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Volume 77, Number 5 | July 4 - 10, 2007

Sports

Villager file photo

From left, David McWater, L.E.S. Gauchos founder; Jonathan Gonzalez; and Ron Fulco, Gonzalez’s godfather, a former fast-pitch softball star.

Picked in pro baseball draft, he’ll first hit books

By Lucas Mann

The 2007 Major League Baseball draft kicked off with its usual array of first-round studs from the usual array of places. The first overall pick stands 6 feet 6 inches and has been playing his baseball in sunny Nashville for Vanderbilt University. The early rounds were packed with behemoth-sized players from big-time baseball programs around the country. In the 33rd round, however, the 1,013th overall pick was an underdog from the Lower East Side who has made his family and coaches, as well as himself, very proud.

Jonathan Gonzalez has been playing baseball in New York City all his life, starting on the fields by the East River, near his home in Masaryk Towers, and then wherever competition took him. All that hard work, as well as the coaching he received with the L.E.S Gauchos, paid off when, on June 8, the Los Angeles Dodgers called his name.

“It felt great,” Gonzalez said. “When you love something so much that it becomes a habit and then you succeed, it’s unbelievable how happy it makes you.”

According to the coaches who have watched him progress with the Gauchos, nobody deserves that feeling more than Gonzalez.

“Jonathan is just about the hardest-working kid I have ever coached,” said David McWater, founder of the Gauchos. “He’s overcome a lot to get to where he is. He has been with us for five years and he has gotten so much better each year.”

Gonzalez is a complete player and a crafty one. He was a standout pitcher and hitter at Cardinal Hayes High School in the Bronx. As for Gonzalez’s play with the Gauchos, McWater said he’s never seen his star strike out at the plate. Drafted as a right-handed pitcher, Gonzalez makes up for his thin frame with knowledge and precision that belie his 17 years.

“I know I’m not overpowering,” Gonzalez said of his pitching style. “I use my head and I hit my spots. I have enough confidence in my curve to throw it on a full count.”

Added McWater, “He has amazing control for a kid his age.”

Still, with all he has going for him as a ballplayer, Gonzalez decided to be levelheaded and pass up the M.L.B. draft in favor of a free college education.

“I’m proud to say that Jonathan will be attending Mercy Hearst College in Pennsylvania on a full scholarship,” said Al Ortiz, a former minor league ballplayer who coaches Gonzalez’s team for the Gauchos. “I think it’s a wise decision for him to go to college. It will make him an even better player.”

“It was more of just an honor for me,” Gonzalez said of getting drafted. “I want my education before anything else. It gives me something to fall back on in case I get hurt.”

And four more years of growing and coaching can only help Gonzalez’s major league chances.

“You’ve got to remember that he’s young for his grade, he’s still 17,” said McWater. “He’s 6 feet 1, 165 pounds right now, but he is still growing and filling out. By the time he leaves college, I think he could be throwing in the low 90s.”

No matter what happens in his college career, Gonzalez has already earned himself the right to celebrate. His draft selection made him the second Lower East Side player to get drafted in the past two years, along with Dellin Betances, a.k.a. “the Loisaida Little Unit,” the 6-foot-9-inch budding superstar drafted by the Yankees. Prior to them, McWater said he couldn’t remember the last player from the Lower East Side to receive the honor.

“I think coming from the city makes you want to be better than the rest,” said Gonzalez. “People see New Yorkers as low-class people and it’s nice to show you can roll with the best. It makes you work harder when you’re from the city and not a place like Florida where they get to play all year.”

Gonzalez is nothing if not classy. What has made him stand out for his coaches, more than his prodigious skills, is his character.

“He’s first and foremost a gentleman,” said Ortiz, “and he’s very coachable.”

For his part, Gonzalez credits the Gauchos with making him the kind of ballplayer and person he is today.

“I’ve been taught about responsibility and character,” he said. “I’ve grown every year I’ve been with them.”

Gonzalez and the Gauchos grew up together. He was in their inaugural group of players and now is part of their first group of kids who are graduating high school seniors. As proud as they are of their first draftee right now, the Gauchos expect even more good news about Gonzalez in the coming years.

“I was a 13th-round draft pick by the Texas Rangers, I’ve played college ball, I know what it takes to make it,” said Ortiz. “Jonathan really has a shot of making it to the big show someday. It’s not just his ability — it’s his work ethic that will help him succeed.”

This summer, Gonzalez plans to keep doing what has been working for him his whole life: Living with his family and playing baseball. He is playing with the Gauchos team that is tearing up the Parade Ground League, succeeding not just as a pitcher but also as the team’s shortstop. Next fall, he will be far away from Masaryk Towers, in rural Erie, Penn., but he will be taking all the skills and the work ethic that he learned on New York City’s ball fields with him. After that, there’s no telling how far baseball can take him.


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