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Hard-nosed Gomes stands his ground

The morning sun still arrives from the same direction. The grass is still green. The signs still read the same.

Nope. At first glance, there doesn't seem to be anything new about rightfield.

Except for this: At long last, Jonny Gomes owns it.

The Chosen Ones, Josh and Delmon and Elijah and Rocco, are all gone. One by one, they have been banished or bartered or busted or battered. Gomes is the last man standing.

Somehow, he has outlasted them all.

For Gomes, rightfield has never looked so much like his yard.

For the Rays, the desire has never been so great to see him stay there.

It has been a busy week for Gomes, what with baseball and a brawl and tackling drills and a two-game suspension. That's the thing about Gomes. No matter what is going on with the Rays these days, he seems to be in the middle.

Also, perhaps you noticed this: When Rocco Baldelli limped away to the disabled list, it was Gomes who inherited rightfield.

Right about now, Gomes, 27, would probably add the word "finally."

Who would have thought it? Gomes was never the Golden Boy, never the one who was promised tomorrow. He played hard, and there was muscle in his bat, but the Rays always seemed to have more heralded prospects and more gifted athletes in line ahead of him.

There was Hamilton. The first time Gomes saw him, he thought: "He's the greatest athlete I've ever seen."

There was Young. The first time Gomes saw him, he thought: "He's a major-league All-Star."

There was Baldelli. The first time Gomes saw him, he thought: "Woosh. He's a special, special player."

There was Dukes. The first time Gomes saw him, he thought: "He's a good baseball player, but I choose not to surround myself with guys like him."

And still, Gomes plugged and pushed and prodded. Perhaps that is why he is still here. Perhaps he was more relentless than the others.

Know this: There is nothing laid-back, nothing calm about Gomes. He lives his life as if there are two outs in the ninth and the bases are loaded and the bars are closing and the fuse is burning and the air is running out. He is all scar tissue and tattoos, and there is always one more beer and one more blonde in his future. He is an amplifier at a heavy metal concert, and the drums are never fast enough and the guitars are never loud enough. He is part Mike Alstott and part Andre Roy, part Halo and part Doomsday.

Also, he plays rightfield.

"Even when I was young, I was the kid who had to earn his way," Gomes said. "I was never the guy who was penned in no matter what. I had to earn my way. I never had a silver platter."

Now that it is Gomes' turn, there already is talk that the Rays will pursue another outfielder to share time with him. Of course they will. Gomes has hit .292 against lefties but only .223 against righties. The numbers suggest a platoon system.

Still, you get the feeling the Rays would love for Gomes to stake his claim to rightfield. His personality has infused the clubhouse. His fire has won over the grandstands. Who doesn't want to see what Gomes could do with five starts a week? Besides, perhaps, the Yankees.

"I came into camp wanting to play 162 games," Gomes said. "If the team wants to throw all of their eggs into my basket, I would appreciate it.

"I'm a streaky player right now. My ups are so high, but my lows are so low. I need to find the middle."

If he can, Gomes figures to be among the most popular of Rays. Most people appreciate a player who makes it the hard way. Besides, there is that Everyman quality to Gomes. You grew up with a guy just like him.

"He grew up in a lot of small towns," Rays manager Joe Maddon said of the fans' affinity for Gomes.

Perhaps it shouldn't be a surprise that Gomes has hung around longer than other outfielders. For him, growing up took a little surviving, too.

When he was 16, he got into a back seat on the left side of a car. There was no particular reason he chose to sit behind the driver. He could just have easily have gotten into the other side.

A few minutes later, the car crashed into a telephone pole. Adam Westcott, Gomes' best friend, died in the accident. If Gomes had been in the other back seat, it would have been him.

When he was 22, Gomes felt some chest pains. He went to sleep. The next day, on Christmas Eve, his chest still hurt. He thought about taking NyQuil and going back to sleep; no one wants to go to the hospital on Christmas Eve.

Instead, he went to the hospital. He was in the middle of a heart attack. If he had gone to sleep, doctors say, he would have died.

Perhaps that explains Gomes' full-speed, fast-forward approach to life. Perhaps he is making up for lost time. Perhaps he is cramming in all the life he can manage.

"If I sat in front of a psychiatrist," he said, grinning, "I would make his head spin."

Instead, Gomes rushes into the day. For now, rightfield is his.

If someone else wants to take it, they're in for a fight.

Hard-nosed Gomes stands his ground 03/15/08 [Last modified: Monday, March 17, 2008 11:18am]
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