Fernando Gonzalez living his baseball dream with Georgia Bulldogs

Georgia catcher Fernando Gonzalez throws the ball back to pitcher Jonathan Cannon during a game against Akron at Foley Field. (Photo by Tony Walsh)

Credit: Tony Walsh/UGAAA

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Georgia catcher Fernando Gonzalez throws the ball back to pitcher Jonathan Cannon during a game against Akron at Foley Field. (Photo by Tony Walsh)

Credit: Tony Walsh/UGAAA

ATHENS — It was an average summer day, like any other for a travel baseball player. Fernando Gonzalez accompanied Team Elite to Allatoona High for another random afternoon game. He wasn’t really expecting anything special to happen. Nothing really did – on the field, at least.

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But in the stands, Georgia associate head coach and recruiting coordinator Scott Daeley was watching.

“I remember it like it was yesterday,” Gonzalez said of that day in 2019. “Coach Daeley was there for like two innings. I actually struck out in my only at-bat while he was there. But then I still got a call from him later. So, I thought, ‘There’s got to be something here.’”

Daeley wasn’t there to see Gonzalez hit. He was there to watch him play catcher, and he loved what he saw.

So did Georgia coach Scott Stricklin when he got a look. Stricklin was an all-conference catcher at Kent State and journeyman minor-leaguer behind the dish, so there is very little Stricklin likes more there than an exceptionally skilled receiver.

“He’s just really quiet behind the plate,” Stricklin said. “That means they make it look easy. And anyone who has been back behind the plate knows how hard it is. Fernando just doesn’t look like there’s much effort, and there’s a ton of effort to it, and he makes it look easy.”

“Back home, I used to watch Vanderbilt a lot because they were the big thing then. But after I came here, I learned about Georgia and ‘Go Dawgs' and what all that meant. It's been a long journey, a lot of sacrifice, leaving the family behind. But it's all been worth it in the end."

- Bulldogs catcher Fernando Gonzalez

Long story short, Georgia offered, Gonzalez accepted, and now he has caught almost every game the Bulldogs have played the past two seasons.

That’s a gift Gonzalez doesn’t take for granted.

“It’s special,” Gonzalez said. “Just to get to play D-I baseball is special. I used to watch D-I games on YouTube every day back home. Now I’m here.”

Indeed, as the No. 14-ranked Bulldogs (8-0) prepare to face 19th-ranked Georgia Tech (8-1) on Friday in the first game of a three-game series (the first one’s at Tech, Saturday at Georgia and Sunday at Coolray Field in Lawrenceville), Gonzalez playing college baseball in America is a big deal.

A resident of Panama City – the one in Central America, not the Florida Panhandle – Gonzalez made the decision to come to the U.S. alone as a 16-year-old baseball wannabe. A baseball standout even at that young age, Gonzalez was disappointed not to be selected in the Dominican Republic’s international draft. But Gonzalez’s parents had a backup plan, and it was one they liked even better.

The son of a father who is a lawyer and a mother in corporate banking, Gonzalez was advised to consider college baseball in the States.

“Education is something that’s huge in my house,” Gonzalez said. “At the end of the day, you can get injured in any game and baseball is done. So, what do you have to back it up? That’s the way that we went about it. We sat down and talked about it as a family, and we felt a high school diploma and a college diploma would help me more in life. Fortunately, I played well enough to be here at Georgia, one of the best college baseball programs in the nation.”

It didn’t always look so rosy. Gonzalez’s U.S. journey began in Lake Worth, Fla., when he entered Trinity Christian Academy as a high school sophomore. The experience was fine, as far as baseball was concerned. But Gonzalez felt isolated – and unnoticed.

So, he moved to metro Atlanta. He landed at North Cobb Christian School in Kennesaw, where he was taken in by the family of Chris and Pam Dean.

Again, nothing came easy. While he was able to practice and train with North Cobb, GHSA rules left Gonzalez ineligible to compete his junior season. His senior year, the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the season.

But moving to Georgia got Gonzalez connected to Team Elite, which brought him notice from UGA, Georgia Tech, Georgia Southern and numerous other programs in the state.

“I still think moving to Georgia was one of my best decisions just because I’m able to be here now at the University of Georgia,” Gonzalez said. “I was able to play with Team Elite over the summer, and that’s where I saw coach Daeley and coach Stricklin started looking at me. It was a great decision for me.”

Gonzalez’s baseball dream still hasn’t been fully realized. Pro ball is still the target, and he’s not there yet.

The Bulldogs are thrilled with almost everything they’re getting from Gonzalez. With a roster chock-full of catchers, Gonzalez continues to be the primary receiver. He has played in six of the eight contests, starting five, and his defensive game almost is impeccable.

In fact, after playing in 40 games and starting 36 behind the dish for the Bulldogs last season, Gonzalez went the entire season without committing an error. That streak continued into this season before it was snapped in the most agonizing of ways Friday. Gonzalez was unable to handle a straight-up foul pop on a windy afternoon against Akron. Two pitches later, Akron’s Cameron Benson looped a single to break up Jonathan Cannon’s perfect game in the seventh inning.

No matter, the Bulldogs held on for a 1-0 win, and they carry a perfect record into Friday’s game.

Meanwhile, Gonzalez has to get his bat going to extend his baseball career beyond Georgia. He enters the Tech game hitting .188. Last year, he batted .254 overall but raised his average to .293 in SEC play with two home runs and 12 RBIs.

“It’s been something I’ve been working on,” said Gonzalez, who is taking extra BP every day. “Once you have a year under your belt, it’s about learning how to slow the game down. You think about last year and what you could have done different, and you apply that this year. I think it’s going to help me a lot, being a sophomore with 40-50 games under my belt.”

Stricklin’s not stressing about it.

“The bat’s going to come along; we’re not concerned about that,” Stricklin said. “He gives us a very good defensive presence behind home plate, and his leadership abilities and all those other things trumps anything he could do with the bat. The bat’s a bonus, and we feel like it’s going to come along.”

Hitless streaks are just part of Gonzalez’s challenge. His family remains in Panama. He said he gets to go home on average just twice a year, 10 days in the summer and a few each winter break.

“It was rough for the first couple of months,” Gonzalez said. “But you get used to it. And when you look at all you can get out of the sport and all the experiences that you get, it’s all going to be worth it in the end.”

Thankfully for Gonzalez, he has multiple families these days. Chris and Pam Dean’s son, Blake Dean, just committed to Kansas State as a pitcher and remains a close friend. And Gonzalez speaks these days with great reverence about what he calls his Bulldogs family.

“Back home, I used to watch Vanderbilt a lot because they were the big thing then,” Gonzalez said. “But after I came here, I learned about Georgia and ‘Go Dawgs’ and what all that meant. It’s been a long journey, a lot of sacrifice, leaving the family behind. But it’s all been worth it in the end.”