BOSTON -- Minutes before each game, the ritual begins. First, a prayer. Then, the visualization of nine imagined innings: balls hit to him, time spent inside the batter's box, swings at fastballs -- a reminder of the why he's there, and not with his family. It's only three or four hours, Alex Gonzalez tells himself, to focus his mind on his job and nothing else.
"It's hard, but this is my job," the Red Sox shortstop says. "I try to focus on baseball but sometimes it enters my mind, so I've got to be strong."
Gonzalez has to be strong because while he plays baseball, his 3-year-old son, Johan, lies in a hospital bed in Miami. Johan has been in a coma for the past two years, his chances of survival remote.
In the years since Johan became unresponsive, Gonzalez has gone about his business and found ways to concentrate on baseball. This year, it has been steadying Boston's middle infield since he was traded in mid-August from the Reds, just 18 months removed from knee surgery after he broke his knee cap and missed all of 2008.
Yet as he enters the postseason, he is playing with myriad questions about his future. He could be a free agent after this season (the Red Sox hold a club option for 2010), at a time when, at 32 years old with meager offensive numbers, he may find it difficult to find a lucrative, multiyear contract. With mounting medical bills for Johan's care, and an uncertain future about his son's ability to wake from the coma, it is a heavy burden with which to play.
"I tell him he's due for some good luck," says his agent, Eric Goldschmidt. "He's had three lifetimes of bad luck."
He is one of baseball's best defensive shortstops, yet there was a time he wasn't sure if he had the strength to play like one.
Most of Alex Gonzalez's Red Sox teammates don't know about the tubes, the machines, the doctors and the hospitals that have consumed their shortstop's life since he left Boston for Cincinnati after the 2006 season. Since his return, he's become an important part of the team, which begins its first-round playoff series against the Los Angeles Angels on Thursday night in Anaheim, Calif.
"Until you told me, I wasn't fully aware he was in a coma still," says Wayne Krivsky, Gonzalez's general manager with the Reds in 2007. "I didn't know what the circumstances were, except that he was alive."
Gonzalez, who until sitting down with ESPNBoston.com on Friday had never been interviewed about his son's condition, will play a big role in Boston's postseason fate. He has already played a role in the Red Sox's success since coming here.
"He does stuff on the field that, sometimes, your jaw drops," says Game 1 starter Jon Lester. "You're like, 'How did he do that?' You feel comfortable that if the ball is hit in that direction, it's probably going to be an out."
When he's in Boston, Gonzalez is separated by more than 1,000 miles from his family, while his wife, Johanna, and his other two sons, Alexander, 7, and Johander, 10, try to function. Johanna visits Johan at the hospital multiple times a week while friends and family help take care of Alexander and Johander. Baby Johan is fed through a tube in his throat; he has little to no brain activity and breathes through a respirator.
"I can't imagine playing a whole major league season and holding together as well as he has," says good friend and Pirates first base coach Perry Hill. "He's a special guy. I just can't say enough about his character."
His character is a part of what sustains him. And after each game, after those three or four hours, Gonzalez returns to his reality, and what he calls the "soft" version of himself.
"I've got a sick baby," Gonzalez says. "You never know what can happen today, the next day or next week."
He speaks from experience.
Playing through the ordeal
During the final week of the Red Sox's 2006 season, Johanna Gonzalez went into premature labor. Alex left the team and returned to Miami. That's when the battle began; Johan Gonzalez was born two months early, with an undersized trachea and underdeveloped organs. He needed myriad surgeries in the early months of his life. But he was still a baby, one who was responsive and engaged, Alex says, even while he was fighting to survive. Much of the first 10 months of Johan's life were spent in the hospital, and they certainly were never guaranteed, but they were lived.
Gonzalez left the Red Sox after the '06 season, one in which many thought he should have won the Gold Glove; it was awarded instead to Derek Jeter. A free agent with a sick infant, Gonzalez knew the medical costs would mount and he wanted financial security; Boston was unwilling to offer enough money, and more importantly, years. The Reds were willing, and they signed him to a three-year, $14 million deal with a team option for a fourth year.
Krivsky had done his research. He had spoken to Hill, once a coach with the Marlins who had tutored Gonzalez and was one of his closest friends. Hill told Krivsky that Gonzalez not only had great hands, but that his range was excellent as well. He echoed what many in the game say: he makes spectacular plays look routine.
Hill told Krivsky that Gonzalez was quiet in the clubhouse -- his serious demeanor is one that fellow Venezuelan shortstop Cesar Izturis playfully describes as a "weird look on his face" -- but that his mannerisms belied a good soul. Krivsky was sold.
"Perry was right on," Krivsky says. "He told me a lot of people misunderstand him, but when you get to know him, and you win his trust, he's just a tremendous person and a good teammate and has a good sense of humor."
Gonzalez was Cincinnati's starting shortstop and he played the first half of the season while Johan endured more surgeries, including ones on his stomach and heart. It was trying, but Alex called him his "battler."
After going home for the 2007 All-Star break, Gonzalez and the Reds opened the second half in New York against the Mets. Gonzalez played the first two games of the series, which would be the last with his son not in a coma. It was on July 13, after a Friday night game in which Gonzalez had gone 2-for-5 with two RBIs in an 8-4 win, when he got the call. Johan had stopped breathing in his sleep -- perhaps the result of surgery performed to elongate his trachea -- and was in a coma.
The lack of oxygen to Johan's brain caused swelling and severe damage. Gonzalez left the team immediately and returned home to Miami, to sit bedside with his son. The Reds put him on the bereavement list, and told him to take the time.
The prognosis was not good.
"The doctors said they can't do anything about it," Gonzalez says. "They told us, they don't have any chance to save the baby."
Alex and Johanna kept the faith, having seen Johan already survive a very difficult beginning to his life. Alex had a special plane fly Johan from Miami to the Cincinnati Children's Hospital for the remainder of the '07 season. He rejoined the team, but each night he'd go to the hospital and join Johanna, and stay with Johan. Gonzalez would spend the night there, or he'd leave at 3 in the morning and a few hours later he would arrive at the ballpark, willing himself to play.
He kept his son's condition private; most teammates and even Krivsky were unaware of the full extent of Johan's condition.
The stress was overbearing at times.
Every inning he'd run off the field and into the clubhouse, checking his cell phone to see if the swelling in Johan's brain had subsided. It was impossible to fully concentrate, and Gonzalez says it showed on the field. After committing just seven errors with Boston in 2006, Gonzalez made 16 in '07, and had one of the lowest fielding percentages of his career.
"I had never been through anything like that before," Gonzalez says. "I took it to the field."
Chad Moeller, a catcher with the Reds two years ago who's now with the Orioles, felt Gonzalez was just as consistent as he'd always been, in spite of the trauma in his life.
"It affected him off the field, certainly, as it should anybody," Moeller says. "Not on the field. They gave him time to be away when things sounded worse each time. When he was there, he was the same guy. The play did not get affected at all."
Stepping up for the Red Sox
Alex Gonzalez is a native of Venezuela, and grew up versed in the rich history of shortstops from his country. He loved the range Dave Concepcion had to either side, he was in awe of Omar Vizquel's fearlessness when it came to barehanding balls, and he admired Ozzie Guillen's range and affable manner on the field.
Gonzalez said he's probably an amalgamation of them all, but blushes when told Mike Lowell called him the best he's ever seen.
"There are a lot of great infielders that help you make it easy," he says. "I try to do my best. I think the part what I love most in the game, is playing defense. You can win games with defense."
He will never be known for his offense, but Gonzalez doesn't see himself merely as a defensive specialist. He takes prides in trying to improve. As manager Terry Francona's No. 9 hitter since coming here on Aug. 14, Gonzalez's .769 OPS is almost 100 points higher than his career average -- an achievement considering it took him 96 at-bats to draw his first walk with the team -- and he's hit .284 in 44 games.
Still, shortstop was a glaring hole that needed to be filled after Julio Lugo was traded -- the Red Sox used Nick Green, who is far inferior to Gonzalez defensively -- and his acquisition was a much-needed stopgap.
"He's been really a significant upgrade," general manager Theo Epstein says. "In part because of how reliable he is it's been a steadying influence overall and [has] helped out the pitching staff."
Somehow, he's learned a way to compartmentalize his personal life, in spite of the pain and uncertainty. He keeps a photo of baby Johan on his cell phone, and when he finishes a game, it's quickly within reach.
"When the season is over I'll have a chance to see him," Gonzalez says. "Right now, I call [Johanna] every day to see how he's doing."
He will be playing a bit longer this season, so in the meantime, Alex Gonzalez will continue to kneel before each game, reminding himself that he must focus on his job.
For now, he can only visualize about being home.
Amy K. Nelson is a staff writer for ESPN.com and ESPNBoston.com. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or at twitter.com/amyknelson.