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AZ SnakePit Interview: Luis Gonzalez, Part 2 - The Arizona Years

[<em>All photos are courtesy of the Arizona Diamondbacks</em>]
[All photos are courtesy of the Arizona Diamondbacks]

In the first part of our interview with Arizona sports icon, Luis Gonzalez, we spoke about his new role as ambassador for the 2011 All-Star Game, which is taking part in Phoenix this July. But that only marks the latest achievement by a man who holds just about every offensive record in team history. He played 1,194 regular-season games for the franchise, spread over eight seasons, and also 21 post-season contests, highlighted by a crucial role in Game 7 of the 2001 World Series.

In the second part, after the jump, we talk about that, but also his arrival in the desert, our first trip to the post-season in 1999, and what he thinks new management will bring to the team.

AZ SnakePit: When you were traded to Arizona in December 1998, did you think that your future would hold five All-Star Games and a World Series win?

Luis Gonzalez: No. But I was very excited. You can't predict the future, but I knew I was going to an organization where, after one year in existence, they switched their whole game-plan into "Let's win now," and changed the whole roster around, going for more veteran guys. I was watching them make their move for Randy Johnson, Steve FInley, Tony Womack, and I was going, "This team is getting to be very veteran-heavy," and I wanted to be a part of that.

So when they told me "You'll be going to Arizona," I was extremely excited. I found myself with an opportunity to be around a lot of veteran players, a lot of guys who know how to play the game, and mixed in with a lot of guys that I admired, being around and play - Jay Bell, Matt Williams, Randy Johnson. And then later on, we picked up Curt Schilling, and it doesn't hurt your rotation to get another guy like that.

AZSP: The first year you were here, there was a huge turnaround - 35 games - and we made it to the post-season, only for that to end disappointingly, against the Mets.

LG: That was very tough. It was a tough one to swallow, because we were so close, and we felt like we had a good team that year. I still see that ball going over Finley's glove, right there in center-field, off Todd Pratt. That's the one I think which stings the most in your career. Later on, we got a chance to revamp and get to the World Series, but you think about that one play and go, "Oh, it was so close." We had a great team, great bunch of guys. That whole era, when teams came out to play against us, they knew it was going to be a battle.

And that's what it made it exciting, because we had a certain swagger - not a cockiness, just a swagger where, when guys walked into our ballpark, we had a quiet confidence about ourselves. Everybody got along. We'd go on the road and there'd be ten, twelve guys going to dinner together, if not more. We spent a lot of time together; we'd stay in the clubhouse after games on the road, talk about the game and go over a lot of things. It was a very professionally-run team.

2005_gonzalez_2_mediumAZSP: Was there any point in the 2001 World Series where you thought, "Oh-oh: we're in trouble"?

LG: We were up two games to none, went to New York, we were pretty confident, BK gave up a couple of those big home-runs. I think most of us were more concerned about his mind-set. We felt like we had out-played the Yankees the whole time - if you look at the box-scores, we really did. They were just known for being 'clutch' players: those guys had played in those big games, been in those situations so long that they knew how to react and adapt. We were in 'uncharted waters', so to speak, for our ball-club.

We knew Game Six was an all-or-nothing game, we needed to win that game. I remember, when we walked out there after batting practice; everyone goes in and changes, but to walk out to your home ball-park, to a sea of white pom-poms... Man, it was exciting to know that our fans were going to be that tenth person on the field.

AZSP: There were reports you knew what was coming from Andy Pettitte in that one...

LG: [Laughs] Well, put it this way, we were really confident! When you get to win that one, and go to Game Seven, you're excited. Because now, you're not playing for the best out of four, best out of three - you're playing for everything. And a lot of us were later on in our careers: guys didn't know if that was going to be their last year, how many more years they would play, how many more opportunities you would have. A lot of us had played eight, ten years, never got to post-season play. To get that one shot at it, and to win on that one shot... Really exciting.

AZSP: Everyone remembers your hit, Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling. But who would say was an unsung hero of that post-season.

LG: I would say [Craig] Counsell was pretty much our unsung here, but we had a lot of guys. There were times when some of us got hot: I had a career year, Randy had another Cy Young year, Curt was having a great year. But to win, you've got to have some guys that have a good year, and a lot of other guys that have consistent years. Even our bench players were really important: [Greg] Colbrunn was important; Counsell was fantastic for us, every time he spot-started in one of those infield positions, or if we needed a guy to come up and get a big hit for us, he was the guy. There were a lot of times during that season where different players were stepping up big for us - getting big hits, pitching big for us, getting us out of big jams.

AZSP: Of course, it's the tenth anniversary of that team. Have you heard anything about the club's plans to commemorate it?

LG: I think they have some stuff planned! It should be pretty exciting for the fans. It's hard to believe ten years have already gone by. That was a special group of guys, and I can honestly tell you, I've had a lot of fun playing this game and being around a lot of guys. But that was probably the most fun I ever had, as far as competing and going out on the field, feeling very confident with the guys out there with you, representing the team and the state. You liked your chances every time you went out there with that group.

AZSP: What other memories do you have of your time here?

LG: Just the special teams, the special people. How the fans related to our club. We were more of a blue-collar type team, very work-oriented. We weren't a hot-doggish team, very flashy or anything like that. I think a lot of times that rubbed people wrong, because they wanted to see more animation from guys on our team, and we weren't really built that way.  Our guys were more time-clock guys: check in, play hard. We had fun in the locker-room, we had fun on the airplane, we had fun on the road, hanging together.

But when the bell rang and we had to go out there and perform on the field, we were pretty geared up to do that. If someone messed up, you knew it, because one of the guys would either get on you, or give you 'that look'. And I think think that was the best medicine we had on our team. We held each other accountable.

AZSP: It seems you had a really good rapport with the fans in Arizona.

LG: I've always been a people person. When you have kids and you're out in the community: this is where home is for me now. I don't hide: I'm out there, my kids are out there. I try to get involved in the community and make a difference, help out as much as you can. I just enjoy that. I enjoy being around people, meeting people. To me, that's a lot of fun.

I got to do something very special, playing on the field and putting on a big-league uniform. I got to live out a dream that millions of people have. But at the same time, I didn't consider myself any different from anyone else. I wanted to be a "people's player", so to speak, where they go, "I can relate to that guy. I've seen that guy at the supermarket, or at a coffee-shop, or at the gym working out." I've never had that cockiness or arrogance, where they go, "What a jerk that guy was!" I couldn't see myself like that. I've never been like that and I don't think I ever will be.

2001_gonzalez_1_mediumAZSP: Who were your role-models as a player?

LG: My hero growing up, believe it or not, was Pete Rose. I grew up watching the '75 Big Red Machine, because I grew up in Tampa and that's where spring training was. I idolized that Big Red Machine, I knew all the players and as time went on I got to meet a lot of those players. A lot of them were in different organizations that I passed through, but I just liked the approach that Pete took: Charlie Hustle, go in and play hard, kinda smash-mouth baseball.

I wasn't the most talented on the field, but at the same time I gave you everything I had, and that's all you can ask for, is a guy to give you maximum effort. You're not going to get three or four hits every day, there's going to be days when you just flat-out stink it up. But when that happened, I was man enough to tell the reporters, "Hey, I just stunk today. Tomorrow, I'll go out and get 'em." That's the way I approached the game.

AZSP: Do you think that's an aspect of the game that's been lost to some extent?

LG: Definitely. Most definitely, it's been lost. I think that's an aspect that we're trying to get back here. If you look at our roster now, we've signed a pretty good core of veteran guys, that have been around a little bit, and I think those guys are going to help our organization. One of them may step up and have a career year; late in their career, they can do that. This is baseball, anything can happen.

AZSP: It has been a couple of years since you've stopped playing. Do you miss the game at all?

LG: I miss it a lot. I miss the competitiveness and being around the guys and things like that. But at the same time, this is a new path for me and I'm really excited about it. I'm working with a lot of good people here, and I enjoy being around the ballpark. That's what I love to do, being around the stadium, and being around people, so it's been fun. A lot less travel, but I miss going out there and competing, and trying to win. You have a lot of fond memories, and you make a lot of good friendships when you're out there on the field competing.

AZSP: What have you been doing in your new role here?

LG: My title is Special Assistant to the President, so I've been doing a lot of stuff with Derrick, traveling around. I'm going to go to some minor-league cities, be in spring training with those guys for a little bit, big-league club also. Hopefully this year, we've changed a lot of stuff with our new General Manager, and Gibby from the start, so we're going to try and get everybody back on the same page. Get that swagger back that we used to have.

AZSP: Are you finding things very different under the new management?

LG: I think everyone is very excited about the changes that have been made. We brought some veteran guys in, some more established players. We've got a great core of young players, not only in the big leagues, but in the minor leagues, and now we have a couple of veteran guys to go along with it that help guide the ship a little bit, teach these guys how to play hard and play the right way.

I think what's important for us is to show the fans that we're trying to make a change. I think our fans have been very loyal to us. It's been frustrating. We've all been there. I'm a fan now, too - I work for the organization, but I'm a fan, I want to win, just as fans do, whether it's baseball or whatever sport I'm following. I think you guys do a great job with the blog; I've checked you out before, and I enjoy reading what people write because they're passionate. The good and the bad come together. If you're not playing well, you expect to get ridiculed, and when you're playing well... You're expected to play well!

AZSP: Finally, how would you want to be remembered?

LG: I think I'd want to be remembered more as a guy who played the game the right way - played hard, and cared about people. That's basically it. I respected my team-mates, respected the fans, and just cared about the people that surrounded the game.

[Thanks to Luis Gonzalez for kindly giving up the time to talk to us, and Shaun Rachau of the Diamondbacks for setting up the interview.]