From Panama to UGA, Fernando Gonzalez leads Bulldogs as postseason awaits

Georgia catcher Fernando Gonzalez before Georgia's game against Florida at Foley Field in Athens, Ga., on Thursday, May 16, 2024. (Kari Hodges/UGAAA)

Credit: Kari Hodges/UGAAA

Credit: Kari Hodges/UGAAA

Georgia catcher Fernando Gonzalez before Georgia's game against Florida at Foley Field in Athens, Ga., on Thursday, May 16, 2024. (Kari Hodges/UGAAA)

On a drizzly Saturday in Athens, UGA recognized its baseball seniors. Amid newcomers and short-timers, a veteran catcher walked out with his mother, father, sister and girlfriend.

“A four-year letterman with a degree in sports management, he has appeared in more than 170 games behind the plate and been named to the SEC All-Defensive team,” voiced the public address announcer as Fernando Gonzalez stood alongside his family. They had traveled all the way from Panama City, Panama to be there.

“It’s something very special,” Gonzalez’s mother, Yaravy, said in Spanish as she wiped the tears from her eyes. “It’s a happiness, a pride, that can’t be explained.”

For Gonzalez, senior day was a celebration of a career of consistency and resilience. At just 16 years old, Gonzalez left his family behind in Panama to play high school baseball in the United States. In an era of constant flux in college sports, he has lived through the COVID-19 pandemic, roster makeovers, losing seasons and coaching changes during his time at Georgia.

Nonetheless, Gonzalez has emerged as a leader for the ninth-ranked Bulldogs, calling pitches behind the plate and guiding his teammates. Gonzalez’s veteran leadership will be a key piece in the Bulldog’s success as they charge to the SEC tournament, according to head coach Wes Johnson.

Coach Johnson wants Gonzalez to “just continue to lead.”

Gonzalez’s love for baseball began at three years old in his backyard in Panama City where his dad taught him the basics. From that point on, it seemed that he always wanted to have a bat in his hand. This often meant using piñatas at birthday parties to get reps in.

“When the birthday (party) was over, what was left of the pinata I had to take home and put in the back, in the back yard and when he could, he would hit it until there was nothing left,” said Gonzalez’s father Alexander in Spanish. “Every birthday.”

Soon Gonzalez transitioned from the plastic bat and pinata to a real bat and baseballs. In the 14-under league, he led his team to win the XIX Pan American baseball tournament in Venezuela.

The following year, Gonzalez was named captain of the 15-under national team by the Panamanian Baseball Federation. His team placed fourth in the WBSC World Cup in Japan.

“He stood out a lot for his discipline,” Yaravy, said in Spanish. “Even if the coach wasn’t watching him, he was doing his job.”

After the 15-under national tournament, the Gonzalez family began to seriously consider moving Fernando to the U.S. Unlike in other Latin American countries like Venezuela or the Dominican Republic, competitive baseball in Panama ends around the age of 17.

At the age of 16, Gonzalez packed up and moved to Lake Worth, Fla., and went to Trinity Christian High School. During his junior year, he moved to North Cobb Christian in Acworth. At both high schools, Gonzalez lived with host families whom he still talks to today.

Moving to the U.S. to play baseball came with an extra set of adjustments. “For me, obviously, the language was the main one, adapting to the language, adapting to the culture and the food,” Gonzalez said. But the discipline he learned as a youth helped him adapt to each transition.

“Taking one pitch at a time, taking one swing at a time has been very important since I left Panama, and went to high school, after moving to Georgia and being in college,” Gonzalez said in Spanish. “Honestly, focusing on one pitch at a time, one thing at a time in life, has helped me a lot.”

In Latino culture, where family is central, Gonzalez’s family also faced difficult adjustments.

“It wasn’t an easy decision, but in the end, every time we came to see him, we saw him so happy and so at home,” Yaravy said. “We were truly saying that our suffering, or the pain of not having him with us is worth it. It is worth it because he is fulfilling his dreams.”

Former UGA baseball coach Scott Stricklin recruited Gonzalez during the summer of 2019 while he played for Team Elite. In his first year at Georgia, he set a school record his freshman year for catchers with a perfect 1.000 fielding percentage. He has maintained a .994 fielding percentage in his 174 games as a Bulldog.

Gonzalez’s knowledge of the game, his pitchers and different hitters in the SEC has earned him Johnson’s trust. With input from Johnson, Gonzalez has been calling pitches since the Alabama series in late March. Johnson compared Gonzalez to Grant Koch, Indianapolis Indians catcher on the Pittsburgh Pirates Triple-A team, whom Johnson coached at Arkansas.

“Him and Fernando are very, very similar as far as their mind goes,” Johnson said. “... But those guys, they, when they have that mind, and then I can sit down with them pregame and attack the game plan with him and say, ‘Alright, here’s what we’re going to try to do to whoever.’”

His defense behind the plate has always been solid, but it wasn’t until this year that he started to break through offensively. He has marked a career high with a .291 batting average, nine home runs and 48 RBIs.

“Fernando has been huge for our staff, you know, our whole team,” Johnson said. “Anytime you’re really good behind the plate, you’re typically going to put yourself in a good position to win a lot of ball games. Those guys typically need to be leaders and you know, he’s done that.”

Aside from his leadership on the field, Gonzalez puts the same emphasis, if not more, on building strong relationships with his teammates and being a resource for his younger teammates.

“I was a freshman once, I know what that feels like. So that’s one of those things like, I want to be there for them because I’ve been through it.” Gonzalez said. “Some of these freshmen, they’ve never been on the road and played against 13,000 fans cheering against them. But that’s basically one of the things that I focus on a lot is making sure that they’re not alone when they’re going through a new chapter of their lives.”

Bulldog infielder Charlie Condon, the NCAA leader in home runs and batting average, said that he has loved every minute of being Gonzalez’s teammate.

“It’s been amazing, you know,” Condon said. “Fernando’s been a good buddy of mine and obviously a big-time leader on this team for, for every year that I’ve been here and so when I got here as a freshman and wasn’t really playing right away, Fernando was a guy that, that I got to stick, stick under his wing and really just learn from him. And he’s, he’s an awesome human being.”

Once the season ends, Gonzalez plans to go for the MLB draft this summer. Jim Callis, a senior writer for MLB Pipeline, said that Gonzalez could sneak into the eighth to 10th round on the end of the draft’s second day, but it might be more likely that he goes in rounds 11 to 23 on the third day.

After Gonzalez was recognized for Senior Day, he hit a two-run double in the bottom of the eighth inning to shrink Florida’s lead to five runs, although the Bulldogs ended up losing 19-11. His family jumped up and down as they witnessed him, no longer through a TV screen but in-person. While they will head home to Panama this weekend, Gonzalez and his teammates will be on the road to Hoover, Alabama where, as the sixth seed, they will face 11th-seeded LSU at 9:30 a.m. Tuesday in the SEC Tournament.

It was just one hit out of his 143 as a Bulldog, but Gonzalez and his family know well that each pitch, each swing, each pinata broken, has led him to where he is today, living his dream that is far from over.

“No, as my wife tells you, from the beginning when we started with this dream, I knew that he had the qualities and had the desire to do it, but everything has been happening as he dreamed,” Alexander said. “But it’s not easy, because it was all thanks to his effort and his discipline.”

Popi Márquez is a student in the sports media certificate program at the University of Georgia’s Carmical Sports Media Institute.