Gonzalez mature, solid, ready to contribute

Braves believe new SS can deliver the thrills without the frills

Once upon a time, there was a young shortstop who could turn every ground ball into a ballet.

There was almost nothing coming off a major league bat this man-child could not handle.

It was, however, the emotional part of baseball that would occasionally squirt beyond his reach. The kid was a human mood ring. You could read every bad at-bat or bad break on a face that seemed to be born somber.

Sound familiar?

That was the Braves' new shortstop -- same as the old shortstop.

Alex Gonzalez in Florida had at least a hint of the kind of attitude issues that sabotaged Yunel Escobar in Atlanta. One man seemingly outgrew it. The other is still working on it. And there is one of the big themes behind the big post-All Star trade sending Escobar to Toronto and Gonzalez to the Braves.

Back at the end of the 1990s, when Gonzalez was a precocious talent rising with the Marlins, teammate Kevin Millar bestowed upon him the nickname "Sea Bass." It had nothing to do with Gonzalez's diet; and everything to do with the full-lipped, pouting expression that often overtook his face.

"He was a young stud, and we always joked that he could pout with the best of them," said Millar, now an analyst-in-training with Fox. "And it varied depending on how bad things got. He could go from Sea Bass to Great White to Whale."

Hardly a soaring compliment, but the nickname stuck. And you know what? Ol' Sea Bass didn't seem to care. "Maybe another player would get [angry]," Gonzalez said, "but that's just baseball, everyone gets a nickname. We're a family."

Millar points to 2003 as a pivotal year in the maturation of one shortstop. That was the year Gonzalez hit his only postseason home run, a walk-off shot in Game 4 World Series victory over the Yankees. That was a time when he was cementing a devastating double-play tandem with Luis Castillo. That also was the year current Chicago White Sox manager, the ever-opinionated Ozzie Guillen, passed through Miami as a third-base coach.

Gonzalez remembered a phone call he received from Guillen before that season began, where the coach warned the young player that he was in for some in-your-face tutoring. And it took, Millar noted: "Ozzie taught him the way to play the game."

Gonzalez had found a voice that took hold and made a difference, something that seemed to elude Escobar in Atlanta.

And what a mentor couldn't do, life took care of the rest. It has a way of putting leg weights on the flightiest temperament.

Gonzalez is 33 now, with nearly 12 seasons in the majors. He is on his fifth team, traded to the Braves to give them a little pop and a little stability for what is advertised as a second half the way they used to make them around here. He is an old married man, nearly a decade with Johanna, with three sons, making their home in Miami. And he quietly bears the kind of heartache that can buckle a parent.

His third boy, Johan, is 3 years old and has lived most of his life only with the help of machines. Born prematurely in September 2006, little Johan's body was underdeveloped. He struggled for life from the beginning. During Gonzalez's 2007 season in Cincinnati, Johan lapsed into a coma. The little boy is still mostly unresponsive and living in a long-term-care facility.

The prognosis? "We kind of wait, man," Gonzalez said. "It's hard to say. We just wait."

"It's hard. You come to the field and try to stay mentally into it while you're here. You have to be a pro. This is my job," he said.

"I think the game is his escape, a way of taking his mind off all the other issues," said his agent, Eric Goldschmidt.

Knowing all that he has been through, it is easy to predict that, unlike one recent episode with his predecessor at shortstop, Gonzalez probably won't mope like a jilted schoolboy if called for an error he considers unjust.

Sea Bass is dead, replaced by a player who has a hard-earned sense of perspective. It partially was Gonzalez's reputation for being such a solid, consistent teammate -- but more his 17 home runs in the first half -- that greased the wheels for last week's trade.

The big shortstop swap ultimately will be judged over the course of seasons. Can Escobar defeat petulance? What will Gonzalez be on the shady side of his career? Such questions can be answered only in retrospect.

In the short term, the reactions from the partners in the trade spoke volumes. What a stark contrast there was in tone.

After three-and-a-half seasons in Atlanta, during which he was the vessel of so much promise, Escobar was given a hollow goodbye.

From manager Bobby Cox down, the Braves wished him well, but sounded not a single note of regret. Columnists and radio chatterboxes held loud debates over whether his talent was worth the accompanying irritation. Theirs was an often messy psychological autopsy.

Meanwhile in Toronto, where they had but half of a season to get to know Gonzalez, there seemed to be a genuine sense of loss.

Wrote Toronto Sun columnist Steve Simmons: "He didn't say much. We didn't know him much. But for his four months as a Blue Jay, all [Gonzalez] did was make a difference."

Said Blue Jays General Manager Alex Anthopoulous to the Canadian press: "I can't say enough about Alex Gonzalez, the person and the player. He was a tremendous teammate, a tremendous leader, not an easy guy to part with."

When Gonzalez walked into the Braves' clubhouse Thursday, he got the message about just how much this team was ready to throw out another anchor on the infield.

Players rose from their chairs and gave him a standing ovation when he entered.

David Ross, Gonzalez's former teammate in Cincinnati, immediately began giving him the business. "I kept telling him about all the high expectations we had for him," said the good-natured backup catcher.

There was giddiness in bullpen coach Eddie Perez's voice as the one-time catcher from Venezuela answered a question about the Braves acquiring a fourth player from his homeland (joining Martin Prado, Omar Infante and Gregor Blanco). "Major League Baseball called and told us, 'No more [Venezuelans] -- you're going to get too good," Perez joked.

The reviews ushering Gonzalez to Atlanta have been nothing but effervescent.

"Finest defensive shortstop I've played with," said Millar, who theorizes that the only reason Gonzalez hasn't won a Gold Glove is that some voters have held inconsistent offensive numbers against him.

From the Braves' clubhouse, Ross said, "I've been telling all these guys in here that they'll have fun watching him play shortstop. He makes the hard plays look easy, so you never think he makes the spectacular play.

"And you don't get a better guy as far as the clubhouse -- quiet, goes about his business, likes to have fun when the time's right."

They are saying the Braves have themselves a player who can deliver the thrills without the frills.

They are saying here's a shortstop who is all grown up.

The Alex Gonzalez file

Born: Feb. 15, 1977

Birthplace: Cagua, Aragua, Venezuela

Personal: Married, with three children, makes home in Miami.

Teams: Florida (1998-2005); Boston (2006, 2009); Cincinnati (2007, sat out 2008 recovering from broken knee, 2009); Toronto (2010); Braves (2010).

Career highlights: Named to All Star team in 1999; hit extra-inning walk-off home run in Game 4 of 2003 World Series against New York Yankees, won by the Marlins in six games.

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