For Adrian Gonzalez, playing for Mexico is like coming home

Barry Gossage/WBCI/MLB Photos/Getty Images

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- When his first plate appearance of the spring finally came, Adrian Gonzalez watched his bat splinter into pieces as the fastball he was looking for arrived as a changeup.

A broken bat never felt so good for the Los Angeles Dodgers first baseman. It signaled that he was past the elbow inflammation that had threatened his spring plans. His elbow held up just fine.

While Gonzalez has thrived playing for one of major league baseball's iconic franchises, what stirs his soul can now be emblazoned on the front of his jersey: M-E-X-I-C-O.

Gonzalez could give back to the country with camps and appearances while focusing on the season ahead with the Dodgers, but he will have none of that. In fact, he wonders why more players don't jump at the opportunity to play for their country in the WBC, where passion for the game is strong.

"I just don't see why you wouldn't want to represent your country. I don't get that part of it," Gonzalez says. "You can be half-assing it in spring training, or you can be playing meaningful games.

"I guess people just enjoy their routine and comfort of not having to compete at that time of the year, so they don't do it. But I don't see why you wouldn't want to do it."

So while most major leaguers will be working in the hot sun of Florida or Arizona, Gonzalez will take the trip to Guadalajara, Mexico, for WBC pool games against Venezuela, Puerto Rico and Italy.

For a major league star who has become a fixture in the American spotlight of October baseball, representing Mexico on the field in March is the piece that makes Gonzalez's time in the game complete.

"It definitely fulfills you," he says.

GONZALEZ'S APPRECIATION FOR his life in the United States and his devotion to his Mexican culture began with a somewhat nomadic childhood spent on both sides of the border.

Gonzalez's father, David, started his family in the United States, even though he owned an air conditioner business just south of the border. Adrian was born in San Diego, as the third of three boys, and spent his first year in the border town of San Ysidro, the southernmost stop on the trolley, before the family moved to Tijuana. There, the Gonzalez boys were immersed in Mexican culture while continuing a family tradition with baseball.

At age 13, Adrian moved back to the United States with his family. He became a star at Eastlake High School in Chula Vista, batting .566 as a junior and .645 as a senior with 13 home runs.

In 2000, he was the first overall selection in the MLB draft by the Florida Marlins.

Since his 2004 debut, Gonzalez has made five All-Star teams and is in year six of a $154 million contract that will keep him in Dodger blue for at least two more seasons.

As his major league profile has soared, his connections to Mexico have helped keep him grounded. And the people of Mexico have taken notice.

Asked of Adrian's place among the most popular athletes in Mexico, Kundy Gutierrez, the general manager of Team Mexico, does not hesitate.

"I would say he is the top one," Gutierrez says. "It doesn't matter soccer, baseball. Right now he is probably the best known and even combining some of the top soccer players, he is one of the most recognized players."

Yet the adoration for Gonzalez is not just a product of Gold Glove Awards and statistics on the back of his baseball card.

"The people that know Adrian know that instead of a major league athlete, he is an amazing person," says Guillermo Ramirez, the director of Mexico baseball's organizing committee. "He works with the children to promote baseball in Mexico. Remember Mexico is soccer, it's all soccer in the whole country, so he wants to work with baseball, and he's doing a great job with that."

Gonzalez's tireless promotion of the sport in his home country and his participation on the team is what Team Mexico officials believe convinced the WBC to put qualifiers in their country this year.

"I put myself in the shoes of when I'm watching the World Cup and I'm rooting for Mexico ... When Team Mexico scores a goal, I'm celebrating, cheering and having a good time with it. I feel like if we do well to score a run, or take the lead, somebody somewhere in the world is doing the same thing."
Adrian Gonzalez on playing in the World Baseball Classic

"He was very, very helpful to get the WBC to come to Mexico," Ramirez says. "To people [in Mexico], it feels like that because they know he is one of the highest-paid athletes in the whole country and even [beyond] that, the people know he is a good person. The people recognize, and they appreciate that."

Gonzalez has represented Mexico in the WBC in all three of the event's previous incarnations. He calls it as good as a baseball atmosphere gets.

"When you go play in the WBC, let's say you're playing against the Dominican and the Dominican fans have their own cheering style," Gonzalez says. "You're playing against Japan, Japan has their own cheering style. You get all these cultures that mix into one atmosphere."

And that says nothing about the cutthroat tournament schedule where each game, inning and pitch has an energy that matchups in a 162-game major league season can't equal.

"I put myself in the shoes of when I'm watching the World Cup and I'm rooting for Mexico," Gonzalez says. "I feel like somebody else is out there doing the same thing for us. When Team Mexico scores a goal, I'm celebrating, cheering and having a good time with it. I feel like if we do well to score a run, or take the lead, somebody somewhere in the world is doing the same thing and that's what you want to do."

That swell of pride in representing the country of your ancestors is what Gonzalez relays to the newest members of Team Mexico, like top Dodgers outfield prospect Alex Verdugo.

"When you get there you're going to love it," Gonzalez says. "Just the atmosphere, the people, the fans, everything that comes with it is something you'll never experience in the U.S., even if you play in the playoffs. I would say it's even better than a playoff atmosphere. It's fun, it's exciting, and you love it."

ASIDE FROM PLAYING for his country, Adrian also gets to play for his brother. Now Mexico's manager, Edgar Gonzalez had a two-year playing stint with the Padres, batting .274 with a .329 on-base percentage over 111 games in 2008 as a teammate of Adrian's.

The sibling arrangement was tested to great success in WBC qualifying games last year in Mexicali, Mexico. The Gonzalez brothers helped Mexico dominate Nicaragua, Czech Republic and Germany. Mexico won all three of its games by a combined score of 25-2.

"During the pre-Classic I already gave myself a chance to appreciate it," Edgar says. "There are times that you look back and see that and really enjoy the blessing of being able to work with my brother like this."

Yet despite his experience in three previous WBCs, Adrian Gonzalez will not meddle in the manager's business, even if that manager is a rookie to the proceedings, and he's family.

"I'm a very focused player in the sense that I'm not going to get involved in his coaching decisions," Adrian says. "Obviously if he comes to me and asks a question, I'm going to answer it, just like I would with anybody else. I think I treated most managers the same way. I just tried to play the game hard and help the team win. The relationship is easy: He's the manager, I'm the player, and that's how it goes."

Once teammates on the Padres for two seasons, the Gonzalez brothers will aim for success at the WBC in honor of their father David, an amateur baseball player in Mexico, who also played as a first baseman for the national team.

"You can see that with [Adrian], his brother Edgar, his father, the whole family is the same," Ramirez says. "They're amazing people. And the people of Mexico feel that. They really, really want that."

Gonzalez is stoic when asked about his role in growing baseball in Mexico. He does not play there, after all, so he must inspire from afar.

"I think that everybody who is a baseball player has a part in being responsible for that," Gonzalez says. "All we can do is to play the game that we know how to play, play it right and hopefully people will catch on."

Gonzalez might play in Los Angeles now and spend most of his year in the United States, but Mexico will always be in his heart. He says he is fortunate to be playing in the era of the WBC with a chance to represent Mexico on the world stage. Making himself available for Team Mexico has never been a difficult decision.

"I grew up representing Mexico my whole life," he says. "I don't think there wasn't a moment when I didn't feel Mexican, so it's easy."