Fredi Gonzalez is entering his first spring training as Braves manager, and he has his Harley-Davidson Road King with him in Florida, just in case he has time to sneak in a few rides between workouts and Grapefruit League games.
Gonzalez, 47, is an avid motorcyclist who owns two bikes and often rides with Braves coach Terry Pendleton.
Gonzalez went for a ride to the Georgia mountains on Super Bowl Sunday with this Braves beat writer. We stopped for coffee and a one-hour interview in Canton, Ga.
This is the second part of our two-part interview. Read Part i of the interview here
Q. Some critics say Chipper Jones should’ve retired a couple of year ago. But for you, is it good to have him on the team and have a connection to the Braves’ past, at least for another year or two?
A. Yeah. Not only that, he has given the OK [approval of the Gonzalez hiring]. That’s big. That’s a big help in that clubhouse. Plus, he’s not that far removed from winning a batting title. And last year he came into Florida hitting .215, I think, the first series. He was awful. But I tell you what, I don’t care if he was hitting .215 or .315, he still has a … you’ve got to respect him. He’s going to come up with a big hit at a big time of the game. And I still believe he’s got something in the tank, and I think he’s motivated to prove it.
Q. You pay attention to some of the more sophisticated new stats than some older managers. At the same time it sounds like you’re not going to let those stats dictate your lineup. For instance, you’re not going to move Chipper down just because he’s not what he once was. You’re going on what you see and have seen, not just on what stats tell you?
A.Yeah. You’ve got to use all the information you can get that’s out there. Then use your instincts or your gut feeling or whatever.
Q. So you’re not going to make a lineup based solely on sabermetics, on things like WAR or VORP. (Laughter.)
A. No, or – what’s the other one — DIPS? No, we’re not going to do that. Or hit the pitcher eighth. I’m not there yet.
Q. But you don’t consider yourself a dinosaur when it comes to that stuff, either?
A. No, no, no. I look at all that kind of stuff. I really do. [But] you can really get really confused or paralyzed during the course of the game if you get caught up in all that.
I think everything you do is dictated by who’s on that mound that particular day, for you or against you. You’ve got Doc [Roy] Halladay pitching against you, you better scratch out some runs – this game we’re going to play little ball. If you’ve got Tim Hudson on the mound for you, you know if you get one or two [runs] you’ve got a pretty good chance to win that game. So you play it different.
Q. How comfortable are you with going with the young guys, Craig Kimbrel and Jonny Venters, in crucial roles at the back end of the bullpen? Bobby didn’t mind throwing kids in there in big roles.
A. I did it for four years. [Laughs.] We had a different closer every year. We had Kevin Gregg and a bunch of different guys back there that you had to mix and match.
You know what I feel comfortable with? The experience that they went through. [Both pitched in all four games in the division series] and Jonny pitched all through the pennant race. There’s no place else you can get that experience. You talk about veteran guys, but going through that is a plus.
Q. If Kimbrel shows you enough in the spring, you wouldn’t hesitate to go with him as the primary closer?
A. Yeah, but remember two years ago when Bobby had Mike Gonzalez and [Rafael] Soriano [as co-closers]? Then he would kind of flip-flop them. I remember reading the box score and seeing that Soriano pitched the ninth inning one day, then the eighth the next day when Gonzalez pitched the ninth against lefties. We could do that, and kind of break with that until somebody steps up as that main guy.
Q. So you’re going into spring kind of playing it by ear, waiting to see what happens?
A. Yeah. See what happens. But you kind of like the history of what’s happened, the short history with Kimbrel in the big leagues, and Venters, what did he go, 70-some games? And this guy’s not a situational lefty, either. You can let him face right-handers.
Q. Are you a guy that tried to take care of young relievers to make sure they don’t get worn out? Are you conscious of not relying so much on the same few guys night after night?
A. Yeah. You have to be. Because if you lose a guy there, it’s a big hole. And I’ll really lean on Roger [McDowell pitching coach] to tell me, and for the kids to tell Roger, “I can’t go today, I need a breather.”
Q. You want guys that’ll go out there every day, tough guys, but you also want them to be honest and tell you when they’re hurt or tired and need a rest, right?
A. Yes, because it’s not always the number of games. A guy might only throw two games in four days, but he’s been up every day, getting ready and then we get out of an inning and don’t use him. But he still threw 30 pitches in the bullpen.
Q. I sensed that some guys, especially young guys, wanted Bobby to approve, so they wanted to go out there every day, even if they were hurting. Then when it gets a little worse and they have to come out, they say, “I should have told him.” Is it a fine line?
A. It is. It’s a fine line. You’ve got to trust them.
Q. But you want them to tell you when they’re actually hurting?
A. Yeah, because you’d rather give them a day or two instead of being on the DL for a month or 15 days.
Q. There are also those who think Bobby Cox should have retired a few years before he did, and that maybe the Braves should’ve gone in a totally different direction than you for his replacement. I’m guessing there are worse things than being called Bobby 2.0?
A. [Laughs]. Yeah, you can go to the mound in Philly or New York and be called a lot worse than Bobby 2.0. Obviously he’s made a big impact in my baseball knowledge and how I run a game. A big impact. You spend four years with Picasso, if you just pay attention, you learn.
But there’s going to be some stuff that’s a little different. Subtle stuff. Did [George] Seifert really do much different when he replaced [49ers coach] Bill Walsh? Probably about the same, right? It’s hard to tinker with success. They [Braves] have had success. A LOT of success.
But there will be some differences.
Q. But it’s not going to be boot camp in spring training?
A. I don’t know where everybody’s getting that idea, boot camp. We’re going to get in, get our work done and get out.
Q. The players have always liked the fact that the Braves do that, that the workouts are efficient and they don’t waste much time and stay out there all day in the spring.
A. Yeah. But you know what? You’re there to get ready for a major league season, not to get ready for the PGA. I say PGA because everybody plays golf. And I play golf, too. We’re going to do our work, then after we get done, I encourage them to take the family or whatever and go to Disney World and spend time with the family and your hobbies, whether it’s playing golf or whatever.
Q. And you and Terry will have your bikes there?
A. Yes. And we’ll have some days we get out of the ballpark early enough to go out and get a ride.
Q. When you look back now, how much of your professional career do you think was affected by happenstance, meeting the right people, being at the right place at the right time, that kind of thing?
A. When you’re young, you hear the clichés — things happen for a reason, right place/ right time. I’ve had all that stuff happen to me.
I go from, first time around with the Marlins, thinking I’m going to be there 50 years, and it doesn’t happen because of the sale of the team. I end up going to Atlanta, right? End up signing to manage the Macon team, because Carlos [Tosca] was going to manage the Richmond team. And Dick Balderson [former Braves player development director] goes, “You’re going to manage Macon.” I say, OK. But he adds, “If Carlos gets a major league coaching job, then you’ll manage Richmond.” So I say, that’s fine, Dick.
So I sign up to manage an A-ball team. Ssure enough, a month later Carlos gets the call to go coach third base in Toronto. I manage Richmond. I’m thinking, I’m going to be in Richmond a long time. Like [other long-time Braves minor league coaches], thirty years in the organization and never get a major league opportunity.
Then Ned [Yost, former Braves third-base coach] gets the job in the Milwaukee. I’m sitting watching something on TV on Halloween, I see Ned got the job, and I’m thinking Snit [Brian Snitker], Rick Albert, Randy Ingle, one of those guys is going to get an opportunity, because they’ve been there 25 years. Never even crossed my mind that it’d be me.
Phone rings. It’s Bobby. If you’ve ever talked to him, you know it’s not a crank call; you recognize the voice. “Hey, I want you to be my third-base coach.” Talk about being in the right place at the right time, and lucky.
And he goes, “John will call you about the contract. I said, oh, great, Skipper I’d love to do it. I hang up the phone, and about four days later I still haven’t gotten a call from John. I’m thinking, you know what, I think I just got punked. And Pam’s telling me, “Call Bobby back.” And I say, I’m not calling him back [laughs].
Sure enough, John had been traveling. He finally called me back about four days later…
And then I get an opportunity to manage the Marlins, hometown and that whole deal. Then going through all that, a great experience, and then you get fired. Things happen for a reason, right?
Q. And you get fired right as Bobby is retiring?
A. Yeah. Instead of a year too late or something.
Q. So you didn’t try to get fired? [Both laugh.]
A. No, I did not try to get fired. I’m not that confident.
Q. You listened to the Cubs before pulling out of that managerial search. But this was the job you wanted, right? I mean, it was going to take a team offering a whole lot of money to get you to consider taking another job first….
A. Yeah, but I tell you what, it was nice that [Cubs general manager] Jim Hendry called. But you know, you don’t know if you’re going to get that job. I think they hired the right guy with Quad [Mike Quade, new Cubs manager] in there, I really do. Solid decision.
But there was an attraction there to the Cubs. Hell, if you win there, if you win the World Series or are just lucky enough to get to the World Series, they might name that John Hancock building after you, or Rush Street – here, it’s Gonzalez Street, not Rush Street anymore. [Laughs.]
But, yeah, here – this [Atlanta] was the place. The area’s great to raise a family.
And here’s another thing. [While managing the Marlins] we had said we weren’t going to make a decision about moving back to Miami for another year, until after [Gonzalez's son] Alex graduated [from high school]. Because I had another year on my Marlins contract. I would have been back this year, and we were thinking about moving back this year after Alex graduated. [Gonzalez's aughter] Gabrielle is already out of high school.
Things happen for a reason, right?
– by David O’Brien, Braves blog