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Spring still in his step

No longer in pain, Rays shortstop Chris Gomez is having fun again.

By KEVIN KELLY, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published March 12, 2002

SARASOTA -- The knees.

They sapped his strength. They ruined his balance. They made the ordinary throw across the diamond a challenge.

"I was throwing sinkers in the dirt," Rays shortstop Chris Gomez said last week. "And people are looking at you and saying, "This guy can't play a lick.' The thing is, you start believing it."

[Times photo: Michael Rondou]
After battling back from knee injuries, Chris Gomez hopes to reclaim his reputation as a steady, dependable shortstop.
The knees.

They hinted of pain in 1996 and since have been surgically repaired. Eventually, those 30-year-old knees were the reason the Padres auditioned players for his position before thanking Gomez for six years of service and releasing him outright in June.

"When they released me, I'm not going to say I hoped no one called because I wanted to continue my career, but I was so down and out," said Gomez, who was in the final year of a contract that paid him $3-million last season. "I was getting a little sick of failing, sick of my knees bothering me, sick of the whole situation."

With only memories of a healthier player to go on, the Rays gambled Gomez could stay healthy long enough to steady the shortstop position at least through the end of the 2001 season.

That he could be had for a prorated share of the major-league minimum, about $100,000, didn't hurt.

"All you could do is sign him and take a shot," Rays general manager Chuck LaMar said. "It's not as big a gamble as you might think because of his makeup."

Less than a month after signing with the Rays as a free agent, Gomez was recalled from Triple-A Durham on July 22.

He hasn't left since.

"I went to Durham and I just said the heck with it," Gomez said. "I'm just going to relax and try to have fun again. I did that and when I came back, baseball was fun again."

Re-energized doesn't accurately describe what happened.

Gomez, who hasn't played more than 76 games in a major-league season since 1998, reinvented himself emotionally and physically after San Diego released him.

With a focused diet and improved exercise routine, Gomez stayed healthy and batted .302 with eight homers and 36 RBIs (both Rays records for shortstops) in the final 58 games of the season.

The job was his.

"When you go through something like I went through, you'll do anything you can not to relive that feeling, that frustration of knowing you don't have a chance," said Gomez, who had surgeries on both knees in 1999 and on the left kneecap in 2000. "That's the worst feeling in the world. And that keeps me doing what I do."

What some forget about Gomez, other than the fact he hit .364 when the Padres played the Yankees in the 1996 World Series, was that he was a durable, dependable player before the knee problems.

"I took a lot of pride in that," Gomez said.

He played in 555 games with the Tigers and Padres from 1995 to 1998, 139 per season.

"Being out there every day, answering the bell every day," Gomez said, "you get respect from your teammates that way, respect from your coaches that way."

Durability is something he wants to regain this season. But that wasn't his sole trademark.

Nicknamed "Steady Eddie" by teammates, Gomez isn't the most flashy shortstop to grace a major-league infield.

"The thing about Chris is that he's dependable," said catcher John Flaherty, who played with Gomez in Detroit and San Diego, and has a locker beside him in the Rays clubhouse. "When the ball's hit to him, the play is going to be made."

Gomez has a .971 career fielding percentage as a shortstop. In 58 games with the Rays, he made seven errors in 219 chances.

"Steady," manager Hal McRae said. "That's what you need, a steady shortstop. He provided a good bat for us last year and he makes all the plays he's supposed to make."

It's not in Gomez's makeup to stand out or make a scene. As his friends say, he is old school.

"With Gomie, what you see is what you get," Flaherty said. "He's one of those good guys in the game. When it's all said and done, he's one of those guys you put up on your favorite teammates list."

If he's not sitting by his locker chatting up Flaherty, Gomez is in the trainer's room having ice packs wrapped around various appendages or on his way out the door to the field.

"When he first came up with the Tigers, he kept his mouth shut and his eyes and ears open," said Alan Trammell, the retired Tigers shortstop who now coaches for the Padres. "That's the reason why he's one of my favorites. He's got an old school way of being structured, of having a routine. He does that very, very well."

High praise from someone of Trammell's stature.

Then again, it was Gomez who became Trammell's successor in the latter stages of the 1993 season.

"He made it very easy on me," Gomez said of Trammell. "It could've been very tough to play behind a guy of his caliber. He could've been mad about not playing and that would've been a very tough situation for me.

"He made it as easy as possible. You don't play 20 years and not do it the correct way. It'd be stupid not to listen to a guy like that and take advantage of learning."

It was Trammell, not then-Tigers manager Sparky Anderson, who told Gomez he was going to get his chance at shortstop. And it was Trammell who taught Gomez the ins and outs of being a major-leaguer.

"As a coach now," Trammell said, "you kind of pull for certain people. He's one of those."

Gomez is taking advantage of an ideal situation in his attempt to return to past form. The native Californian is healthy, content and has the knowledge the Rays thought so much of him that they re-signed him during the offseason for one more season. He will make $1-million with a chance to gain $500,000 in incentives.

"It's worked out," LaMar said. "It's a credit to Chris for seizing the opportunity."

But when asked how much longer he wants to play, how much more the body can take, Gomez resists indulging you with a time frame. A statement suffices.

"I feel like my best days are ahead of me," he said. "Last year I just wanted to have fun and be aggressive and let it fly a little bit and it worked out. That's the approach I'm going to be taking this year."

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