Editor’s note: NESN.com Red Sox reporter Tony Lee will focus on a different aspect of Adrian Gonzalez’s life every day this week. On Wednesday, he examined Gonzalez’s rise to superstardom upon arriving in his hometown of San Diego.
Baseball, unlike many other major professional sports, puts its young stars through a trial period before they can reap the rewards of their talents. Players wait several years before they reach free agency, and some even hit it after some of their better seasons have come and gone, making their big payday not as big as they might have hoped.
It can make for some awkward-looking salaries early in the careers of some top players who get paid just over the league minimum while entering, or even embedded in, their prime. That’s exactly where Adrian Gonzalez found himself after getting a raise of only $500 following his breakout 2006 campaign with the San Diego Padres.
Although Gonzalez insisted he was OK with the process and knew he would some day earn his keep, there were many in the San Diego area that saw the budding star and hometown hero with the $380,500 contract and thought it just looked, again, a bit awkward.
The Padres knew this and knew that the path Gonzalez was on would give him a massive raise through his arbitration years. Therefore, the two sides met in the middle, negating the measly raise with a four-year extension worth $9.5 million (plus a fifth-year option) that did not buy out any of Gonzalez’s free-agent years.
It was a mutually beneficial agreement, but also one that left the door open for what became an inevitable departure for Gonzalez from “America’s Finest City.” That, too, was a bit awkward.
“This is something that secures us and gives us the knowledge that we’re going to be here,” Gonzalez said at the time. “I mean, a trade’s still always a possibility. We’ve learned that in the past. But we’re very happy, my wife and I.”
Even then, Gonzalez knew the reality of the situation, that one day he might have to move once more, a task he and his wife had become accustomed to through three franchises in the span of a few years.
Gonzalez’s agent, John Boggs, also was pleased with the deal, but he, too, was eyeing what loomed on the back end of it.
“He’ll turn 29 during his first free-agent year,” Boggs said after the agreement was reached. “He’s going to have a long career ahead of him.”
And so Gonzalez built himself up toward that increasingly inevitable departure, hammering his way to the top of the Padres’ leaderboard for the next four years. He hit at least 30 home runs in each of those seasons and drove in at least 100 runs three times. The one year he fell shy of the 100-RBI mark, in 2009, he knocked in 99 runs, mashed a career-high 40 home runs and led the National League in walks with 119.
It was about that time that the rumblings of an exodus began to become more common. Would the cash-strapped Padres have the ability to afford Gonzalez when he reached free agency following the 2011 campaign? After seeing comparables such as Ryan Howard and Mark Teixeira receive monster deals, would they even be close?
The Boston Red Sox were front and center whenever anyone discussed possible landing spots for Gonzalez. They had a general manager who openly adored the slugger, a potential opening at first base and a park in which the lefty could thrive. They also had the cash.
Therein lies what made the Gonzalez situation so unique. Here was a homegrown talent who grew up idolizing Padres legend Tony Gwynn, coming into his own in a major league park just miles from his family’s house and luring thousands of fans to Petco Park, even amid some losing seasons for the franchise. Yet, through it all, many wondered if San Diego would have anything left to pay the ushers and beer vendors if and when it handed out a $150 million contract to Gonzalez. It was like watching the happiest couple on Earth, traipsing their days away in marital bliss, and wondering if they would ever last beyond the honeymoon phase.
Meanwhile, Gonzalez did the only thing he could. While playing at least 160 games in each of his final four years in San Diego, he single-handedly carried an often offensively inept club and insisted all along he would love to remain a Padre, if possible. However, as 2010 drew to a close and all that remained on his current deal was an option year that the Padres would eventually enact, those initial worries of divorce began to become reality.
“It became very obvious to us … that we were not going to be able to retain him long term and he was going to get well outside our financial means,” San Diego general manager Jed Hoyer said in the days following the eventual trade to the Red Sox earlier this month.
So while fans in Boston prepare with excitement for the Gonzalez era with nary a passing thought of where he came from, those on the opposite coast are left without their native son, just as they were falling head over heels for him. Most Red Sox fans will not care about that, but like a lot of his time in San Diego, it’s a bit awkward.
Catch Friday’s final story on the trade that brought Gonzalez to Boston, and what lies ahead for him in a Red Sox uniform.