Seven years ago in December, the Diamondbacks acquired Luis Gonzalez and $500,000 from the Detroit Tigers in exchange for Karim Garcia.
One hundred ninety-seven home runs, countless community engagements and one World Series game-winning hit later, it is obviously the biggest heist in franchise history.
But as Gonzalez returns to the scene of the crime today for the All-Star game at Comerica Park, the truth is, nobody envisioned such lopsided larceny when the deal went through.
"Luis probably didn’t envision becoming what he has become," D-Backs general manager Joe Garagiola Jr. said.
With Randy Johnson and Jerry Colangelo both out of the picture, Gonzalez has become more than just a great hitter. He has assumed the mantle of Mr. Diamondback.
He is the face of the franchise, a constant thread from the past to present, a tireless, affable and unsullied team representative whose smile and sweet swing are irreplaceably woven into the Valley’s ever-expanding fabric.
"He resurrected everything when he came here. He became a big-time player and the kind of guy you want representing your organization," said St. Louis outfielder Reggie Sanders, who played with Gonzalez on Arizona’s 2001 title team. "The talent was always there and he’s always been that kind of person, but when he got a chance to get out of Detroit he got a chance to show it to everyone."
Gonzalez has never been the introspective or nostalgic sort, so it is difficult for him to imagine what life might have been like had the Diamondbacks not pulled off that trade.
"I’ve thought about it," he said, "but only real briefly."
But in returning to Detroit today, Gonzalez has returned to the crossroads of his career, an intersection at which maturity, fate and talent collided to send him careening toward superstardom.
LIFE AFTER 30
In eight-plus seasons with the Houston Astros, Chicago Cubs and Tigers, Gonzalez was a solid but unspectacular player who hit 107 homers and posted a career average of .268.
There were seasons when the numbers spiked, like in 1993 when he hit .300 and drove in 72 runs for Houston, or in ’96 when he drove in 79 runs for the Cubs.
But there were few hints of the pull-hitting, runproducing, baseball-mashing monster to come — not from a guy who television analyst and former D-Backs teammate Mark Grace said "couldn’t hit the ball to the right of second base" when the two were teammates in Chicago.
When Detroit signed him as a free agent on Dec. 9, 1997, Gonzalez was in the midst of a couple of life-altering experiences. His wife, Christine, was three months pregnant with what would turn out to be triplets and Gonzalez was just past the age (30) at which teams still talked about his potential.
"Earlier in my career, I lived at the ballpark, beating myself up, hitting early, hitting late," he said. "But when my kids came it helped me relax and not stress out as much about baseball. I figured out there are more important things than killing myself to become that elite player."
Ironically, that approach, and a change in his swing mechanics, produced the first glimpse of a superstar.
In 1998, Gonzalez posted his best power numbers as a major leaguer with 23 home runs, 35 doubles and 71 RBIs.
With Bank One Ballpark suited to left-handed power hitters, Garagiola thought he’d take a chance on a guy who would "probably hit about .275 and be on either side of 20 home runs."
MR. NICE GUY
At worst, Arizona had acquired a guy who came with no baggage and a reputation as one of the classiest guys in the game.
"When we made the trade, I got unsolicited calls from people saying, ‘Wait until you get to know this guy,’ ’’ Garagiola said. "They told me, ‘You have just gotten one of the alltime good guys.’ ’’
Bench coach and original Diamondback Jay Bell first met Gonzalez at an exhibition game at South Alabama, where Gonzalez went to college.
"Even then he was this outgoing and very likeable guy who treated everybody the same," Bell said. "Guys really respected him because of that."
Nothing changed when Gonzalez’s star rose in Phoenix.
He made small talk with fans and clubhouse workers. He never turned down community appearances, forcing the organization to exercise restraint in its requests of his time.
When parking lot attendant Lou Monaco had a heart attack a few years ago, Gonzalez visited him in the hospital. And when Gonzo got the call from Jay Leno to appear on "The Tonight Show," he took batting practice pitcher Jeff Motuzas with him and forced him to do a dance to warm up the audience before air time.
"Thank God they never videotaped it because Gonzo was going to play it on the JumboTron at BOB," Motuzas said.
"I’m a big believer that you can tell a lot about a person by how he interacts with people who either can’t help him or he doesn’t have to be nice to," Garagiola said. "Watch Gonzo. He treats everybody the same way and that way is the way you would want to be treated no matter who you are — a fan, an opponent, a member of the media or a visiting clubhouse guy.
"People who are used to taking a lot of grief from socalled stars are stunned when they meet him because Luis is 180 degrees away from that."
And everyone who meets him says it’s genuine.
"Some guys you watch will turn on the charm for the cameras and then completely change when the cameras are gone. He’s no different in front of the cameras than he is away from them," Motuzas said. "With Gonzo, I can truly say it’s not an act."
Nor is Gonzalez’s child-like love of the game. During his 57-home run 2001 season, Gonzalez competed in and won the home run derby at the All-Star game in Seattle with Motuzas pitching.
"To see how emotional he was afterward and how happy he was — it was unbelievable and it felt good to know that I could have given back just a little bit to this guy who has been so good to me," Motuzas said. "I mean, he was like a kid. He was so happy. This is a major league superstar acting like that and I’m thinking it couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy."
NO LOOKING BACK
Gonzalez admits he was nervous when he arrived in the Valley. Detroit had already committed to a youth movement. Players such as Gabe Kapler, Brian Hunter, Juan Encarnacion and Bobby Higginson made it clear that Gonzalez had no role beyond a fourth outfielder or designated hitter.
What’s more, he was still working out the kinks of that new swing, which Bell said "flattened out and stayed in the zone a lot longer, allowing him to hit mistake pitches on a much more regular basis."
"I was hitting a lot of ground balls to second base so I had to keep telling (then manager) Buck Showalter to stick with me because it was new but I felt like it was coming along," Gonzalez said.
Showalter didn’t need much convincing. After fellow outfielder Bernard Gilkey got hurt at the start of the season, Gonzalez went on a 30-game hitting streak from April 11 to May 18, hitting .400 with 11 doubles, seven homers and 25 RBIs.
"They just kept putting me out there and I just kept gaining confidence," Gonzalez said.
That confidence reached its crescendo in 2001 when Gonzalez hit 57 homers, drove in 142 runs and helped lead the D-Backs to the World Series.
In a moment ingrained in Valley sports fans’ minds, Gonzo’s bloop single off Yankees closer Mariano Rivera in the bottom of the ninth inning of Game 7 gave the franchise and city their first championship.
"You can’t do a bigger thing than he did in terms of a particular moment," Garagiola said. "The game-winning hit in the bottom of the ninth inning of Game 7 of the World Series in your home park against the best reliever and the most storied franchise in professional sports? That pretty much checks every box."
How many more of those boxes Gonzalez will check is anyone’s guess. His contract runs through next season and there is a mutual option in 2007.
"I joke with the guys that I’m never leaving the game," Gonzalez said. "Right now, I just don’t see any reason to think about it. I’m going to be 37 and I still feel good running out there and I love playing in this city."
As he steps to the plate tonight in Detroit, it is hard to imagine another player more perfectly embodying and representing the Valley’s 8-yearold franchise.
"There’s only one place Luis Gonzalez should be playing baseball and that’s for this team," Garagiola said. "We’ve not spoken about retirement and I don’t really want to talk about it because we’re all hopeful that it’s still way out there in the distance."