Jonny Gomes is really looking forward to catching up this week with some old friends.
The Cincinnati Reds come calling at Fenway Park, and he'll be reuniting with the likes of stars Joey Votto and Brandon Phillips and new manager Bryan Price. Votto, Phillips and Jay Bruce -- who will miss the series after surgery Monday to repair torn meniscus in his left knee -- were just young players with a lot of talent in 2010 but hadn't gotten over the hump of winning and getting to the postseason. Gomes was the straw that began to stir the drink in Cincinnati after 15 years of playoff prohibition.
"I'm really excited," Gomes told WEEI.com. "I want to see Price and congratulate him on becoming manager. I still talk to some of those guys. Jay Bruce, you run some of those numbers, man, he's doing it. I always caught myself being so hard on Jay for asking him to drive in all the runs, play Gold Glove defense and hit 30 homers, and then I had to check myself and look at his birth certificate. The kid is so young. Joey Votto, Brandon, Todd Frazier has really come into his own. Chris Heisey is still there. I was there when he got his first call-up, which was pretty cool. He hasn't been down since. Them being in the National League, I haven't seen them in a while. I'm definitely excited to see those guys."
Figuring the team needed a veteran who could add some punch on the field and some pick-me-up in the clubhouse, general manager Walt Jocketty brought Gomes into the mix, and the veteran, who had helped the Rays to their first World Series appearance two years earlier, gave Jocketty exactly what he hoped for -- a winning spark. Yes, Gomes spent his first six seasons in the majors with Tampa Bay, but it was Cincinnati where he became the guy called upon and looked to for leadership in a big league clubhouse. He was signed in January 2009 by the Reds after hitting just .182 in 77 games for the Rays in '08. He was called up by Cincinnati in May and became a fixture in the clubhouse. He finished that season hitting .267 with 20 homers, establishing himself as an offensive factor on a team that was beginning to come into its own.
In 2010, Gomes made 133 starts, mostly in left field. Gomes batted a respectable .266 with 18 homers while driving in 86 runs, second only to Votto's 113 on a team that would win 91 games and the NL Central title, marking the first playoff appearance for Cincinnati since winning the NL Central in 1995.
"Joey Votto didn't struggle in 2010, that's for sure, in winning the MVP," Gomes said. "There were a lot of role players around that did a heck of a job. Granted, it wasn't the best playoff run, but I'm definitely proud that I can say we put Cincinnati baseball back on the map."
Gomes' leadership couldn't help the Reds solve Roy Halladay, who no-hit them in Game 1 in Philadelphia as Cincinnati's season ended with a playoff sweep at the hands of the Phillies. Still, from those around the 2010 Reds every day, Gomes was widely credited with instilling a workmanlike attitude off the field and a take-no-prisoners mentality on it.
"I didn't have the full season in 2009, got called up," Gomes said. "I saw a whole lot of talent, and a whole lot of young talent. I can appreciate young talent since there's not a big scouting report out there for the young talent. You're talking about guys like Joey Votto, your Jay Bruces, your [Drew] Stubbs, at the time, Ryan Hanigan, Paul Yanish. Brandon Phillips was established but he was still a little bit under the radar for how good he was. But the talent was there and we just needed to put it between the lines.
"To tell you the truth, it has to start in spring training and it has to start early in spring training. Similar to building a house but more like a hotel or building. The foundational structure is so important. You can see it building where there's a beautiful paint job, gorgeous windows, the big deal at the top to make it look all fancy, but it just crumbles from inside. I'd rather be in a building with a strong foundation, strong inside, and that's what we did over there. Dusty Baker did a heck of a job by allowing us to do that and by allowing us to run the clubhouse how we needed to run it. Price was in there, too. He's been there for a while. He did a heck of a job with that pitching staff, from a young Mike Leake up to an old [Francisco] Cordero and Bronson Arroyo. Everything was there outside the lines. All we had to do was put it in between the lines."
Of course, most Red Sox fans remember the more wild and crazy Gomes from his early days in the majors, a prospect in the Devil Rays system who seemed to be in the middle of every on-field fracas between the big bully Red Sox and the weak sister Devil Rays. (Gomes, along with James Shields, delivered haymakers to Coco Crisp in the epic June 2008 brawl at Fenway). Gomes saw lots and lots of losing in his early days in baseball before the breakthrough season of 2008 that resulted in Tampa Bay's first World Series appearance. Since then, he's played on playoff teams with the Reds (2010), A's (2012) and Red Sox (2013).
"I've been fortunate to be surrounded by some great managers," Gomes said. "I've had Lou Piniella, Joe Maddon, Dusty Baker, Davey Johnson, Bob Melvin and now John Farrell. With that comes all the individual organizations I've been with. Right out of the game, the youngest organization in baseball to the oldest organization, the Cincinnati Reds. I've seen what works and I've seen what doesn't work. Flat out, we've had historically terrible seasons, historically high ERAs, historically low batting averages.
"I've seen what worked. Last year was the big turnaround, but I also did worst-to-first in 2008 with the Rays. From breaking it all down, there's so many ways to lose this game. You cannot pitch, you cannot hit, you can make errors. You can flat out not be good enough. No team chemistry. There's thousands of ways to lose. But when you break down winning, there's only a few things you have to do. There's only a couple of things you have to do, and you can name them all on one hand. All you have to do is do those things consistently and ride the peaks more than the valleys and it can happen. Once you see those little things that it takes to win, it can become contagious."
Gomes and the Red Sox are still waiting to catch the winning bug this year, as they have yet to record three straight wins 32 games into the season. Gomes, hitting just. 225 with three homers, connected for his fifth career grand slam Saturday as the Red Sox beat the A's, 6-3. They were one win away from .500 before falling back to two under with a 3-2 loss in 10 innings Sunday.
"You can hit a grand slam and you're on Cloud 9 and then your [next] at-bat you punch out on three pitches and it's back to reality," Gomes said. "That's another thing with the long season. You can't ride the highs and you can't ride the lows. You just have to keep it right around neutral. Don't get too high and definitely don't get too low. If I were to finish the season at 60 at-bats, I wouldn't be too happy. We have some work to do as a team and individually. But at the end of the day, when I walk out of here, I'm excited with where my team is at."
Added Gomes: "Health is a huge issue. That's one of the ways you can lose, not have your health. But one of the ways you can win is have your role players step it up when their number is called to cover for some of that health. One game under .500 early May, that's perfect. If you can see the top, there isn't any reason to panic. We're within one series of taking over first place. We're not worried about that right now. We're just finding our identity and again, building that foundation, a base we need for September and October."
When the Red Sox signed Gomes before the 2013 season, they were in desperate need of a clubhouse makeover. Red Sox ownership and general manager Ben Cherington watched the team meander through the first five months of 2012 at about .500 before disintegrating to a 69-win finish. It wasn't just the on-field product that needed improvement, it was the attitude the team brought in the clubhouse.
They looked around baseball and saw what the A's did on their typical bargain-basement budget. While the Red Sox were coming apart at the seams under Bobby Valentine, marking a second straight September collapse, the A's were completing a 94-win season that saw them make it to the American League Championship Series before bowing to the Tigers. Oakland was 37-41 at the end of June. The A's went 19-5 in July and never looked back, catching the Rangers in a sensational and unlikely march to the AL West title.
Leading the way was Gomes. He only played in 99 games as the DH but he hit .302 in July and .306 in the final month. He belted 10 of his 18 homers in the final three months as the A's rode not only his bat but his karma, something Gomes says begins with teammates trusting each other over the course of a long season.
"You have to turn a teammate bond into a brotherly bond," Gomes said. "You really have to turn it into a family atmosphere. Those are people you're comfortable struggling with. Obviously, it's a results-driven industry. But in the game of baseball there are so many struggles to where you have to be comfortable in your environment when you are struggling. When you do see some one struggling, you don't want to be the shoulder to cry on, you want to be the guy who's going to drive the bus for a little bit until they get back. That's what we did. We picked each other up."
In the end, that's what the 2013 Red Sox were famous for, picking each other up and picking a city up. And that's really what leadership in sports is all about.