About a month ago, former Major League Baseball star Luis Gonzalez received a phone call telling him his friend, U.S. Sen. John McCain, had a special request.
McCain was in the final stage of his fight against brain cancer and he wanted Gonzalez to be an honorary pallbearer at his funeral service in Phoenix.
"I was blown away," said Gonzalez. "He was a planner though. Of course, I said yes. It was hard. It was an honor to be asked, but at the same time it was sad."
Gonzalez grew up in West Tampa and was a baseball standout at Jefferson High School. He played 19 seasons in the Major Leagues, including eight with the Arizona Diamondbacks. It was there that he became acquainted, and eventually good friends, with McCain — a dedicated sports fan.
"When I was first traded (to Arizona) in 1999, he came out a few times and just talked," he said. "We got close. He would randomly text or call me; I guess we had a bond.
"If you were playing well, he would tell you. If you weren’t, he would tell you that, too. Sometimes, he would give me a scouting report on somebody we were playing. It was like, ‘Hey, this guy has a good curveball, or this guy’s no good.’?"
When Gonzalez delivered the biggest base hit in Arizona history — a single in the bottom of the ninth inning off New York Yankees’ legendary closer Mariano Rivera to win the seventh game of the 2001 World Series — McCain was among those who reached out with congratulations.
Gonzalez eventually made some public appearances at McCain political rallies. He was impressed by McCain, the person, as much as he was McCain’s politics.
"There was just something about him," Gonzalez said. "It was the way he treated people. He just had that air of comfort when he was around other people. He really wanted to know how you were doing. He put other people ahead of himself.
"He was always asking how my family was doing. And he knew Tampa, too. He knew about the town, and the food, and everything."
Shortly before McCain was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer about a year ago, Gonzalez, now an executive with the Diamondbacks, and his wife, Christine, went to a gathering at McCain’s ranch outside of Phoenix.
"There were a bunch of people there, and we were having a great time," he said. "He called me to go with him into his house. He told me he was proud of me, and we just talked, and shared a cocktail, and I will never forget that."
"John McCain was an amazing man. For a kid who grew up in West Tampa to know him like that, it was hard to believe. And for me, serving as a pallbearer at his funeral, that was a very proud moment for me."