Adrian Gonzalez helps L.A. reconnect

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- When you drive south on Figueroa Street in Los Angeles, in the direction of Dodger Stadium, past the Mexican and Salvadoran restaurants, the grocers and the auto shops, you encounter a massive blue-and-white sign.

It stands over the entrance to the 110 freeway and shows the Los Angeles Dodgers' All-Star first baseman from a sideways angle. The most prominent feature is his back, specifically the name scrawled across it, one shared by many families across the city. It says, "Gonzalez."

The Dodgers were so intent on acquiring Adrian Gonzalez from the Boston Red Sox last August, they were willing to take on more than $250 million to do it, bringing in three other players (and salaries) that Boston was intent on dumping.

The fervor to land Gonzalez was about a lot of things. First, of course, it was about replacing the anemic production they had gotten out of their first basemen, notably James Loney. It was about a weak crop of free agents on the horizon. But it was also about symbolism, Gonzalez giving the Dodgers their biggest star of Mexican heritage since Fernando Valenzuela. Like anything else in the wake of the Frank McCourt era, it was about reconnecting with their fans.

The Dodgers are perfectly willing to acknowledge the importance of Gonzalez's heritage in their efforts to court fans. In fact, they embrace it. Why shouldn't they? The Dodgers' organization has a long history of promoting diversity and connecting with its multicultural fan base.

"You start with Jackie Robinson as a symbol of what this franchise is and continue to Sandy Koufax, who was really a role model for a generation of post-war Americans trying to assimilate," president Stan Kasten said. "You continue through Fernando Valenzuela, Hideo Nomo, Chan Ho Park and now Adrian. That gets to the identity of what the Dodgers have always been."

Kasten said acquiring Gonzalez "checked all the boxes." He is a powerful, smooth-fielding first baseman, a Californian, a Mexican-American and one of the game's more community-minded players.

"He's really been a dream come true since he arrived," Kasten said.

The Dodgers were not shy about taking advantage of Gonzalez's bicultural roots over the winter. Gonzalez, who was born in the United States to Mexican parents, grew up in Tijuana and San Diego, playing on both sides of the border. He is perfectly bilingual in English and Spanish. No Dodgers player made more public appearances this winter than Gonzalez, who often had to drive 100 miles north from La Jolla. He dedicated a field in Tijuana. He handed out Christmas toys to kids in East L.A. He was at the Dodgers' holiday party at the stadium. He appeared at a fundraiser for a group that raises cancer awareness in Spanish-speaking communities.

"I've only seen that level of excitement and connection with the fans in events I've done with Fernando [Valenzuela]," Dodgers publicist Yvonne Carrasco said. "He brought that kind of excitement everywhere we went."

The excitement level might never reach the pitch of Fernandomania in the 1980s, but the man who lived that senses something like it could be building with Gonzalez and, perhaps, third baseman Luis Cruz, a native of northern Mexico.

"When he came to the plate after that trade, I was so excited, because the people, the fans, were cheering so much," Valenzuela said. "I think they're receiving him pretty good and I think it's going to be great for all the Latins and Mexicans living in Los Angeles.

"It's going to be good, not only for the team but for the community." There is only the faintest sliver of connection between the two Dodgers icons. Fernando remembers facing Gonzalez a couple of times as his career was winding down in the Mexican league and Gonzalez was an up-and-coming youngster.

"I can't remember what happened. I'm pretty sure he got a hit," Fernando said.

When Efren Navarro was growing up in Lynwood, he made the short trip to Dodger Stadium and intrepidly asked for Raul Mondesi's signature. "I was so excited. My first autograph," said the Los Angeles Angels first baseman, a teammate of Gonzalez's on the Mexican World Baseball Classic team. Navarro grew up hearing about Valenzuela from his parents, but he was 4 years old when the pitcher left the Dodgers. For a younger generation of Mexican-American baseball fans in Los Angeles, there hasn't been a Mexican star to root for until now.

Gonzalez said he has always reached out to the community. He did less in Boston during the winter, because he couldn't just motor up the freeway to get there.

"We just enjoy giving back," Gonzalez said. "The fact that L.A. has such a big Mexican-American community, it always helps when people have a connection with you."

It's a connection that was carefully planned and could be mutually beneficial.