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CENTER OF ATTENTION : Jose Gonzalez’s Success Is More Than Kid Stuff

Times Staff Writer

The thing that makes Jose Gonzalez laugh most these days is when somebody wonders why the Dodgers risk making a mere kid their everyday center fielder.

Kid? Gonzalez may be 24 years old, but if he’s a kid, then what does that make pitcher Orel Hershiser, who was signed by the Dodgers only one year before they signed Gonzalez? Or what does that make Dodger infielder Dave Anderson, who was signed the same year as Gonzalez? Or how about third baseman Jeff Hamilton, who was signed two years later?

If he is a kid, then why does Gonzalez have all these scars?

--Gonzalez was playing for the Dodger organization at a time when he spoke no English, understood no English, and had one warm jacket. All of this made it difficult for a young man who was leaving the Dominican Republic for the first time in his 16 years, to begin his career in 1981 in the middle of Canada, playing for a rookie league team in Lethbridge.

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“That first year I got a bad reputation for falling asleep in team meetings,” Gonzalez said. “But if you didn’t understand what they were saying, wouldn’t you fall asleep too?”

His checks were cashed by his landlord. His food was ordered by friends. His batting average, in 34 games, was .136.

--He didn’t have a driver’s license and had never even been behind the wheel of a car.

This came up one night that first year in Lethbridge when his date, Mona Williams, decided she was tired and couldn’t drive home. Gonzalez bravely took the wheel and was doing fine until it came time to turn left.

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As soon he made what seemed like a reasonable turn, a police car appeared in his rear view mirror and pulled him over.

“Don’t you know how to use your turn signals?” the policeman asked.

“Turn signals?” Gonzalez answered. “What are turn signals?”

--He decided to marry Williams in 1984 in Bakersfield. But they had no money and no friends, so on a rare off day in April, they went to a wedding chapel and were married in front of two people.

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Afterward, for their honeymoon, they ate Mexican food and drank cheap champagne. He was 19, she was 20.

“In this family,” Mona says, “we learn to go with the blows.”

--His skills were so raw that he needed to play winter league baseball in two places. In the winter of 1984 and 1985, he lived in the back of a woman’s house in Santo Domingo. He would take a one-hour bus ride every day to San Pedro de Macoris to work out with other young prospects, then return in time to play for the Licey team at night. If there was time, the woman would cook him a late lunch.

“It seems like the last nine years, I have played baseball every day of my life,” Gonzalez said.

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The odyssey has paid off. In 36 games after his recall from triple-A Albuquerque, he has hit .297 and skillfully patrolled center field. His play has been enough to move him ahead of the slumping John Shelby as the Dodger center fielder.

“We always knew he could field, but we can’t believe how he’s hitting,” said one American League scout. “The thing is, we’re all waiting to see if he keeps hitting.”

Gonzalez is waiting to see if he simply stays with the Dodgers. Not that he hasn’t been here before--he has been up off and on for the last four years. But always there was a string attached, a string that kept pulling him back and forth from the obscurity of the minor leagues.

In 1984 he was recalled from double-A San Antonio in September for his major league debut. In 1985, he was recalled in September from triple-A Albuquerque.

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In 1986, he was recalled from Albuquerque in July, sent back in August, and then recalled a week later. In 1987 he was brought up in September.

Then came last season, when the Dodgers simply could not make up their minds. He was recalled to the Dodgers four times, once for only six days.

“I always knew what flight to take to L.A., but last year was when I learned the name of the pilot,” Gonzalez said.

Said Mona: “I’m surprised he hasn’t gotten down with all that’s happened. I’m surprised he hasn’t said, ‘This is bull.’ ”

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After finishing last year with the Dodgers in the World Series, he finally did say it, but in a different setting. The problem was with winter baseball, which he began playing a week after the World Series ended, playing for the eighth straight winter.

“I went down there thinking I was no longer a rookie player, I was a major league player, I had worked really hard for the Dodgers,” he said. “I was ready to be a Dodger.”

So when the Licey winter league team only offered him $1,000 a month, as contrasted with the normal $3,500 a month plus expenses given to Americans there, Gonzalez played a few weeks and quit. Their offer was average money for Dominican players, who are paid in pesos. But he felt he was finally worth more than average.

“I work so hard, too hard for my winter team to treat me like that,” Gonzalez said. “I’ve been around so long, I’ve got to start thinking about my future.”

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It would be no big deal, many players leave their winter teams over money problems. Except the Dodgers had specifically requested that he play with Licey, and work on his hitting with Dodger coaches and Licey managers Bill Russell and Joe Ferguson, who split the season there.

“We would never, ever force somebody to do what was against their will,” said Fred Claire, Dodger vice president. “We just thought if Jose played, it would be good for both of us.”

Thus Gonzalez went to spring training rested, but troubled.

“I wonder if the Dodgers got mad at me, I wonder if they have a chip against me,” Gonzalez said. “I come to spring training and I worry that I’m in bad with them.”

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“If we were mad at him,” Claire said, “he wouldn’t be where he is today.”

But he was still sent to Albuquerque on the last day of spring training. And he was only recalled June 2 because of Mike Marshall’s back injury. And Dodger Manager Tom Lasorda greeted him with an ominous warning.

“I told him when he came up, this may be his last chance,” Lasorda said. “I told him I knew he could do it, but he had to show everybody else.”

In his first at-bat in Houston June 4, he tripled. The next day in Atlanta, he went one for one again. The next day, two for four. And the roll was on, capped one month later, on July 2 in Dodger Stadium, when he had a two-run homer and RBI double to give the Dodgers a 3-2 victory over Pittsburgh.

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Yes, Gonzalez will tell you, he once was a kid. But now he is a Dodger. And he finally knows the difference.

Dodger Notes

Although he has the best pitching but worst hitting team in baseball, Dodger Vice President Fred Claire said Wednesday that the next roster shakeup will come in the pitching staff. “Everything is open to speculation at this point--we are taking a close look at our pitching staff and may make an adjustment,” Claire told reporters at a 90-minute workout at Dodger Stadium. The Dodgers play the St. Louis Cardinals at Dodger Stadium today at 5:05 p.m. Considering Tim Leary will not pitch in the four-game weekend series with the Cardinals, he is the probable victim of the

shakeup. Look for him to be moved to the bullpen and Albuquerque’s Ramon Martinez, who started in Wednesday night’s triple-A All-Star game, to be called up and placed in the rotation for Monday’s game against Chicago. In his only major league appearance this year, on June 5, Martinez threw a six-hit shutout against Atlanta. But the right-hander was only in the big leagues two days. If Leary moves to the bullpen, rookie John Wetteland might be sent down. Wetteland has allowed four runs in his last 8 1/3 relief innings. Leary has won only one of his last five starts, giving up 13 runs in 31 innings during that time (3.77 ERA). . . . Look for Chris Gwynn, who was activated last week despite an inability to run on a broken right foot, to return to the disabled list when Mariano Duncan is eligible to return from his hamstring injury Sunday. . . . Longtime Dodger clubhouse manager Nobe Kawano has been hospitalized with pneumonia.

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