Monday, October 14, 2013

July 31- Tampa Bay Devil Rays

I had a lot of illusions going into the 2012 Major League Baseball season, especially considering how naïve I was thinking that my MLB Fan Cave experience was going to be all gumdrops and puppy dogs. While there were certainly a lot of moments of positivity from my experience, it was certainly met with a lot of heartbreak. I’ve focused a few of my prior New Era Cap posts on the darker sides of my experience and I assure you that this is not going to be another one, but there is one moment in particular that I need to get off of my chest, man up and admit to as it plays heavily with the story.


It was March 29th, the second game of Opening Day Series in Tokyo, Japan between the Seattle Mariners and my Oakland Athletics. The first game of the series didn’t exactly go as I wanted I it to, but things were certainly starting to look optimistic. In the bottom of the seventh inning the Athletics were down 0-1, but the bats were finally coming to life as Yoenis Cespedes clubbed a two-run shot to give the Athletics a 2-1 lead which was then followed by a solo home run by Josh Reddick immediately after. With a solid lead I was feeling a bit more at ease about things, well… until Jonny Gomes came up for his fourth at-bat in the bottom of the eighth inning. Jonny had struck out twice and flew out in his third at-bat, so I wasn’t really expecting much from him. In fact, I even turned around and said, “Here comes another strikeout to Tyler Hissey, the man who runs all the social media content for the Fan Cave. We talked for a quick moment about this as he was a bigger fan of the deal the Athletics had made to bring him in than I was. Of course, I was basing a lot of my knowledge about him off of his time with the Cincinnati Reds and Washington Nationals. Just as I said, “Yah, just not sure he was a good pick-up,” Jonny crushed the deepest home run of the series into left-centerfield. As stoked as I was to take the trip down the Home Run Slide for the third time in the early hours of the morning, I couldn’t help by look back at Tyler with a facial expression saying, “Yup! I screwed up on that one.” I’ll never forgive myself for that moment of ignorance. I’ve never been the kind of guy to look at a person’s negative qualities on the ball field as opposed to focusing on the things I know they’re more than capable of. Thus, the theme of the 2012 season; rather, the theme of my baseball fandom was established right then and there.

Jonny was born and raised in Petaluma, California, about an hour outside of San Francisco. His parents divorced when he was a toddler. His father was around, but not engaged. His mother raised him and his older brother Joey, who I wrote about on January 16th, on a home health-care worker’s salary. Times were so tough that he and Joey used to scavenge camp sites to retrieve beer and soda cans to recycle them for any cash they could. When it came to baseball, their mother was the biggest supporter, giving them the choice of basic needs like electricity or new baseball cleats. In almost every case the boys chose baseball. After all, candles work just as well, and when you have something to help keep you motivated in succeeding at life, that will always trump. Most of the Gomes’ lives were spent moving from house to house, sometimes staying with friends or their mother’s patients when they were evicted for not being able to pay rent, something Jonny never forgot.

He attended Casa Grande High School in Petaluma and quickly became one of the standouts on the team, right behind his best friend 16-year-old Adam Westcott. On May 23rd, 1997 Westcott and Jonny, as sophomores, were playing for the Sonoma County League Championship. With the score tied in the top of fifth inning with the bases loaded (Jonny on third) and two outs, Westcott came to the plate. As Jonny described in an interview for ESPN’s E:60, “Adam’s up. Best player, best hitter, the game is on the line, what’s going to happen? It was like a movie, all you have to do is press play.” With the swing of the bat Westcott lobbed a single into shallow left-centerfield which allowed Gomes and the runner on second to score. The championship was theirs.

The next night the two boys went out with a few female friends joyriding. Both of them wanted the back passenger seat and ultimately decided to leave it on a coin flip to see who would be riding on the window, and who would be stuck in the middle. Westcott won the toss. That night on a usually deserted stretch of road know as “the roller coaster,” the teens almost hit head on with a car coming in the opposite direction, in an attempt not to hit one another the driver swerved and lost control of the car on a gravel bed on the side of the road. Due to their speed the car juked ferociously into a telephone pole. Most of the passengers walked away with a few scrapes and bruises, Westcott took the full force of the impact. He died two days later. To honor his friend Jonny got his first tattoo, Westcott’s initials (APW) wrapped in barbed wire.

After graduating from high school in 1999, Jonny attended Santa Rosa Junior College where he continued to play ball. His hard work and dedication to his craft paid off as he was selected in the 18th round of the 2001 amateur draft by the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. From 2001-2004 Jonny moved through the minor league ranks, even making a stop in my old home town of Bakersfield, California for a full season with Joey in 2002. Jonny played in 135 games that season in heat that is borderline the closest one can ever come to playing in the first ring of Hell. He crushed 30 home runs for the Bakersfield Blaze that season and hit .276. On Christmas Eve of that year Gomes experienced persistent chest pains, which he was originally going to try and sleep off. Instead, he checked himself into the hospital. A cardiologist charged a deliberator just in case and explained to Jonny that he was suffering a heart attack, an anteroseptal myocardial infarction (widow-maker) to be more specific. As a result of the heart attack, the Rays' team doctor had to keep nitroglycerin pills on-hand in case Gomes suffered a second heart attack.

In 2003 and 2004 Gomes got called up for a total of 13 games, but spent the majority of his time in AAA with the Durham Bulls routinely hitting dingers. In 2005 Gomes was finally called up for his longest stretch and played in 101 games that season, the highlight of which took place on July 30, 2005. This cap was only used for that one season as an alternate style, mostly Sundays. The July 30th game happened to fall on a Saturday. Close enough.

7/30/2005: The Devil Rays were hosting the Kansas City Royals that day with future American League Cy Young-winner Zack Greinke on the mound. Gomes was already having an exception July, the kind that any rookie would love to build a career on. In Gomes’s first at-bat in the bottom of the second inning, he went down on three straight pitches, Greinke’s first strikeout of the game. This would be the last time Gomes didn’t make contact with the ball. When Gomes’s came up in the bottom of the third inning he worked a 2-2 count on Greinke. When Greinke threw the hanging slider, Gomes turned on it, knocking it into the far corner of the left-centerfield stands at Tropicana Field. In his next at-bat, same results. For his fourth, and final at-bat of the game the Royals put in reliever Mike MacDougal and; sure enough, it was gone. Gomes had become the first player in franchise history to log three home runs in one game. The rest of the season went pretty well for Gomes. He finished with a .282 average, 21 home runs and 54 RBI which was good enough for a third place finish for the AL Rookie of the Year Award.

Jonny’s career became a bit odd after that as he and Devil Rays/Rays battled over what his role would be with the club. Gomes was immediate fan favorite, he hustled every game and always came to the defense of his teammates; however, his playing time diminished as players like Carl Crawford and Ben Zobrist were called up. He was sent up and down from AAA numerous times, but could never string enough hits together to keep face and stay up in The Show. At the end of the 2008 season Gomes and the Rays parted ways. He was immediately picked up by the Reds on a minor league contract, was cut after spring training, but stuck in AAA with the Louisville Bats where he was called up in May. Jonny spent three years with the Reds. During his time he had another three-home run game on August 13, 2009, the first two of which came off of former Nationals’ pitcher, my friend Colin Balester. Gomes also played 148 games in 2010, the most in a  season of his career, but he was also one of the lowest paid players at $800,000. I know that seems like a lot in terms of baseball dollars, but reflect that upon his skill level and the road he took to get there. In the middle of the 2011 season the Reds traded Gomes to the Nationals where he hit .204 with eight home runs and 12 RBI in 43 games. At the end of the season he was granted free agency where a hopefully Billy Beane was waiting with a $1 million contract.

Back to reality

Sorry, had a lot that I needed to cram in about the man before I could continue, it’ll all make sense in the end. In the month after I was eliminated from the Fan Cave I had two choices:

1. Wallow in my misery and not watch baseball.

2. Get my ass on the road and watch as much baseball as I possibly could.

Needles to say, option two was way more satisfying. The first leg of my tour took me to Seattle to meet up with my friend, and Mariners fan Tommy Bentley (@RealTomBentley). 

He allowed me to crash with him for a few days so I took care of all the tickets and beer (fair trade). On the first game of the series we each grabbed a beer and crushed them during batting practice, then we headed over to the Athletics’ side dugout for batting practice so we could grab a few pictures. A few of the guys were stretching, a few were in the cage, but the one thing I wasn’t expecting, nor was I paying attention to, was Jonny walking over to me. “Hey!” he said. “What the hell are you doing here?” Not ay any point in time before this moment had I ever met Jonny, nor did I have any clue that he knew who I was, but for the next few minutes we talked about why I wasn’t in the Fan Cave anymore, how my time was and what I was up to now. He didn’t have to do it, I certainly wasn’t expecting it, but I was truly appreciative of the fact that he took the time to get to know me as I was the Athletics representative in the Fan Cave.

The next day Tommy and I kept to the beer chug and batting practice routine, and sure enough Jonny came back over to shoot the breeze until it was his time in the cage. The thing that I never took into consideration that he finally mentioned was that he became genuinely interested in me because of the articles that Yahoo!, Deadspin and NBC Sports had written, as well as the MLB Tickets commercial I was featured in. If you haven’t noticed, Jonny has a lot of ink, and much like myself, people with ink generally like to talk to other people with ink. At the time I hadn’t planned on sticking around for the last game of the series, but I did mention that he would probably see me in Oakland. We shook hands and he went back to practice, but only after making a pit stop behind the cage  to play catch with one of his friend’s kids.

When we met up in Oakland it came on the afternoon when the Athletics had invited me to throw out first pitch, July 18, 2012. I wrote about this portion back on April 1st, so I’ll try to keep in succinct. I was actually the second person who was going to be throwing out the first pitch. Roberta Gonzalez, a local Emmy Award-winning news broadcaster, was the first to go. She was way more nervous than I was, mostly because she would be throwing to Josh Reddick, her favorite player. She asked me if I wouldn’t mind warming up with her, I obliged needing the practice myself. What I wasn’t expecting was having to do three interviews with a few people on the field before my throw; thus, I wasn’t able to get loose. Jonny then spotted me, came over and chatted it up with me while the first lady took the mound. We both watched in awe as she threw a laser right down Broadway into Reddick’s glove. Jonny then turned to me, nudged my arm and said, “Well… don’t fuck it up.” Truly inspiring.

We saw each other again in Toronto when the Athletics took on the Blue Jays, you may remember this series as the time that Reddick did his Spider-man impersonation and the A’s dealt the Jays their worst home defeat in the franchise’s history, 16-0. I was only able to make it to the second game (the 16-0 game) and the final game of the series which the Athletics ended up losing despite home runs from Reddick and Brandon Inge. Prior to the game Jonny had spotted me as my seats were right behind the dugout, so we chatted it up again. It was at this point I had asked him about his version of “The Shark” he had been doing which I wrote about in my post from June 24th. For him it was called the Mahi-Mahi, and it was something that he and Kurt Suzuki were doing. Even with that, I still needed a photo.

I touched on quite a bit of this in my post on Travis Blackley and the Australia World Baseball Classic cap, but I left a bit out. Prior to the first game in Cleveland against the Indians almost all of the pitchers had spotted me and came over to say hello and thank you for being so supportive of the team. There was a rain that had pounded down throughout the day which was looking like it might postpone the game so batting practice was canceled. But, as luck would have it, everything cleared up and the game was on. My tickets were a few rows behind the Athletics dugout and I really had nothing to do before the game so I kicked it in my seat. Shortly thereafter Jonny and the gang emerged from the dugout for warm-ups and stretching. At one point Jonny and I locked eyes and I gave him one of my “wink and finger point” hellos, he then became very animated and summoned me over to the rail. “Dude! I’m so glad you’re here, “ he said. “There’s someone here you have to meet.” He then walked with me headed toward home plate and called out to a dude named JJ. Like Jonny is Seattle, I wasn’t expecting JJ to know who I was. Jonny gave us a quick introduction before he headed back to the field, and I immediately knew this was somebody I needed to get to know.

JJ, a die-hard Reds fan, is a tattoo artist in Cincinnati at Doll Star Tattoo. Jonny and JJ had become acquainted during his time with the Reds and built a string relationship from it. In fact, most of Jonny’s ink that has been featured was done by JJ, including Jonny’s American History tribute piece on his leg. JJ was even featured in the E:60 piece. JJ knew who I was because

1. He’s a tattoo artist.

2. He’s a baseball fan.

In my travels I soon found out that reason number one was way more prevalent as tattoo artists love to talk and show off their creations. Anyway, JJ and I kicked it together and watched the game. Jonny unfortunately didn’t get any playing time that night, or throughout the series. The conversation started out about the Fan Cave, but it then led into all of the work that he had done on Jonny as well as a anti-Chicago Cubs piece he was doing for a Milwaukee Brewers fans which featured Bernie Brewer with an assault rifle blowing the Cub away. And people think my tattoos are weird. 

We grabbed some beers, some hot dogs and I also grabbed a cup of this buffalo chicken macaroni n’ cheese which was legendary. The Athletics won the game 3-0, which made for their third straight win. There wasn’t a very big crowd at The Jake that night, but there was a father and son who were sitting right behind us that we talked to occasionally throughout the game. The kid was about nine or 10 and kept hollering for a ball in between innings. I was a bit surprised that he never got one, seeing as there weren’t that many kids around, but I assured him that he would get one by the end of the game. When that time came he was a bit bummed out, so I reached into my backpack and pulled one out for him. For some reason Ryan Cook developed a tendency to throw baseballs at me anytime we met up, I’ll go into more detail in a future post about that, so I had one on me to give to anybody who wanted one. JJ and I thought this kid had been super cool so I was more than happy to give it to him.

JJ and I swapped numbers and said he would hit me when the two of them headed out. What they and I weren’t expecting was that in the hour between when the game ended and when I ran into them I was going to be four beers and a shot it. Long story short, I ran into a few of the TV crew for the Athletics who I had met randomly up in Toronto as well. So, we caught up. When I met up with JJ and Jonny they were only about two beers in, which was totally fine with me as I needed to stop or I would be sleeping in my car as I had to drive back to Pittsburgh that night only to have to drive to Buffalo, New York the next morning for a visit to New Era Headquarters only to then drive back to Cleveland for the next game and finally drive back to Pittsburgh again. Yah… so I enjoyed another beer on the next round, of course! Jonny and JJ had been talking about a design for another tattoo that Jonny was going to get at which I asked if I could sit in on it. I think it was the alcohol that gave me the courage to ask. Both of them were totally cool with it and said that they would be doing it the next day. In the meantime, since the bar was pretty dead we just chilled and engaged in conversation with the waitress which somehow broke out into a discussion about a party that she was going to head to where a “Jungle Juice-type” concoction was going to be served, except she didn’t call it Jungle Juice, but all three of us called it that. For the life of me, I can remember every detail of that conversation, venue, etc, but I can’t remember what she called it. No matter. It was late and they needed to rest so we parted ways until the next day. At this point I was sobering up significantly and felt that I needed to get something greasy in my belly. What I wasn’t expecting was to run into the TV crew again which of course ended with more beer and eventually some pizza. Needless to say, it was a miserable drive to Pittsburgh and Buffalo when I woke up in my car the next morning.

Jonny had left tickets for me at Will Call for the next game, and I was still in a bit of a cloudy mood after somehow making it to New Era in Buffalo 10 minutes before my meeting. Not wanting to let those tickets go to waste, as well not wanting to leave Cleveland without saying good-bye to everyone, I forged ahead and drove the two and-a-half hours to the game and kicked it with JJ. The A’s won 7-0 despite being struck out 16 times by Indians pitchers. This only aided my theory on strikeouts: Strikeouts don’t matter as long as they’re not all consecutive. 27 outs will happen, as long as you’re able to put runs on the board and get the win it shouldn’t matter how they occur.

I had to go run and meet up with a friend before the game ended so I regrouped with JJ and Jonny after the game. The hotel was only a few blocks away so Jonny elected to walk back with the two of us with a sack of Bud Lights rather than take the team bus. When we arrived JJ had the valet bring his truck up so we could get his tattoo gun and other supplies out of the back. Right at about the time the valet returned, the A’s team bus arrived. For some reason the feeling of “I want to be anywhere but here” washed over me. It’s not that I was nervous about being there or anything, I just felt out of place, like I was intruding. I had touched on this in my Blackely piece in that I’ve always done my best to not violate the line between the fans and the players. Tonight, I was clearly pole vaulting over it. JJ had his hands full with his equipment so I brought up the chair. Based on the time it took us to get everything I thought all of the players would have been up the elevator by the time we strolled inside. Nope! We caught the next elevator with winning pitcher Tommy Milone, Derek Norris, Coco Crisp and Evan Scribner. Norris elected to stand at the back of the elevator with his face against the wall; it was hard not to laugh. What I also didn’t know about this hotel was that the elevator only takes you to the sixth floor. From there you have to take another elevator to get to the floor that your room is on. Sooooooo… when we got to the sixth floor the entire team was milling about, waiting for their next elevators. That feeling of not wanting to be there grew stronger. I did my best to keep my eyes on the prize and not acknowledge anyone’s presence when JJ and I both heard Josh Donaldson yell, “Hey! Aren’t you that guy from the Fan Cave!?” I slowly turned my head, smiled and said, “Yah!” To which he responded, “Sick!!!” That was the extent of any conversation I had with anyone in that room. It took one more elevator with Chris Carter, Milone and Scribner and a walk to JJ’s room before I could let out my laughter from Donaldson’s reaction. “Sick!” has thus been incorporated into every conversation JJ and I have had since that night.

A few minutes after we got in the room Jonny rolled in with the bag of Bud Lights and passed them around before turning on he TV to MLB Network. We all chatted for a bit while JJ set up his machines, I did what I could to make myself useful. The commercial I was in for MLB Tickets came on at which Jonny, with a swig of beer in his mouth, pointed at it, swallowed and said, “This is how all of us first found out who your were.” Pro ball players watch MLB Network as often, if not more often than the fans do, and the first time most of them saw the ad was in the clubhouse of the Coliseum when someone noticed that hat I was wearing, the tattoos and yelled out, “I saw that dude in Deadspin!” This then evolved into “Fan Cave guy” after everyone finally saw me in person on July 18th (redundant, I know). Regardless, it was still a weird feeling. Jonny then put all of the beers in the fridge and called room service to bring us up a few more. For some reason I asked him, “What about all the beers in the fridge?” To which he responded, “What happens when we run out of those?” You really can’t argue with that logic. It was in this time that I got to know him a little bit better. I asked him about his time in Bakersfield, to which he told me the story about the new guys and the bridge that I mention in my Hank Aaron piece from April 13th. He also told me about how Dusty Baker looks out for every one of his players and that Jayson Werth is one of the smartest, most dedicated players in the game; so much to the point where Werth has used his own money to help make that a winning ball club. He then had to take time out to give his wife and kids a call back home. Everything I ever felt that I needed to know about the guy had occurred within a 24-hour time frame: He’s loyal to his team, his family, his friends and especially his country after he showed off his “Tribute to the USA” tattoo that JJ had done for him. Tonight they were working on a piece for the inside of his right arm above the elbow of a heart with the date of his wedding inside. 

Seriously. How could you not love this guy?

 About an hour in I realized what time it was and also remembered that I had to drive back to Pittsburgh as to drop off my rental car and catch my train to Detroit the next morning. I said my good-byes, thanked both JJ and Jonny for their time and walked back to my car. I grabbed some food, took a light snooze and hit the road. I never saw the finished piece, as something as personal as that really isn’t my place to be nosey. When I rolled to Cincinnati in the middle of September JJ was unfortunately too busy to make it, but he was still able to pull some strings and get me a ticket for the game. One of these days I’ll get back and pay him back for that.

As for Jonny, I’ve only seen him once since that night; October 3, 2012, right after the A’s beat the Texas Rangers on the last day of the season to win the AL West Division crown. One of the guys from the TV crew, the ones I met up with in Toronto and Cleveland, had hooked me up with a media pass for that game. I’ll save most of the details for a later post, but I hung around until Jonny came out so I could tell him congratulations in person. We hugged it out, bro-style, and wished each other well. He had his family with him and plenty of celebrating to do, so I didn’t want to slow him down on that front.

I was both sad and happy for him when the offseason came around. The A’s had offered him a nice one-year deal, but the Boston red Sox upped the ante and gave him a two-year $10 million deal. For a guy who made roughly $1 million per year on one-year contracts, not to mention having gone through all the experiences that life had thrown at him, I didn’t once question why he signed that deal. The man has literally given his heart, and almost died in the process because of it, to play this game. He has always been at the forefront of local charities in and around the Bay Area, and wherever he has played professionally. He was the biggest supporter and mascot for the Petaluma baseball team who almost won the Little League World Series. While it’s a bummer that we couldn’t have his presence in the A’s clubhouse anymore, we all couldn’t be happier for him that he has moved on to greener pastures and still gives his all for the team, the fans and the city he plays in.

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