a crusher grip," says physical therapist Bob Foley, a former amateur boxer who trains Adrian and Edgar in the off-season. Foley takes the Gonzalez brothers to an alley in San Diego and has them flip 500-pound monster-truck tires, throw medicine balls off the sides of buildings and do pull-ups from gymnastics rings attached to fire escapes. When a UPS truck rolls down the alley, they get to take a breather.

Teammates describe Gonzalez as earnest and intense, but he embraces the unorthodox. When the Padres were mathematically eliminated early last September, Gonzalez decided to take a strike against every pitcher he faced to see who was willing to challenge him. The exercise had to hurt him statistically, since he fell behind in counts, but it helped him predict how specific pitchers would approach him this season. Lefebvre has even begun using Gonzalez as a teaching aide, asking him at the end of every hitters' meeting, "Adrian, what do you think?"

For Gonzalez, the tough times are the off days, when there are no games and Tijuana beckons. He yearns to visit the Little League field that bears his name, stop at a taco stand, head down to Rosarito Beach with his wife. But last year was the most violent in Tijuana's history: 843 people were killed, many of them casualties in a drug war between groups of the fractured Arellano Félix cartel. Oscar Manuel Robles Arangure, the father of former Padres infielder Oscar Robles and a close friend of David Gonzalez, was kidnapped in late April, according to witnesses, by six armed and masked assailants. He was returned to his family the next day, but police in San Diego and Tijuana have told the Padres not to let any players cross the border. David Sr., however, crosses once a week to work at the air-conditioning company he started in Tijuana when he was 21. Although David takes different routes and different cars, Adrian says, "I tell him not to go."

Adrian has not been to Tijuana since the fall, but his presence is undeniable. When the Padres threw a party at their Tijuana store this month to push his All-Star candidacy, they handed out 9,000 ballots and all of them were filled. Gonzalez is reluctant to exploit his heritage for marketing purposes, but the team must gauge his drawing power to decide whether to offer him an extension. Re-signing Gonzalez will be difficult. He will command at least four times more than $3.125 million, and the Padres do not know what their payroll will be or even who will be responsible for it. But Gonzalez is uniquely qualified to help a new owner stabilize his fan base and reach south.

That he can do for free.

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