TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – It’s a busy day in the training room at Dick Howser Stadium. Florida State baseball will play Duke later in the evening, and players are coming in and out for treatment, making sure they’re at their best when it’s time for first pitch in a few hours.
“What if someone’s chasing you?”
The question was directed at Justin Gonzalez. The Noles’ captain is out for the season after undergoing surgery on his right hip. Gonzalez has freshly ditched his crutches and hip brace, but is still a month away from being allowed to run. He leans up on his elbow from the training table.
“They catch me,” he grins. “I won’t be playing hide and go seek or manhunt anytime soon.”
The captain. Too weak to even run, much less go nine innings three to five days a week and provide a strong example of production on the field for his teammates. Still, even before this season began, Gonzalez knew his role as captain would involve much more than on-field performance.
“I had to be the guy who had to focus when everyone else wanted to have fun,” he explains. “I had to be the guy that, even though things weren't going well for him, I had to stay even keel. I was preparing myself all summer for that.”
As it turns out, that preparation to persevere was very much needed.
Gonzalez began the season with tightness in his right hip. In the Noles’ very first game, Gonzalez, from his position at shortstop, chased a ball hit up the middle, and knew right then he had something more than just a little tightness.
After five games, Gonzalez had to sit out because he could no longer play through the pain in his hip. After two weeks of hopelessly trying to work out the tightness, he traveled to Colorado for season ending surgery.
The captain. Done for the year, and it wasn’t even March.
“When [that surgery] happened,” remembers FSU head coach Mike Martin, “I got to thinking how it would affect him.” What coach wouldn’t think the same? The one person you hoped would lead your team, be a model of consistency on field and off, couldn’t face another pitch, take another grounder, or turn another double play.
But Martin’s thoughts wound up elsewhere.
“Of all the guys I've coached,” he adds, “Gonzo would probably handle this better than anybody.”
So just how has Justin Gonzalez handled this situation? At the very least, he has a sense of humor about it now and can laugh about his inability to escape a pursuer in the training room, but there is no disappointment in his day-to-day role as captain either, a role he eagerly embraces.
“When you're away from the game,” Gonzalez says, “you realize you can't feel sorry for yourself, and I think that's the biggest lesson that I've learned. When you're in the game, there's a lot of emotion going on, but trying to stay even keel is what I try [to do]. You know, help out these guys who may not be doing as well as they want.”
That help Gonzalez offers certainly doesn’t fall on deaf ears. His impact on the team is undeniable, and it’s ironic his so-called off-the-field leadership is most clear when he’s physically on the field, among his teammates.
Gonzalez is at the center of every huddle, leading the Noles in prayer before lineups are announced pregame. He’s the first out of the dugout to congratulate a teammate after a home run, or to welcome the pitcher back to the dugout after an inning is complete.
Ask Mike Martin about Gonzalez’ impact on the team. After 34 years as head coach, Martin changed his attitude regarding bringing injured players on road trips because of that impact.
“I've never taken a guy on the road who I knew couldn't play,” Martin unwaveringly states, “but I don't want to go anywhere without Gonzo being there to encourage his teammates and do the little things that he can do to make us a better team.”
The little things. The most important things a captain can do.