ANAHEIM, Calif. – Marwin Gonzalez travels with four baseball gloves – three gloves and a mitt, actually – which maybe isn't so strange except they're all gamers, and one of them belonged to teammate Chris Carter for seven years, and enough he has to split them up on the road, two in his backpack and two in bullpen catcher Javier Bracamonte's suitcase.
Probably when the story of the Houston Astros' season is told in its entirety, it could take a while to get to Gonzalez, his gloves, his mitt and the two trips he'd have to take from the clubhouse to the dugout were he to arrive ready for all the Astros asked him to do, because he also required a couple bats and a shin guard, along with the appetite and aptitude to be the Astros' everything.
In the season the Astros grew up, Gonzalez played first base, shortstop, third base, second base and left field. And he didn't just dabble in them, either. He played left field nine times, the least of his appearances in a defensive position.
"He could play right or center too, if I asked him to do it," Astros manager A.J. Hinch said.
Gonzalez also switch-hit. He took at-bats as the designated hitter. He hit in every spot in the order. He pinch hit 15 times and pinch ran once. He stole four bases. You may remember him as the guy who ended Yu Darvish's perfect game in April 2013, when he singled after 26 consecutive Astros came and went. Maybe you recall his walk-off home run against the Tampa Bay Rays last month. Or, perhaps, the name sounds familiar, as one of five Astros still on the roster from just three years ago, in 2012, when the Astros lost 107 games (and then lost 111 the year after).
At a time when there are bigger names and games, and because of it the Astros are a decent bet to win their first division title in 14 years (and in those years finished an average of 19.2 games out of first place), Gonzalez subbed for Jed Lowrie at shortstop, Jose Altuve at second base, Carlos Correa at shortstop, Evan Gattis (and others) in left field, Carter at first base, Luis Valbuena at third base and variously provided the depth – capable depth – that's the difference between a nice little team and a playoff team. He didn't just hold a position because the league generally requires nine men out there, but played capably at them all, and then batted .281 with 10 home runs, then in the second half hit .328, and for the past couple weeks hit .424. And now he's hitting so well Hinch can hardly leave him out of the lineup.
"Of course I want to be an everyday player one day," he said Friday night, hours before he'd start at first base against the Los Angeles Angels. "In the future, that's one of my goals. I don't have control like that. It's just not the situation right now."
So he showed up, studied the lineup card and picked out a glove, not unlike the handful of very good, very valuable utilitymen out there, but maybe better than all but a few, in a season that has meant more than most in Houston.
Every day he asks Hinch, "What glove do you want me to take to the field?"
And every day Hinch responds, "All of 'em."
Gonzalez, 26, was born in Puerto Ordaz, Venezuela and raised in San Felix, the next town over. His father, Mario, was a ballplayer as a young man. When Marwin was old enough to handle a glove Mario would take him to a rutted neighborhood field, where he'd hit him hundreds of ground balls.
"Really hard," Gonzalez said. "We don't have good fields in Venezuela. There were little rocks everywhere on a dirt infield. Then the ball would hit me here, and here, and here."
He pointed to his wrist, his knee, his cheek. He laughed.
Young Marwin took to studying the movements of the great fielders. Omar Vizquel at shortstop. Scott Rolen and Eric Chavez at third base. Even after signing with the Chicago Cubs at 16, he'd watch those fielders more adept than he, then emulate their footwork, their mechanics, all from the ground up. Still does, he said.
He arrived in pro ball a shortstop. The Cubs had him play third base. Then some shortstop, and first base and second. Within a few years he was being tested in center field, and left field, and the glove collection grew. The Boston Red Sox took him in the 2011 Rule 5 draft and traded him to the Astros, where he's been since, playing the open spot, taking the at-bats where they come and helping to turn the Astros into something presentable.
Maybe all of this works without Marwin Gonzalez, but it doesn't work nearly as well. That's why the gloves are important. One is for third base. Another is for shortstop and second base. That's his favorite, because it's worked-in perfectly, and has to be, and is the one he spends the most time with. There's one for the outfield. They're all made by Wilson. The mitt, of course, is for first base. It came to him in spring training, manufactured by Nike, molded and pounded and dirtied-up and sweat over and loved by Carter.
"It was my gamer," Carter said.
He gave it up because a teammate needed it, and he'd nearly worked in its successor, and sometimes a man has to say good-bye.
"I still see it once in a while," Carter said.
Gonzalez played first base Friday night, with Carter's old mitt. He brought a couple gloves to the dugout with him, too. Like always. Just in case. Maybe it's not the job he wants forever, but it's the one he has today, and he can be happy with that, with the story it has helped tell so far. That is, of the Astros, of an organization that figured it out, of the young utilityman who fills in where it didn't quite do that, because nobody has it figured out every day.
That's what all the gloves are for.