A proud veteran with a distinguished track record is returning from the disabled list. His team has played exceptionally well in his absence, and his role on the team is now in question.
Adrian Gonzalez said he won’t let it be.
“I’m not expecting anything,” Gonzalez said. “I’m not coming in here saying I need to play every day. I just want to be a part of the team and contribute any way I can.”
When was the last time a cliché-packed quote was the source of so much relief?
Scheduled to be activated sometime during a three-game series in Detroit that starts Friday, Gonzalez is standing by the promises he made that were published here more than six weeks ago.
If his function on the team is diminished, he won’t complain. If he’s asked to start every other day, he’ll be ready for that. If he’s asked to pinch-hit, he’ll be ready for that too.
“I just want to help out,” Gonzalez reiterated this week in Rancho Cucamonga, where he played the final games of his minor league rehabilitation assignment.
It’s the appropriate position to take, the right thing to say. In the two months Gonzalez missed because of a herniated disk in his back, rookie Cody Bellinger took over his position at first base and became an all-star. The Dodgers have established themselves as the best team in baseball. Roberts has already said the 35-year-old Gonzalez won’t return as an everyday player.
Still, Gonzalez’s perspective is worthy of appreciation. As I wrote last month, athletes of Gonzalez’s caliber rarely age gracefully. The self-belief that once made them stars often blinds them to reality when their powers decline.
Gonzalez’s attitude will spare Roberts the delicate task of diffusing a potentially combustible situation, the kind that could tear apart an otherwise harmonious clubhouse. Roberts could have found himself in a particularly uncomfortable position because of his relationship with Gonzalez.
Roberts and Gonzalez played together on the San Diego Padres. They remain close friends.
“Adrian has been unselfish from the beginning of the season,” Roberts said.
The manager recalled that Bellinger wasn’t sent down the minor leagues in May because Gonzalez volunteered to go on the disabled list. Gonzalez had never previously been on the DL, which was a point of pride for him.
“That’s the example I want to set for the younger guys,” Gonzalez said. “I’m not going to sit there and complain because I’m not playing. I’m going to be ready for when he does need me.”
The Dodgers don’t utilize their roster like most other teams. They platoon at several positions. Their starting pitchers are removed at relatively early stages of games.
“I think the older guys being examples is one of the reasons why the team’s bought into it,” Gonzalez said.
And it’s not as though Gonzalez won’t play.
If Bellinger takes a breather, Gonzalez will start at first base. If Joc Pederson or Chris Taylor take a seat, Bellinger will move to the outfield and Gonzalez will start. If Logan Forsythe doesn’t play, Taylor can move to second base, Bellinger can move to left field and Gonzalez will start.
Noting the versatility of his teammates, Gonzalez joked, “I’m the super utility that only plays first.”
Gonzalez has played in only 49 of the Dodgers’ 119 games, batting a pedestrian .255 with one home run. But he is optimistic he will be able to produce. The pain in his back doesn’t linger as it used to. He also thinks that his work with hitting coach Turner Ward has helped correct some bad habits he developed over the last year and half as he compensated for the injury.
Playing time should take care of itself.
“Ultimately, it’s up to you. If you produce, you’re going to play,” Gonzalez said. “Teams are going to trust your track record if you start producing. That’s the mentality I think is the right mentality to go with. If you don’t like it, play better.”
That mindset is something he adopted from watching former teammate Juan Uribe when his playing time was reduced.
“When Uribe wasn’t playing, people were asking him, ‘Why don’t you ask for playing time?’” Gonzalez recalled. “He’d be like, ‘Because if I go in there and ask for playing time and I don’t produce, I look like an idiot. I’d rather just wait it out and when I get my chance, I’m going to produce. If I don’t produce, I have nothing to sit here and cry about.’”
Gonzalez added, “Talk your way into the lineup and people will say, ‘Why is he playing every day?’ I’d rather have people say, ‘He should be playing every day.’”
Roberts has nonetheless been mindful of paying Gonzalez the courtesies that are generally extended to players of his stature. Earlier in the season, when Gonzalez wasn’t in the lineup, Roberts made certain he called him into the office to explain his thinking.
“Thank you for feeling that way, but don’t feel like you have to,” Gonzalez said he told Roberts. “You’re not going to hear me complain. I’m not going to be that guy.”
Understanding of Roberts’ predicament, Gonzalez assured his friend nothing has changed.
“He doesn’t have to feel like he’s betraying me by not playing me,” Gonzalez said. “If you’re the manager, wouldn’t you want to play the best matchup every day and not feel like you have to put a guy in the lineup? As a manager, don’t you want to have the freedom?”
He thinks Roberts will take his history into account when considering whom to play in the postseason. But even if Roberts decides not to start him, Gonzalez said, “he can use me in that pinch-hit situation that game, in that big moment, because he trusts that I’m going to give him that quality at-bat.”
Gonzalez is more than a decade removed from the last time he wasn’t an everyday player. He is back to where he was then, in a fight for playing time.
“If I come out next year and I feel healthy and I do well in spring training, I’m not going to be OK with just a platoon situation,” he said. “But I am this year because I’ve been hurt and I feel I have to prove myself. The players that have had a track record, nobody’s going to feel like, ‘I’ve done this in the past, so I deserve this.’ I think you still want to feel like you want to prove yourself. That’s what drives us.”