Emotional Gonzo welcomes next chapter
Former D-backs star candid about no longer donning spikes
PHOENIX -- The new special advisor to the Arizona club president and CEO will mentor young players, spearhead a youth academy bearing his name, cram on the business side of baseball and represent the D-backs in the community.But as Luis Gonzalez made clear during an emotional news conference on Saturday afternoon at Chase Field, what he would still most like to do is smear pine tar on his bat and step into the batter's box with a game on the line. "I still feel I can play. It just didn't happen," Gonzalez said from a podium overlooking a crowded room divided equally between media and extended family members. "So this is a bittersweet day or me. It's tough to close the book on something you love to do. "So it's sentimental, and it's a new beginning. And I'm looking forward to the next challenge." The 41-year-old outfielder's biggest challenge was maintaining his composure at an event held so he could formally announce his retirement following a 19-year career, and morph into the Arizona front office as the new wing man for Derrick Hall. At that, Gonzo failed miserably, frequently choking up and wiping away tears with a towel he kept on the table in front of him for just that purpose. When the subject turned to his kids, seated in front of him to the right and to all the "firsts" he missed and of finally being able to just be a "Dad," Gonzalez completely lost it. Finally, Christine, his wife, called out, "Change the subject!" The subject of the occasion was unmistakable: Celebrating the most popular and productive player in the franchise's 12-year history, and welcoming him back into an organization he had departed somewhat rancorously following the 2006 season. "Welcome home" was the theme, and it was to be reprised prior to the D-backs' 5:10 p.m. MST game against the Houston Astros on Saturday. The on-field salute on "Luis Gonzalez Appreciation Night" would turn "Chase Field into the loudest you have ever heard it," predicted Hall. "This is a great day for all of us who love the Diamondbacks," Ken Kendrick, the club's managing general partner said in opening the news conference. "When you think about 12 years of Diamondbacks history, it's easy to pick out the one guy who stood above all the others. "Gonzo set the standard off the field, too, the way he was plugged into the community. It's a great joy for me to be able to say, 'Welcome home.'" "He's here, because he belongs here," Hall said. "He wants to be here. Before we could do this, he had to get to the point where he realized it's time to hang up the spikes and go to the next chapter." Closing the chapter on playing was excruciating for Gonzalez, who still played 136 productive games for the Marlins last season, raising his career numbers to 2,591 hits, among them 354 home runs and 596 doubles. "The big things for me were, I would have liked to go for 3,000 hits and 600 doubles -- which would have put me in select company. But it did not happen," said Gonzalez, who recalled being awash in thoughts last September as he was getting dressed following his last at-bat of the season -- a groundout to second off the Mets' Brian Stokes on Sept. 28 at Shea Stadium. It turned out to be closing day for both Gonzalez and Shea. "I had mixed emotions getting dressed," Gonzalez said. "I didn't know whether that would be it. "I lived baseball for 21 years as a pro. I had a strong passion for my teams and the fans. I think back to all the fun times, all the ups and downs professional athletes go through. I have no regrets. I'm happy with the way my career finished." Even if it finished prematurely, in the mind of a man who conceded that if a club had called within the past few days to offer him a uniform and a roster spot, "We wouldn't be having this discussion now." The D-backs, it turns out, had approached him with a similar gesture, not an offer. Hall had brought up the possibility of the club activating Gonzalez for a final ceremonial at-bat, so he could formally go out as a D-back. Gonzo wouldn't bite.
"We would've staged it," Hall said, "but he made it clear he didn't want to go out that way.""Too much respect for the game," Gonzalez said. So the career coda has sounded, and the next sound would be that of a Chase Field filled with fans and memories losing it over a video-board image of Gonzalez delivering the hit that beat the New York Yankees in Game 7 of the 2001 World Series. "It makes me feel really good that so many people still approach me to say where they were when I got that hit," Gonzalez said of the still-adoring fans who now will be able to recall where they were when Gonzo came home to represent the D-backs on a new, important level.
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.