When Gio Gonzalez arrived in Moosic prior to the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders' media day, the veteran starting pitcher entered the clubhouse a man on a mission.
But now that Gonzalez has departed the New York Yankees Triple-A affiliate, opting out of his contract after seeing his April 19 start in Buffalo get rained out, the southpaw left with his mission complete.
Thanks to a pair of impressive starts after an up-and-down opener, the 11-year vet pitched his way back into the majors.
"It's like a fighter," Gonzalez said. "You're not going to keep getting hit on the chin, so you go down. You're going to find a way to stick and move and find a weakness to my opponent. I'm taking it for what it is. This is a way to kind of show that I can still execute my job and show that I can do my job at any level and hopefully I can make a point proven that I can still pitch in the big leagues. It's just the way the market came out this season. It's just unfortunate. It was miserable."
The New York Yankees were the only team to show interest in Gonzalez this winter. And that interest only led to a minor league contract offer.
Gonzalez was upset to say the least.
He knew he could still pitch in the majors and was tired about hearing the fact that he lost some velocity off of his fastball.
"I was very fortunate that the Yankees were the only ones who kind of gave me the opportunity to go out there and show that I can still pitch," Gonzalez said. "A guy in my situation, it's almost a sense of pride where a guy calls you out on it. I think that if someone tells you, 'Hey, you're 33 and your velocity is drastically dropping.' You're like, 'How drastic? Are you talking about like 0.2 mph off? Something like that is drastic for you? My goodness.' The average fastball now is 95 mph, so maybe it is good to see something a little bit offspeed, something a little bit out in front."
Teams were worried about Gonzalez's summer months when he posted an ERA over 7.00 in both June and August and a 4.08 ERA in July. They had forgotten about the stellar months of April, May and September the 33-year-old posted, when he sported ERAs of 2.67, 1.47 and 2.13 respectively.
That didn't sit well with the starting pitcher.
Sure, he had a bit of a rough stretch. But did his time with Milwaukee mean nothing?
The Washington Nationals traded Gonzalez to the Brewers on Aug. 31, 2018. Gonzalez would go on to post a 3-0 record and 2.13 ERA in five starts.
"That was overlooked completely," Gonzalez said of his time with the Brewers. "No one - when I was sitting at home - no one mentioned that. All they mention was June and July. Two months of two years. That to me was remarkable. Two months of two years of just a little bit of a slippery slope. That's where I had to scratch my head a little bit.
"It really was two or three months of two years of a hiccup, and that was it pretty much. I was written off. 'Oh, he's losing a little bit of his touch.'"
But once Gonzalez walked into the RailRiders clubhouse, put all that disappointment aside and focus on baseball and baseball alone. He didn't want to be a distraction for his new teammates.
Gonzalez's RailRiders career got off to a shaky start, giving up eight runs in four innings to a Vladimir Guerrero Jr.-less Buffalo Bisons lineup on opening day, but then he settled in.
He pitched six innings of shutout baseball in his second start, only giving up two hits, and only allowed two runs over five innings in his third and final start with Scranton/Wilkes-Barre.
Gonzalez had proved enough that there were reports of a scout from the New York Mets set to watch his April 19 start.
"For my third start, my second actual start, I feel great," Gonzalez said on April 12. "It was a quick adjustment, but that's part of nature, what I've been around my entire life - always adjusting to my surroundings, adjusting what I can do. I'm not a guy who's always contempt with what I can do. I'm a guy who's always working to get better. I might show that I'm having fun and all of that stuff, but I'm also trying to get my job done and trying to impress the team I'm with right now. I want to do a great job for (RailRiders manager Jay Bell) and (pitching coach Tommy Phelps) and especially for Scranton. When the ball's in my hand, I want to make sure that I lead by example."
It isn't just Gonzalez's on-field performance that's wowed his teammates and coaches. It's the way he holds himself in the clubhouse that's really taken notice.
Whether it's as a source for sneakers for his teammates - Gonzalez is sponsored by Jordan Brand and has helped his teammates order dozens of shoes over the first couple weeks of the season - or chipping in with fellow Hialeah, Fla. native Nestor Cortes to buy a Street Fighter arcade game from a local Walmart to put in the RailRiders clubhouse or just being there for his younger teammates whenever they need help with something, Gonzalez has been there for his teammates since Day 1.
"He's been great. Not only have I enjoyed him on the field, but I've enjoyed him off the field," Bell said. "His presence in the clubhouse has been fantastic. I'll even add (veteran infielder) Cliff Pennington to the mix, too. Those two guys are veteran players that have come in, they've taken ownership of the position they're in at this point in their career. They've really done a great job mentoring the younger players. It's just enjoyable to watch two guys that are still passionate about the game. I know where they want to be. They want to be in the big leagues. I'd love to get to see them to get to the big leagues and never have anything to do with them again. I want them to go and enjoy the fruits of their label and get back and achieve their goals. That'll be kind of fun for me."
This trip back to the minors has given Gonzalez a chance to relate to a younger generation of baseball. It's something he's really enjoyed doing during his time with the RailRiders.
"It's not all about baseball. They are young men, who still have a life, have hobbies still," Gonzalez said. "It's not 24-7 baseball, and they live 24-7 baseball, so you have to give them a different side of the job and something to look forward to. I think that's why I like just interacting with a lot of the guys."
Joining the Yankees organization, and also the RailRiders, has presented Gonzalez with a reunion of sorts.
Gonzalez joined Cortes, both being from the same hometown and going to the same high school, just nine years apart, and infielder Mandy Alvarez, who is also from the Miami area, on the RailRiders roster.
It was 2011 and Cortes was a sophomore when Gonzalez first met him, coaching baseball at his high school. Now the two can say that they've been a part of the same pitching staff at the professional level.
"Nestor, I couldn't be proud of what he's done and how he's impacted baseball in a different aspect from me," Gonzalez said. "He's great to have around. He's a great clubhouse guy. And I see it firsthand. It's just not something you root for a guy from your hometown, which I do, but Nestor has a such a great vibe with guys, he has such a great clubhouse presence and they love playing behind him.
"I got the chance to see (Alvarez) and the way he plays. It's crazy, you know he works so hard that he's a perfectionist that you see that you have to put your arm around him and slow him down. He's funny in his own way that he wants to do so much more, when to me, less is more in baseball."
Cortes has soaked in every ounce of his reunion with his old high school coach.
Pitching on a staff that includes Gonzalez, David Hale, Drew Hutchinson and Chance Adams, all who have made appearances at the next level, Cortes has had a wealth of knowledge to glean from.
With a locker so close to Gonzalez, Cortes has done everything he can to pick his old coach's brain, including asking him to help him out with his changeup.
"Everybody here has different types of crafts, and I think that's what makes it special to where we can pick brains," Cortes said. "Yeah, me and Gio are lefties, but we don't pitch the same exact game. He has a nasty curveball. I have a cutter. He has a nasty changeup. I'm trying to work on my changeup. So we can nitpick. He's trying to throw a cutter. So he can talk to me about it.
"Now being here and sharing the same locker room, it's pretty crazy to think that we're on the same team - even though I know that he doesn't want to be in this position. He wants to be in the big leagues, and he can be in the big leagues with somebody else at any given point, but I'm enjoying it now for the time being. Hopefully, he gets a job somewhere quick, even if it's not with the Yankees."
But at the end of the day, Gonzalez's stay with the RailRiders was about one thing. Proving he could still pitch in the big leagues.
He did just that.
Gonzalez opted out of his minor league deal with the Yankees on April 20, forcing New York to add him to the active roster or let him become a free agent all over again.
"I feel like I can compete at a high level," Gonzalez said. "I feel like can help out in any way, but it was a rude awakening. It was very unfortunate. It was very sad. It's one of those things that you take a step back and kind of like scratch your head and say, 'Man, imagine if you had a really bad year. Imagine if it was one of those years that most young guys end up having.' And I start going, 'Man, I know I don't feel I'm done. I don't feel I've lost a step. I know I can still bob and weave and punch the way I used to in my prime.'"
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.