What isn’t chrome is black on his big Harley-Davidson Road King. So are his boots, leather jacket and helmet. Black, black and black. And his goatee. (Well, that’s black with gray now infiltrating.)
He cuts quite a figure atop his hog. But unless they happen to notice the “GONZ33” license tag, Braves fans cruising in a car the next lane over probably wouldn’t recognize him from any other 40-something blowing past on a Harley.
Meet Fredi Gonzalez, the new manager of the Atlanta Braves.
After two decades with venerable Bobby Cox at the helm of the local nine, his protégé (and former third-base coach) has taken the torch from retired No. 6 and seems prepared to run with it. And to go for a few rumbling rides, when there’s time for Gonzalez and his motorcycling pal, first-base coach Terry Pendleton, to sneak away for a few hours.
Gonzalez, 47, went for a ride to the Georgia mountains on Super Bowl Sunday with David O’Brien, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Braves beat writer. Along the way, they stopped for coffee and a one-hour interview at a Starbucks in Canton, Ga.
This is the first of two parts of that interview. The second will run here Monday.
Q: First off, since we’re an hour or so into this ride, let me ask you: how important is riding [motorcycles] to you? What does it do for you?
A. It’s an outlet. Because when you’re riding, you can let other stuff that’s going on in life into your brain. It’s just riding. You can’t let your mind wander, because the next thing you know you’ll be wrapped around a tree or something.
It lets you go by itself; nobody can get ahold of you for that time you’re on the bike. It’s almost made me give up golf. I used to be a big golfer, but now I’d rather ride.
Q. It’s not as frustrating as golf, right? And you can’t talk on the phone while riding.
A: Right. You’re just locked in on the bike. And you’ll ride for 2-1/2 or three hours, and you’re beat. You’re tired. I really enjoy it.
Q. When did you start riding?
A. T.P. [Terry Pendleton] and Chet [Parker, Gonzalez’s friend] got me into it about seven years ago. I was 39 or 40, and I’d never ridden any motorcycle… Chet got me started on a 110 [cc] dirt bike, and he said, ‘All right, go. If you can ride a bicycle, you can ride this thing.’ He had a big field, and that’s where I learned where to ride.
So we did that for two or three days in the morning. Then he took me over to Lassiter High School, gave me his Road King — which is mine now; I bought it from him – and said, ‘Alright, let’s go.’ So I started riding that. Then every off day and every Sunday morning, we’d ride.
Q. And that’s the same bike you have now, the Road King? How many miles on it?
A. Yeah, it’s the same bike I have now. It has 32,000, and it’s an ’02. When I got it, it probably had about 4,000 miles on it, and I bet I had put 1,000 of those miles on it before I bought it from Chet.
Q. And then B.J. [Brian Jordan] gave you the Bourget?
A. B.J. gave me the Bourget when he came back, in what, ’05?
[Jordan gave Gonzalez a $38,000 custom Bourget chopper in exchange for Gonzalez giving up the No. 33 that Jordan had worn in his first stint with the Braves.]
Q. How much do you ride the Bourget?
A. Not as much as the Road King.
Q. It’s not as comfortable on the open road, right?
A. Right. My wife says, “Get rid of one. You’ve got two motorcycles.” And I say, yeah, but they’re two different rides. When you want to just go short distances sometimes, you take the Bourget.
Q. The Bourget is more for stylin’?
A. Yeah. And the Bourget is loud. [Smiles.]
Q. Since you became manager, are you more, I don’t know, careful on the bike? Do you find yourself thinking about those kinds of things?
A. Yeah. I think I’m conscious that, you’ve worked hard all your life, and then all of a sudden something bad could happen and there goes your security for your family. You go out there and kill yourself on one of these bikes, all of a sudden the security that you think you have for your family, because you’re a manager and the salary you make — it’s out the window.
Q. But that pressure release of riding, it’s not something you want to give up, right?
A. Right. If I’m going to go for a long ride, I like to go during the week, because it feels like there’s less traffic out there in the mountains. Whereas if you get a beautiful day on the weekend, everybody’s out there – all the motorcycle guys, the tourists, everyone.
Q. You prefer to get out of town and ride out in the open?
A. Yeah. I’ve been known to leave here in the morning, go have lunch in Tennessee, and then come back. Through the backroads.
Q. I guess that was one good thing about your time away from managing [after being fired by the Marlins in June]?
A. Yeah, I did two rides of over 300 miles in a day. Just get up and go, stop place someplace and have lunch, then come back.
Q. Do you ever find yourself thinking, when you’re out on a ride, here I am born in Havana, Cuba, and 47 years later I’m riding a Harley in the Georgia mountains, it’s 45 degrees, and I’m the manager of the Atlanta Braves?
A. Yeah, and that kind of stuff keeps me grounded. A lot of people don’t get an opportunity to manage. Hell, a lot of people don’t get to coach in the big leagues. A lot of good friends of mine, they’ve never had an opportunity and they’ve had 30 years in the minor leagues coaching.
I got one opportunity with Florida, and now I’ve got another chance. [Gonzalez managed the Marlins for 3-1/2 seasons before he was fired in 2010]. To do it again, with the Braves. You talk about really, really fortunate — some people get one shot at it, then you’re done. There’s only 30 of those jobs.
Q. And you go from managing the Marlins to managing one of the most established franchises.
A. It’s unbelievable, the difference. When I was in Florida, I could go in and sneak in some place and sneak out, get dinner some place and nobody recognize you. Here, there’s very few places that I don’t get recognized — and I haven’t even put the [Braves] uniform on yet. It’s a bigger deal managing here than, you’re just the manager of a team. You’re part of the community, part of the fabric of people’s lives. It’s a big deal. I’ve noticed that.
Q. When you’re around the ballpark, around the players and the front office, do you get a sense that you’re managing a team that’s had a lot of success, a front-line team?
A. Yes. First class. They do everything the right way. Every conversation I’ve had with Frank [Wren, Braves general manager] or Bruce [Manno, assistant GM], when we’re talking baseball it’s always, ‘How can we improve the team?’ Which is nice. They’ve done that here for a lot of years, and they’re going to continue to do that.
Q. What do your mom and dad, who are both Cuban and live in Miami, think about you managing the Braves? They must be proud.
A. My dad loves it. They were all excited, and I sat ‘em down, my mom and dad, my brother and sister, and told them, the honeymoon period will be over soon enough [laughs]. Your son will be a bum here soon enough, you know? I think they listen to it to a certain extent.
They were hurt when the whole Florida thing went down. They were with me, because my dad always takes one trip every season to a place he hasn’t seen. They were in Baltimore [when Gonzalez got fired].
Q. Where were you when you got the call?
A. I was in my room, it was like 7 o’clock in the morning.
Q. And they were there?
A. Well, no, they were in their room.
Q. So did you call and go, well, I’m not managing tonight? [Laughter.]
A. No. I went down and talked to Larry [Beinfest, Marlins GM] and David [Sampson, Marlins president] and then I went right up to my dad’s room and told them, because I didn’t want them to get it from some places else, because you know how news travels.
Q. Do you tell them to stay off the blogs now? [Both laugh.] Like, whatever you do, don’t read the blogs?
A. I don’t read that stuff. My wife, Pam, reads that stuff.
Q. Is it hard to avoid reading it? When people are writing or saying stuff about you, isn’t the instinct to want to know what they’re saying, good or bad?
A. I can honestly tell you that I don’t read it. I’ve learned not to. But I do know what’s going on. Because there’s always a coach on the staff that likes to read it. I’ll tell [that coach], let me know if somebody pops off in the paper, if they’re not happy because they’re not happy with their role or whatever. I tell the guys right off the get-go, if you’ve got something to say, tell me, don’t go to the newspaper. Because I don’t read it. I’ll never get the message [laughs]. So come to my office and tell me. But I’ll always have a designated coach to keep an eye on it.
Q. How good are you at putting out those fires that pop up periodically in a clubhouse? I was around Jim Leyland for a couple of years, and he was a master at putting them out. And of course with Bobby [Cox], obviously, there almost never seemed to be any fires.
A. That’s probably the majority of the job, putting out fires. I think some people create their own fires. You see [some coaches or managers] on the news popping off about something, in any sport, and I’ll read and go [shakes his head].
Q. Would you say you’re more toward the Bobby Cox end of that spectrum, as far as not criticizing players in print, that kind of thing?
A. Yeah. For me to come out and rip a guy, it would be absolutely out of character.
Q. Is that from your personality, or something you learned from Bobby, or sort of a combination of those two factors?
A. I think it’s a combination. And you know, from paying attention. My first year [as third-base coach with the Braves] in ’03, [Greg] Maddux starts the home opener and gives up about 12 runs in three innings. I’m not managing or anything, so I’m reading the paper the next morning. I’ll never forget it. I’m at Einstein’s Bagels reading the paper, and Bobby’s quote was, “He didn’t pitch that bad.” And I’m going, God almighty, Bobby’s gone off the deep end. “He didn’t pitch that bad?” He backed up every base for two innings.
Sure enough, four or five days later I think Maddux gets ripped again, goes four or five innings, gives up a seven spot, loses again, and Bobby’s quote was like, “Well, we make a pitch here, maybe catch a ground ball there, he’s out of the inning and you know….” And so his third start, Maddux goes eight innings, one-hit shutout. A Maddux gem. And Bobby goes, “Yeah, he did OK.”
So I asked Greg. I say, tell me, you’ve been with Skipper seven or eight years. And he goes, ‘Fredi, I know when I wake up after my start, whether I threw a one-hitter or I gave up a lot of runs, I know exactly what the quotes are going to be.” And I said, well what do you think about that? And he said, “As a player, I think that’s great.”
And I thought, OK, remember that.
Q. You know what the fans say, when the team’s playing poorly and Bobby [sugarcoats it], they say, ‘Why do you even bother quoting Bobby, he’s blowing smoke up our [rears].’ It really upset some fans. But it sounds like you’re saying you can’t be worried about that perception from outsiders, because the players respond to not throwing them under the bus, and appreciate it?
A. The players read it. I think they appreciate it, but I think sometimes with them, when they play bad you’ve got to say, we played bad. But it’s always ‘we.’ I wouldn’t say, ‘24 guys played good and if this guy would’ve caught that ground ball we would’ve won today.’ It’s always ‘we.’ Because the game’s hard enough to play, I think, without them worrying about the manager and how he’s going to react.
The way I want to be, and I think I do a good job of it, is if you just came from someplace that had no TV, and you came to my office and we talked, you wouldn’t know whether we just won 10 in a row or lost 10 in a row. I think the players appreciate that, instead of being all rah-rah when you’ve won three or four in a row, then you have the office door closed when you’ve lost a few. Or you go 0-for-30 and you’re out of the lineup.
Q. Is it harder for a younger guy like yourself, who’s only just established himself as a manager in the past few years, to treat the team like that and not worry about guys taking advantage of it and walking all over you? Because with Bobby, he was so far along in his career, so revered by players and everyone else, and they usually brought in the right players – “That’s the biggest thing,” Gonzalez interjects – that nobody took advantage of the fact that he didn’t have a lot of rules. If they did, they were usually gone within a year.
A. I think that’s your personality. But don’t confuse empathy with a sign of weakness. I can be supportive, we can be supportive, but don’t think you’re all of a sudden going to do your own stuff [as a player].
Q. Looking back, are you glad you handled the Hanley Ramirez situation the way you did? Because if you hadn’t punished him, that could have been one of those defining situations. [Gonzalez benched Marlins start shortstop Ramirez in the middle of a May 2010 game after he failed to hustle to retrieve a ball that he misplayed, when it caromed off his ankle in shallow left field and rolled deep into the outfield. He also benched Ramirez the following day after he initially refused to apologize to teammates.]
A. Dave, that was the only way to handle it. So when I made that decision – I think we had another four innings to play – I felt good. Because it was one of those times, I don’t know if it was a [defining] point in your career, but if you didn’t do do the right thing there, you would’ve lost 24 other guys on that team, which is the most important thing. And you could have lost something in the way people perceive you in sports.
When you feel like you did the right thing, it doesn’t matter the repercussions. It wouldn’t even have gotten to that extent [there was much discussion about the incident, on ESPN and other national outlets], if he would have said, “I screwed up.”
But for me it was easy, because it was the right thing to do. I didn’t wish the stuff that happened afterward on him, because, oh my goodness, he got hammered. But it turned out great. I just never went into it with that in mind. I did what I did because it was the right thing to do.
Q. How ‘bout in situations that aren’t as blatant as the Hanley matter, but require discipline or a firm hand or whatever. Are you capable of chewing a guy out? There’s got to be a time when you have to bring a guy into the office, right?
A. Yeah, I can do it in two different languages [laughs]. And that [privately] is the best way to do it. Nobody wants to get embarrassed.
Q. Being bilingual, as you look back upon your career, baseball is kind of unique in that being Latin and bilingual can be such an asset. Would you say it’s helped you?
A. Big plus. Because I can talk to people in two different languages. If I want to talk to Alex Gonzalez or Prado, I can talk to him in his language where he feels comfortable, instead of bringing an interpreter in. I was the interpreter at times in the past, in certain situations. And I know that the message that I was getting across, when I was interpreting for someone, it wasn’t the same as what he was saying. The guy could get the gist of it, but it wasn’t the same. So you’d lose some of the effect in the interpretation. So yeah, hell yes, it’s a big plus.
Q. If someone had told you 15 or 20 years ago that someday you’d be managing the Atlanta Braves, and Carlos Tosca, another Cuban, would be your bench coach….
A. It really has been … it’s … God, you feel privileged. To manage a franchise and organization like the Atlanta Braves. And then following Bobby, you know. I always said, I want to be the guy that replaces the guy that replaced Bobby. I want to be the guy after the first guy.
But you know what? It’s been so great these last three or four months, that I don’t see it being a hindrance. Just because of the organization, the dedication to winning games. If you believe the Sabermetric guys, we managers can win, what, four games, and lose three, in 162? [Laughs.] And the rest is the players.
The manager has more impact before the game than he does during the game. It’s not so much the X’s and O’s than the other stuff.
Q: The transition, following a legend, how much has it been eased by the fact you’re following Bobby? I mean, he helps make it about as easy as it could be, I would imagine.
A. “Yes, you know why? Because he’s been there every step of the way.”
Q: He’s not like some coaches or managers that might want their successor to struggle in order to validate their own careers or prove how important they were?
A. Yeah. He’s going to go to the Hall of Fame whether we lose 100 this year or win 100. But he genuinely wants us to succeed. He wants this organization to succeed and keep getting those flags up there on the façade.