SEATTLE – Speaking at his news conference Tuesday to announce a four-year, $30 million contract extension, Marco Gonzales spoke fondly of his “bad-ass parents.”
The Mariners have decided to go all-in on their bad-ass southpaw, a baby-faced bulldog whom they hand-selected as the initial core piece of their rebuild.
As is always the case in deals such as this, both sides took some risk – Gonzales, 27, could flame out prematurely, or he could outperform the contract and cost himself money in the long term.
Yet both fully embraced those potential perils, and were clearly ecstatic about the deal and what it symbolizes. For Gonzales it’s comfort in his adopted hometown, the chance to be on the ground level of what he feels can develop into a championship ballclub, and especially the opportunity to be a leader of that rise.
For the Mariners, it’s locking in the cost certainty of a durable starting pitcher – Gonzales went 16-13 with a 3.99 ERA in 34 starts last season – whom general manager Jerry Dipoto says embodies all the tangible and intangible elements they are seeking in their organizational reboot.
“We wanted to start putting together this foundation, and I think this is, for the lack of a better way to put it, a sign we’re putting our money where our mouth is,” Dipoto said. “We want to be about this young group of players.”
Parents Frank and Gina Gonzales, sitting in the front row, exuded pride as they took in all the trappings of the news conference at T-Mobile Park. Gina is a firefighter, and Frank a baseball lifer – currently the Double-A pitching coach for the Hartford (Conn.) Yard Goats “and the future pitching coach of the Colorado Rockies,” in Marco’s words.
“They taught me how to appreciate what I have and how to work hard and be humble and gracious in everything I do,” Gonzales said, and then addressed them directly. “I wouldn’t have the determination or outlook on life without you guys.”
Speaking afterward, Frank Gonzales called the whole experience surreal, but not necessarily surprising. Marco Gonzales, a former standout at Gonzaga, was born into baseball and has the intrinsic knowledge and feel for the game that allows him, in Dipoto’s words, to accomplish with a 90 mph fastball what others do at 95 to 100 mph.
Gina Gonzales once calculated that Marco had seen between 700 and 800 games by the time he was in kindergarten. Frank had a 10-year pro career of his own as a left-handed pitcher between 1989 and ’99, reaching Triple-A.
Frank and Gina, both Colorado natives, got married in February 1990, celebrating their 30th anniversary Monday. Their nomadic baseball life included 30 moves with stops in seven states and five foreign countries. Marco was born in 1992 and was part of most of it. Gina likes to joke about Mike Piazza changing Marco’s diapers when he was a teammate of Frank’s in the Arizona Fall League and volunteering to babysit one night.
“He’s been all over the world with us,” Frank said. “This is pretty much what he’s done. He’s pretty comfortable in his skin, as you can tell. We’ve done baseball his whole life. I left the game in 2000 and didn’t go back until 2013 because I wanted to coach my boys.”
Attending Rocky Mountain High School in Fort Collins, Colo., Marco was the winning pitcher in four state-title games. But long before that Gonzales developed the fiery attitude and dogged determination that belies his soft-spoken persona, and he has convinced the Mariners he’s the one to lead their young staff.
“I think the game slows down, actually, when he’s out there, even though he’s fiery,” Frank Gonzales said. “I think he sees it a lot slower than most people see it.
“He’s a pretty humble guy, which I think he gets more from his mother, but he’s probably been a leader since he was just a kid. Even though he was the smallest Little Leaguer, somehow the way he walked on the field, Gina would always say, ‘He just walks out there like he owns it.’ ”
There was the time in Little League when the opposing first baseman, a guy a head taller, bumped Marco as he rounded first.
“Marco literally bumped him back,” Frank said, still fired up by the memory. “I’m like, ‘I’m not sure that was a good idea.’ He said, ‘I’m not taking it.’ ”
Another time, as a 10- or 11-year-old, Marco was batting and told the umpire, without looking back, that the pitch he called a strike was actually inside. The umpire started complaining to Frank, who was the coach, that his son was popping off.
“I said, ‘I didn’t see him move his head back,’ ” Frank recalled with a laugh. “So he was doing that at an early age. Marco is humble about who he is, but he has a really solid plan of attack, for sure.”
I asked Marco if he believes in the grand vision of the Mariners and their “step-back” plan, which is likely to result in another painful season before the hoped-for advancement toward contention.
“To be honest, I don’t think it’s my job to know where this is headed,” he replied. “I think it’s my job to go out and win ballgames. … I think everyone knows what they’re going to get from me every fifth day. They’re going to get someone who is not going to take a loss easy. That’s what it’s going to start with. Me, along with a few other guys, we’re responsible for that culture in our clubhouse. … We’re not going to be OK with a loss. We understand it’s a process. But it’s not our job to worry about where the ship’s being steered. We’re just rowing the boat.”
Gonzales said he observed the Washington Nationals and how much fun they appeared to be having en route to the World Series title last year.
“Truthfully, that’s what I envision for us in the future,” he said. “It’s going to take some work. But I think we can eventually get there.”
On that point, both Gonzales and the Mariners have made a significant investment.
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