Dodgers’ Tony Gonsolin shares the uncertainty that minor leaguers feel and offers help
Two pitchers started the final game of the World Series, and everyone remembers the one who started for the losing team. The Tampa Bay Rays’ ill-fated decision to remove Blake Snell with a shutout in progress became a punchline during the Super Bowl: The only way Tampa Bay could lose this game would be for the Buccaneers to remove Tom Brady.
Everyone remembers the pitcher who closed for the winning team: Julio Urias, throwing a called third strike, squatting behind the mound, and pumping his fists as the Dodgers celebrated their first championship in 32 years.
The pitcher who started for the winning team?
Tony Gonsolin. He likes cats.
Gonsolin’s profile figures to grow beyond the four-word description repeatedly aired on national television during the postseason: “part man, part cat.” No starting pitcher got more votes in the National League rookie of the year balloting last season.
MLB’s 2021 Operations Manual obtained by The Times spells out COVID testing procedures, restrictions on gatherings and rules that can speed up games.
But if cats are his calling card for now, he wants to play that card to help minor leaguers. When his team took the field for the clinching game of the World Series, Gonsolin wore “LA” on his head, “Dodgers” on his jersey, and a cat on his cleats.
“I got to wear these custom cleats in the biggest game I have ever pitched in,” he said. “It was an awesome experience to spread my love for cats around.”
More Than Baseball, a nonprofit organization launched by current and former minor leaguers to help minor league players, invited Gonsolin to design his own cleats. He sent along a picture of his favorite cat, the Maine Coon.
Stadium Custom Kicks, a company founded by a current minor leaguer, turned Gonsolin’s vision into a unique pair of cleats. Gonsolin won the World Series in them, and soon he will autograph them so More
Than Baseball can auction them to benefit minor leaguers.
“I’m definitely doing it just for the cause,” Gonsolin said. “That’s more important to me than having the actual cleats in my possession.”
Jacob deGrom’s custom cleats, designed as a salute to the late New York Mets great Tom Seaver, sold for more than $8,000 at auction.
In 2020, its first full year of operation, More Than Baseball raised $1.3 million to help more than 2,000 players with grocery bills, bedding, utility bills, financial guidance and more, according to Slade Heathcott, director of operations and a former first-round draft pick of the New York Yankees.
Even with the higher salaries that Major League Baseball has promised this season, minor leaguers still can make as little as $400 per week. Salaries are paid only during the season, not year-round.
At Class A Rancho Cucamonga in 2017, Gonsolin said he and four teammates shared a two-bedroom apartment. Gonsolin slept in the living room, on an air mattress.
At double-A Tulsa in 2018, he said, he slept in the clubhouse when he arrived, saving a few bucks so he did not need to rent an apartment before the first road trip.
The Dodgers traded Adam Kolarek to Oakland for infielder Sheldon Neuse and pitcher Gus Varland, then dealt Dylan Floro to Miami for pitcher Alex Vesia.
Gonsolin said he would love to see major league teams partner with apartment landlords or corporate housing providers, so that minor league players would have a safe and convenient place to live upon arrival. The players still would pay for housing, Gonsolin said, but they would not have the anxiety of finding it.
“Something like that would definitely take a lot of stress off of guys so they would really be able to focus on the baseball side of it,” he said, “as opposed to, like, ‘I just moved from Great Lakes to Rancho, and I have three days to find a place to live.’ ”
With just about any other team, Gonsolin would not have to imagine starting this season in the minor leagues. He put up a 2.31 earned-run average in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, ranking seventh in the NL among pitchers who threw at least 40 innings.
Max Fried, the ace of the Atlanta Braves, ranked sixth. Ranking eighth: deGrom, widely regarded as the best pitcher in the majors.
With the Dodgers, Gonsolin is in depth limbo. He was about to throw a bullpen session not long ago when his throwing partner looked at his phone and said, “Hey, your team just signed Trevor Bauer.”
“We’re pretty stacked,” Gonsolin said. “There’s a lot of depth in our starting rotation now.
“There was before, I thought.”
Indeed, the Dodgers already had Walker Buehler, Clayton Kershaw and David Price as veterans atop of the rotation, with Gonsolin, Urias and Dustin May as youngsters for the final slots. In Bauer, the Dodgers added the NL Cy Young award winner.
Still, with eight straight NL West titles, the Dodgers have mastered the art of treating the regular season as preparation for October, with the goal of making sure pitchers are primed for the postseason. No Dodgers pitcher has thrown more than 183 innings since 2015.
Even in last year’s 60-game season, the Dodgers used 11 starting pitchers. Gonsolin will get his chance, at some point.
“Nothing is ever guaranteed, so I’m going to work hard and do the best I can do when it is my opportunity,” he said. “But, with Bauer joining, that just adds another step up. It’s a cool experience. Hopefully, I’ll get to learn a lot from being in the same clubhouse with him and being around him.”
The 2021 MLB season will again feature seven-inning doubleheaders and runners on second base to start extra innings under approved health protocols.
Gonsolin owns a couple dozen cat-themed T-shirts. He stepped off the team bus last October wearing one that said “PAWS” in big, bold letters, a parody of “Jaws,” the legendary shark-attack thriller. On the T-shirt, a menacing cat lurks underwater, poised to rise from the sea and inflict terror upon unsuspecting inhabitants on the surface.
“It’s a lot of fun for me, to talk about that and communicate with fans about it, but I want people to see me as a pitcher, as someone who is succeeding and who has a bright future,” he said.
“That’s what I’m doing and hopefully making a name for myself with, but I’m fine with the underlying ‘Oh, he likes cats.’ ”
He does not actually own a cat. He does not know where he will live this year. Wherever that might be, he knows he will have to travel.
“I wouldn’t want to put that kind of stress on any animal, as of right now,” Gonsolin said. “I wanted to be a good cat dad.”
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