Gomes master of unifying clubhouses
Red Sox's new left fielder isn't afraid to be himself, speak his mind
FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Clubhouse leader. It is one of those titles you hear so much in baseball that you sometimes wonder if it is overstated.
Then there is Jonny Gomes.
If you talk to enough people that Gomes has played with or for over the years, it is fair to wonder if those two words are enough to do justice to all he brings on a daily basis.
Perhaps clubhouse force would be a better way of putting it.
The team Gomes will do his part in unifying this season is the Boston Red Sox. Technically, his job is to drive in runs and play left field, but there will be a lot more work done behind the scenes -- things that outsiders will never see.
"He's fun guy who brings a lot of intensity, a lot of confidence, and he's just a sparkplug that kind of rubs off on everybody," said third baseman Will Middlebrooks. "He's not a guy that's always going to speak up and be a vocal leader, but he's going to show you through his actions. He's a very confident guy. He plays 110 percent -- every play. That rubs off on all of us. We all want to play like that."
From the Rays to the Reds to the Nationals to the Athletics and now the Red Sox, there have been plenty that Gomes has helped along the way.
"He's really a great motivator for one," said Rays third baseman Evan Longoria. "He has that ability to get guys to follow him without asking guys to follow him. He just has that kind of personality. He's obviously a guy, like if you were going to battle with somebody, you would want to do it with him. When you're on his team, he's going to have your back no matter what. I think guys kind of just gravitate towards that. It just comes naturally to him. He makes it look easy."
Perhaps that's because Gomes has gone through some life battles that were anything but easy. There were times during his youth when Gomes and his family were homeless, even spending nights in a shelter.
And there was Christmas Eve 2002, when Gomes, at the age of 22, suffered a heart attack.
"At the time, I really wasn't that scared because I guess I was just uneducated on the topic like I think all 22-year-olds are," Gomes said. "I probably could have been in and out of the hospital in two to three days, but I was actually in there for eight to continue studies on me of why it happened.
"I guess -- unfortunately and fortunately -- there's really not a main reason why it happened. I mean, I was in impeccable health, I was young, no family history, on and on. Nothing pointed to it."
But a lot of those life experiences point to who the 32-year-old Gomes is now, from the uncertainty of which roof he would be under on a given night to the night his heart momentarily stopped.
"I think everyone has a reason or a roadblock of why they look at anything the way they do, whether it's having a nice car or not having a nice car. Whether it's having name-brand something or not-name brand something," Gomes said. "I think we all hit forks in the road somewhere and pick the left or right. The heart attack was just one of my couple of eventful adversities I've had in a young life. It definitely changed a lot."
In other words, Gomes knows how precious life -- or even the quality of life -- can be. So when he joins a new team like the Red Sox, he's not going to sit around in the background for a few months to see how things operate.
Instead, Gomes is going to put himself right into the fabric of his new team and not offend anyone by the way that he does it.
"I feel one of the qualities that I have, and one of the ways I've earned respect, is not having to wait," Gomes said. "If you wait, I think, your accountability is a little lighter. Should I wait until we have a losing record throughout a month and then speak up? Should I speak up when we're hot?
"I don't think there's a right way to do it, but I'll tell you what, there's a wrong way. I think if I just be myself and speak my mind and have accountability from the first day I walk through that door, that's kind of where it starts."
And for Gomes, team-building never ends.
"He's one of the best in the game to learn from," said A's outfielder Josh Reddick. "He knows all the ups and downs, left and right, of the business, not only on the field, but off the field as well. He's the type of guy you can ask any question to, and not just about baseball, but about life. He's somebody you're comfortable going to about anything. There's not a person on this team -- or probably in the league -- that doesn't like Jonny Gomes."
What's not to like about somebody who plays hard, plays hurt and supports/pushes his teammates at every juncture?
"He's got his teammates' back. He's just a team guy," said Rays left-hander David Price. "He's one of the best teammates that I've had in pro ball or in baseball, period. He brings that same demeanor to the field every day, and that's invaluable. Whether things are going good or bad for him off the field, you can't tell. He comes to the field every day with the same mindset, and that's to help his team win and keep his teammates loose."
Maybe that's why Gomes has a history of playing for overachieving teams -- be it the 2008 Rays, '10 Reds or, most recently, the '12 Athletics.
"He brings the same mentality to the park every day, and that's an energetic one and a positive one," said Reds outfielder Jay Bruce. "He's a good veteran for the younger guys. He stays on you, in a good way. You're never going to question his work ethic or his ability to be there when you need him. He stays focused, plays 100 percent and never takes anything for granted. I consider Jonny a friend."
That doesn't mean Gomes was always there to pat Bruce -- or other teammates along the way -- on the back.
"He gave me plenty of crap when I was younger, but I definitely think it was good," Bruce said. "He's a good dude. They're going to like him, because he'll be an asset to their team in more ways than just on the field."
To Gomes, providing cohesion to his clubhouse is hardly a paint-by-numbers approach.
In each season -- and for each team -- Gomes gets a sense of what needs to be done.
"There's no blueprint to it by any means," Gomes said. "Every year is an individual year. Every year is different vocally, different everything. One thing I do consistently every single day is play how I do play in between the lines. That doesn't take a day off. Maybe this is the year of no team meetings, no vocal anything -- all the way to the World Series. Maybe it's once a week. There's not a blueprint. There's not anything. You've just got to find what the flow of traffic is."
"Love him," said Rays manager Joe Maddon. "Absolutely love him. I think he is going to benefit [Boston]. He is one of the best at being a great clubhouse guy, plus he can still play. So I think they did well."
Does Gomes want to be considered a vocal leader?
"I don't think we need a vocal leader, to tell you the truth," said Gomes. "I think we need 25 ballplayers -- that's the most important thing."
Ian Browne is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Brownie Points, and follow him on Twitter @IanMBrowne. MLB.com reporters Bill Chastain, Jane Lee and Mark Sheldon contributed to this story. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.