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Tuesday, June 5, 2007 | Baseball’s amateur draft takes place Thursday and Friday, so it’s a good time to look back on the not-so-easy road to the big leagues traveled by Padres first baseman Adrian Gonzalez.
Seven years, believe it or not, have passed since Gonzalez was an Eastlake High senior freshly minted as the first pick of the 2000 draft by the Florida Marlins.
The Padres, as a courtesy to a local kid making good, allowed Gonzalez to watch batting practice before a Cardinals-Padres game at Qualcomm Stadium.
“I went down with my agent, Boggsy,” Gonzalez said, referring to long-time San Diego baseball agent John Boggs. “At the time I was thinking of myself as being a part of the Marlins, but it was big to get to go down on the field with the Padres and watch batting practice.”
When Gonzalez thinks back to that day as a kid who grew up a Padres fan, seven years ago seems like yesterday.
“You’re in awe to be on the field at that level,” Gonzalez said. “I remember I had my picture taken with Tony Gwynn and Mark McGwire.”
When he looks back to that day through the lens of a minor leaguer bouncing around the Marlins’ and Texas Rangers’ systems (the Padres acquired him in a trade on Jan. 4, 2006), it seems like an eternity.
Guys taken in the first round of the draft, not to mention the first pick overall, aren’t prepared for bumpy roads in the minors.
“I was blessed with good hands, and I never had to learn how to hit,” Gonzalez said. “In high school, it was a lot easier to hit against guys throwing 80 mph. I struggled my first year in pro ball.”
Gonzalez, a left-handed 6-foot-2, 220-pounder, is making it look easy now with the Padres. He’s hitting .302 and is among the National League leaders in home runs (12) and RBIs (39). He’s on pace to be named to his first All-Star Game, barring an oversight.
But it wasn’t easy for him in the minors. The time included a wrist surgery that he says turned out to be a blessing in disguise.
“After I had surgery, I would get the barrel on the ball but it wouldn’t go anywhere,” he said. “I was thinking, ‘What do I have to do for power?’ “
What he did is begin to view hitting as a science. That’s something he was never forced to do while batting .645 as a senior at Eastlake. Or as a junior when he put together a 29-game hitting streak that stood as a CIF San Diego Section record until this year (Mountain Empire junior Josh Barber broke it with 35 and counting when his 2007 season ended).
“I had to learn how to get base hits, take things the other way and let the ball get deep a little more,” Gonzalez said. “Little by little, I started getting my power back. Eventually I got good power with that approach, and it helped me to get to this level. The injury back-tracked me a little bit, but it was a good thing. I was learning to become a hitter.”
The Major League education of Adrian Gonzalez started with that first time he watched batting practice at Qualcomm.
“I watched guys and saw they were hitting line drive after line drive,” Gonzalez said. “They weren’t trying to hit home runs. I compared how they took batting practice to how I did; I was always trying to hit home runs.”
Even with that early revelation, Gonzalez spent four full seasons in the minor leagues and was traded to the Texas Rangers before he got his first call up to the big leagues in 2004 for 16 games.
And it wasn’t until two seasons later that Gonzalez established himself as a big leaguer. Now he has a long-term contract with the Padres and is one of the franchise’s faces.
Maybe it’s a good thing, if you believe in baseball karma, that Gonzalez wasn’t a Padres draft pick back in 2000 when he watched batting practice as a member of the Marlins’ organization.
At Qualcomm, Gonzalez failed to get a hit in four at bats when as a junior Eastlake beat University for the 1999 CIF Division II title. That’s his history at the Padres’ old Mission Valley home.
At Petco, the Padres’ downtown home since 2004, Gonzalez hits like he was projected that day he visited Qualcomm as the first pick of the draft.