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It gives Gomes scare, but heart not an issue

By MARC TOPKIN, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times
published March 2, 2003

ST. PETERSBURG -- If it would have even been a possibility, it would have been the last thing Jonny Gomes considered. Twenty-two years old, a pro athlete in the best shape of his life, preparing for a third straight strong season in the Devil Rays minor-league system, he figured the pain and pressure squeezing his chest Dec. 23 was nothing more than indigestion.

Turns out, it was something much more.

"It was a heart attack," Gomes said. "One of my valves got clogged, they don't know what it was from. I was in the hospital for four days. They ran every test, everything from steroids to drugs to enzymes, and every single one came back (okay). All the top doctors, they knew how to treat me and what would help, but they had no idea what caused it."

Gomes, one of the Rays' top minor-league power hitters, was cleared -- "100 percent" -- by a cardiologist last week for full activity in the RBEST minicamp and the coming season. "He's fine," player personnel director Cam Bonifay said.

What led to the heart attack, which raged in Gomes' body for nearly 24 hours before he asked his mom to drive him to a California hospital on Christmas Eve, remains unclear.

He had been lifting weights and running regularly, had just hired a nutritionist and felt as strong as ever. He said supplement use, under scrutiny since the death of Baltimore's Steve Bechler, absolutely did not play a role.

"I was as healthy as I've ever been," Gomes said. "I was on a real strict diet, taking vitamins and protein, all natural stuff, healthy stuff. They said it wasn't from that. I wasn't taking any ephedra, wasn't taking andro. My cholesterol was the lowest it's ever been. My body fat was the lowest it's ever been. I just spazzed or something. It was weird."

Gomes, whose older brother Joey also is a top power-hitting prospect, realized just how weird when he was lying on a hospital bed with IVs in his arm, needles in his stomach, pills under his tongue, angioplasty accessories attached, a defibrillator between his legs. "I'm like, 'This is for real,' " he said.

"My body was able to fight off a heart attack for 24 hours," Gomes said. "I was walking around my house in a full-blown heart attack. I have strong organs, but the bad thing is, it bruised my heart a little more than the average because most people would have gone to the hospital right away."

Gomes, an 18th-round pick, has worked his way to prospect status by winning the Appalachian League MVP award in 2001 and team player of the year and league All-Star honors at advanced Class A Bakersfield last season, hitting 30 homers. The 6-foot-1, 205-pounder insists the heart problem will not be an issue, or a roadblock. "I'm straight," he said.

MORE RAYS: With the first cut expected by Friday, there will be two B games this week to provide more opportunities to evaluate players. The Rays play the Reds at 10 a.m. on Monday in Sarasota, with Doug Waechter starting, and the Indians at noon Thursday at Progress Energy Park. The stadium will not be open to the public. ... Minor-league camp opens Tuesday for pitchers and catchers. ... Ex-Ray Paul Wilson strained a rib cage muscle at Reds camp and will be out at least a week, jeopardizing his chances to be ready to open the season as the No. 4 starter.

HATS OFF: Brewers first baseman Richie Sexson may already have won the competition for strangest injury of the spring. He missed an intrasquad game after straining his neck -- during photo day.

Seems Sexson was given a hat that was too small and pulled too hard trying to stretch it for a better fit. "I feel personally responsible," public relations man Jon Greenberg said.

WHAT'S HE REALLY SAYING?: In an extensive interview in Japan, Ichiro Suzuki said he was surprised, based on his two seasons with the Mariners, how little attention major-league teams pay to fundamentals such as hitting cut-offs and relay throws.

When he got to Seattle camp and heard that new manager Bob Melvin plans to focus more on fundamentals than Lou Piniella did, Ichiro said: "I cannot say whether it will be good or bad without Lou here, only that we will have a different style. As a player, I like to focus on small play. I'd like to see it for the team, too."

ZERO BALANCE: The byproduct of the hard-line stance that some teams, including the Rays, are taking by refusing to give their less experienced players more than the new $300,000 minimum salary is that the agents don't make any money. The union view, according to an agent, is that a player could negotiate his own deal at the minimum.

LAUGH TRACK: The Giants are going to poke a little fun at themselves in their new TV commercials. In one, Barry Bonds sits in a recliner in leftfield while outfielders Marquis Grissom and Jose Cruz are told they have to cover more ground. In another, J.T. Snow, who made the heroic grab of 3-year-old Darren Baker at the World Series, carries an elderly batboy back to the dugout.

MISCELLANY: Cardinals lefty Rick Ankiel, out most of two seasons with severe control and elbow problems, has looked good enough to compete for a bullpen job. ... Giants manager Felipe Alou says Cruz will hit third, Bonds fourth and Edgardo Alfonzo fifth. ... Eleven months after Tommy John surgery, Pete Harnisch has been dazzling in Reds camp and is the early favorite to be the No. 5 starter. ... With Jose Hernandez and Preston Wilson, the 2003 Rockies are the second team to have two players with 180-strikeout seasons. The 1991 Tigers had three -- Rob Deer, Pete Incaviglia and Cecil Fielder -- and finished second.

-- Information from other news organizations was used in this report.

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