Gonzalez's franchise face is a forced smile

Tim Brown
Yahoo! Sports

SAN DIEGO – The San Diego Padres were in Anaheim about a month ago, playing lousy, not scoring runs, doing what they could to put up a fight but not making much of it.

You know, it's one thing to be Chase Headley(notes) or Everth Cabrera(notes), who of course yearn to win but at their ages have personal survival to consider, too. It's quite another to be a veteran and an All-Star who'd experienced the Padres so much better (and not that long ago), who'd left mere survival behind, who couldn't possibly think any of this is OK, and who is under club control for 2½ more seasons at an extremely club-friendly salary.

With some of that in mind, Jeff Moorad, the new CEO and part owner of the Padres, invited Adrian Gonzalez(notes) to lunch. They met in Newport Beach between Padres losses, when the offense was down but slightly better than the nightly no-hit drama it is now.

For more than an hour they kicked around ideas and opinions, and shared their private gripes and pleasures, and stirred long-term visions into their iced teas.

“I just wanted to talk,” Moorad said, “about his own career and about our direction. It was a healthy, open discussion that I'm glad we had.”

They were learning to live with each other, Moorad steering the organization, Gonzalez one of its few recognizable commodities. And, well, good thing they were. Because at the moment – this being a vacuous ebb in the small-market team's rolling existence – each is about all the other has.

What the Padres need is more money and more talent, it currently being a bad time in their history for both. They've slashed $30 million from their payroll and are shooting for more. There are times when one looks out over the Padres at Petco Park and think Adrian Gonzalez is the dad keeping order during the T-ball game.

“He's like a sore thumb out there,” said Dodgers manager Joe Torre, whose pitchers have walked Gonzalez 10 times, three of them intentionally.

So, they start over again. They start with Moorad and Gonzalez. And if they're both lucky – like really, really lucky – enough will have gone right where the Padres can afford Gonzalez when it's time for him to go. And then Gonzalez will choose to stay.

As Moorad said, “Adrian's the heart and soul of the ballclub,” adding, “I value everything he does day in and day out.”

The Padres are in last place in the NL West. They are the worst offensive team in the game and just traded their second-best power hitter – Scott Hairston(notes) – to Oakland for a couple minor-league pitchers and the longer view. Their best pitcher, Jake Peavy(notes), is hurt, and the reason they're so eager to get him back is so they can trade him, too.

None of this is news to Gonzalez, who, an All-Star again, will get a few days' furlough from it all this week in St. Louis. Until a couple weeks ago he was perhaps the least heralded of the players who'd been there before, but now he's been profiled by Sports Illustrated, ESPN the Magazine and USA Today. It's a nice story – the affable ballplayer raised on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border, the sweet swing, the soft glove, what he represents for San Diego both in talent and heritage – and the Padres know what they have.

Last winter, drawn by the news of Peavy's availability, the Los Angeles Angels contacted the Padres. They'd just withdrawn from the Mark Teixeira(notes) goings-on, so had some money to spend and a roster to rethink. They liked Peavy, who would get expensive after 2009. So they called about Peavy. And Gonzalez. They wanted both and would pay in prospects both raw and big-league ready. Padres GM Kevin Towers turned them down, wouldn't even discuss it. No way he could move Gonzalez, too, not if he wanted to go on living comfortably in San Diego.

On a slow-to-rise morning recently, Gonzalez sat in front of his locker and recalled lunch with Moorad and the message that came with it.

“I did have a good conversation with Jeff,” he said. “It's nice to be kept in the loop with the direction the team is going. You know, though, at the end of the day my value is what I do on the field. If I hit .150, he'll be taking someone else to lunch.”

He's batting .253, down nearly 40 points in a month, almost 80 in two. But with an explanation. A couple, actually. First, he said he feels like he's hitting the ball fine, that there's some bad luck involved here. Second, well, he shrugs. Does he really have to say it?

Who's pitching to Adrian Gonzalez? Playing in a pitchers' Eden, he had 22 home runs by June 2 and has two since. There is almost never anything to gain by throwing him strikes. As a result, he ranks third in the majors – behind Albert Pujols(notes) and Adam Dunn(notes) – in walks. And, well, Gonzalez won't always settle for those.

“There are times he probably goes outside the strike zone because he knows he's not going to get much to hit,” Torre said. “So, he could be more disciplined. But he knows that's his job and he's probably going to swing at more balls than he should.”

Guilty, Gonzalez's smile said.

“But I wouldn't say I'm struggling,” he said. “Look at the statistics and maybe you'd say I was struggling. If you saw all my outs, you might not say so. But a couple at-bats a game I probably go outside my zone. I'm a guy who wants to win every day. If I can have some say in the matter, I'm going to try to do it. It's a fine line.”

Yeah, his say. He can no sooner trot to first and watch all those innings die as he could stand tallest on the roster and watch the organization stagger and collapse. So, he'll swing away when maybe he shouldn't. Maybe one day the club will, too. Maybe they'll tell him one day over another lunch.

“I'm more understanding now,” Gonzalez said. “I think Jeff is going to be good. It's going to take a couple years to get where he wants to get. But, building it the right way, I think it can work.

“I don't think anybody in this clubhouse is OK with losing. We all want to win today. We all want to win tomorrow. We also have to understand it might take some time.”

Asked if he had a couple years to wait, if he could have that kind of patience, Gonzalez nodded.

“Whether I'm here or not,” he said, “I'm a Padres fan.”

That's good. Moorad is going to need a lot of those.

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