Out of Left Field
Better physical conditioning might have something to do with his turnaround too. Credit for that goes to a weight training regimen and to Christine, who urged him to take stretch classes that have helped her stay fit. "Some of my teammates make fun of me for stretching all the time," says the muscular 6'2", 195-lb. Gonzalez of his thrice-weekly, yoga-like sessions in Phoenix with trainer Winkie Schwartz. "But no question, I'm more limber now."
Whatever the reason, the Diamondbacks, currently first in the National League West, are thankful Gonzalez has found the groove. "If we didn't have Luis, we'd be 30 games out of first place," says manager Bob Brenly. "He single-handedly carried this team on his back for months." Indeed, as of this week, the player his teammates fondly call Gonzo is batting a superb .344 with a league-leading 111 RBIs.
Gonzalez is racking up compliments at just as dizzying a pace. "You wish major league baseball were made up of 650 guys like him," says Mike Swanson, the Diamondbacks' publicity director. "He's the most popular athlete in Phoenix. He never turns down an autograph request." Gonzalez is legend across the league for asking locker-room attendants what their biggest tips were and topping them—occasionally to the tune of a cool $400. For his volunteer efforts encouraging kids to stay in school, he was voted Phoenix's Sportsperson of the Year.
Doing the right thing is a lesson he learned from his mother, Ame Silverstein. "She taught me the right way to treat people," says Gonzalez, the oldest of three children born in Tampa to Ame and Cuban immigrant Emilio Gonzalez, a baker. (They divorced when Luis was in high school, and Ame later married Kenneth Silverstein, 58, a laundry equipment salesman.) "From the time he could pick up a bat, Luis has been into baseball," recalls Ame, 53. But even in youth leagues, "he would always help the other boys," she says. "That's the way he is."
After stellar amateur play at Tampa's Jefferson High School and the University of South Alabama, Gonzalez signed with the Houston Astros in 1988. But injuries and a dismal performance earned him a demotion to the minor leagues for two years. When he returned, he was traded three times before landing with the Diamondbacks in 1998. That same year Christine, a part-time bank clerk he married in 1994, gave birth to the triplets, Alyssa, Megan and Jacob. Having had difficulty conceiving, she had finally succeeded through in-vitro fertilization.
Focusing on the children and not on his ups and downs on the diamond gave Gonzalez "a new sense of responsibility," says Christine. "Before having kids, he would stay out and eat late after bad games. Now, good game or bad, he leaves it behind and comes home and just relaxes with us." Or works on his stretching. Three years ago Gonzalez started lifting weights, which "gave him more power," says his wife. "But he'd always complain how tight his muscles would get." Classes with Schwartz helped him gain flexibility and improve his swing.
Comfortably nestled in a $1.6 million, four-bedroom, neo-Mediterranean home in Scottsdale, Gonzalez unwinds by tooling around in his prized 2001 Hummer, taking on his daughters in air hockey and playing catch with Jacob, who insists on throwing a regulation hardball. "Jacob is all boy," says his mom. "He lives for baseball." Certainly Gonzalez, who signed a three-year, $12.5 million contract with the Diamondbacks this year, feels a great deal of gratitude toward the sport. Yet when it's time to hang up his cleats, he'll look forward to a lifetime with his children. "Baseball's a job and a lot of fun," he says. "But the kids are what it's all about."
Ron Arias in Phoenix