Giants’ Luis Gonzalez, bullied as a young immigrant, escaped into baseball

Luis Gonzalez and his family arrived to Tucson as children with very little. His parents worked many jobs and Gonzalez and Paloma did not speak English.

Gonzalez was an easy target for his first few years of school because of the language barrier. He also struggled to complete his schoolwork. As with many immigrants, he found his outlet in sports. And in Gonzalez’s case, that led to friends, an eventual full college scholarship, and now, a big-league spot with the San Francisco Giants. The American Dream, played out in dusty desert fields.

“His English was very limited, there were only a couple of words he knew, and he was intimidated at school and getting bullied,” said Gonzalez’s youth-league and Catalina Foothills High School coach Jim Baldwin. “Luis was a kind of shy kid but baseball was his gig. From Day One, we always knew that. There is no language, you can just play the game. Luis always seemed at home there.”

Gonzalez’s family moved from Hermosillo to Mexico at the age of nine. Luis Gonzalez, Gonzalez’ dad, worked as an automotive mechanic. He owned a heating and cooling company, and he and Luis’ mom, Lisa Hoenig, opened a cleaning business, too.

“It was tough at first,” Gonzalez said, “I think my sister and I kind of helped each other out, going through the whole experience with not knowing the language. But I wasn’t very good at school, making friends was hard, I was picked on for not being able to say words right. But I was lucky to be athletic.”

Getting bullied thickened Gonzalez’s skin,He said.

“It makes you want to grow up and just stick up for yourself,” he said. “I got in some fights and I was put in detention quite a bit, but I’ve learned from those experiences, and that made me who I am today. It’s made me overcome some adversity.”

Baldwin was proud to note that Gonzalez often finds children in the stands, and gives them warm-up balls during innings. “That makes me as proud as any homers he hits,” Baldwin said.

The Gonzalez siblings watched a lot on Disney Channel, and gained a lot from English. “That’s So Raven,” “Drake & Josh,” “The Suite Life of Zack & Cody,”Much the same as Wilmer Flores picking up the language watching “Friends.”Gonzalez was able to play basketball and football, and he began to excel. His academics improved so much that he received offers from four-year baseball schools. He eventually ended up at the University of New Mexico.

“He reminded me a little bit of Brandon Belt — he knows the strike zone really well and he can rake, too,”Ray Birmingham, a New Mexico coach who recently retired, said the following “Luis is really an old-school style player. And I loved the whole family, his dad and I hit it off from the get-go.”

Gonzalez, 26, has been a versatile talent. He can play any position, even shortstop or catcher, but he is left handed. (“He was phenomenal,” Baldwin said of Gonzalez’s catching skills. “Zero passed balls.”) He hit — .356 with a 1.032 OPS at New Mexico, and was an undistinguished starter with an ERA over 6.00.

However, the Giants’ pitching experience was the most prominent in the past two weeks. He has appeared three times in blowouts, his first two outings scoreless, with Gonzalez floating in a — changeup? eephus? something slow with a hump — at 45 mph, then offering 85 mph fastballs. He was so effective with it, with a slight hesitation in his delivery helping make some top-notch hitters take silly swings, that manager Gabe Kapler mused after Gonzalez’s first time out whether there might be some advantage gained by having a pitcher with that kind of velocity disparity.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if they use him later in the season maybe in a situation where they need someone to face a fastball hitter,” Baldwin said. “A 40 mph difference is not fair.”

Gonzalez was welcomed by the relief staff with a pair coveted bullpen shorts. Gonzalez would love to continue working on the mound even though no team wants position players. He’s even suggested that he get some bullpen sessions. That probably won’t happen soon, but you never know. Gonzalez could throw in mid-90s pitches when he was regularly pitching.

“It’s fun to talk about,”Andrew Bailey is a pitching coach. “He’s been tremendous at what he’s doing, being able to throw strikes, first-pitch strikes. There’s a lot on his plate as an outfielder and a defensive player and offensive player already, so we’ll probably have to table the bullpens — but if there is something to work on, we can make time for that. It’s intriguing, for sure.”

It’s not easy for big-leaguers to throw the ball that softly and throw strikes, but perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Gonzalez can throw a mean eephus. Gonzalez’s dad was a well-known Mexican fast-pitch softball player. Gonzalez has also played slow-pitch softball, so he knows how difficult it can be for a batter not to prepare for something and then struggle to adjust.

Gonzalez’s true gifts are at the plate and in the outfield. He’s batting a team-high .338 with two homers and 15 RBIs in 26 games, and though he had a snafu or two while playing left for the first time at Oracle Park, there is little doubt he is an asset defensively and on the bases.

Gonzalez was acquired by the Giants in one of those Farhan Zaidi/Scott Harris classic moves. He was taken off waivers by the White Sox while he was undergoing shoulder surgery. The Giants placed him on the 60 day IL. This made sure that he would resign when he returned to the roster at the end of the year.

San Francisco has gained a well-earned reputation for identifying pitchers who could benefit from the team’s coaching techniques and tailored analytics, but quietly, the Giants are showing a regular talent for finding outfielders who haven’t yet reached their potential: Mike Yastrzemski, LaMonte Wade Jr. and now Gonzalez.

Gonzalez is an all-arounder, who can play center, steal bases and bunt and get on base.

“He does a lot of things really, really well,” Yastrzemski said. “And I really like the way he carries himself, he’s got a really good demeanor around the clubhouse. He’s approachable, a great guy. And he gives you everything he has on the field.”

The next question is what will happen with Gonzalez when Wade returns from a persistent knee issue — while Wade was off the IL this month, Gonzalez went back to Triple-A Sacramento. Steven Duggar (left-handed hitting outfielder) will be eligible for a return to the field after an oblique injury.

Maybe Gonzalez’s other talents, such as providing pitching in a blowout, will help his cause. He can also catch in a pinch. “If anyone has a left-handed catcher’s mitt,”He said.

Et voilà! JocPederson has one. This is the result of a mistaken order sent to a former colleague. Gonzalez may be able to pull off a Campy Campaneris all-9 trick. But as long as he’s on a field, the role is immaterial.

“When he gets on the field, he could be in Hermosillo or he could be in the big leagues,”Birmingham “It doesn’t matter to Luis. It doesn’t change him or make him nervous. He plays a complete game, and he plays to win.”

Susan Slusser is a reporter for The San Francisco Chronicle. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @susanslusser


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