By Ross Newhan, Special to The LA Times
The gentleman from Cuba sits on a padded bridge chair in the shade of a dugout on a distant diamond at the Angels’ training complex, watching some of the organization’s best young players take infield and batting practice.
The gentleman understands their dreams. He was once the youngest player in the major leagues. Now, soon to be 82, he is in his 61st spring in professional baseball, the last 24 years with the Angels as a coach and counselor.
His official title is special assistant to General Manager Bill Stoneman, but Preston Gomez is more than that.
He is confidant and mentor to Manager Mike Scioscia.
He is a liaison from Scioscia and Stoneman to the club’s impressive group of Latino and other stars.
He is an ongoing and influential voice of reason in the club’s decision-making process, and, as Scioscia also put it:
He is a “storehouse of baseball knowledge capable of cutting through any debate.”
“I’m here for Mike, the coaches and players,” the gentleman said. “Sometimes people may not like what I say, but I’m going to express my mind.”
Why not? He was a player, manager and coach at all levels in all seasons. Few have a larger storehouse. The gentleman talks, people listen.
That’s the way it is in the morning staff meetings conducted by Scioscia and Stoneman during spring training ó or any other meeting at any other time, and that should not be a surprise.
The gentleman has never hesitated to express his mind ó in an even larger arena.
How many times has he tried to reason with Cuban baseball officials regarding the restrictive regime in his homeland?
How many times has he asked them for the opportunity to discuss the subject with Fidel Castro, only to be restricted to brief baseball chats with the Cuban leader, who is said to be quite a fan of the game.
It may not be shuttle diplomacy, but the gentleman will make the commute any time he is invited ó no longer a 21-year-old shortstop from the Havana Sugar Kings on his way to the major leagues, but aware still of the way it once was in his island home and passionately confident it could be again.
“It’s the one thing I want to see before I die, not only for Cuban players but for the people who have suffered so,” the gentleman said. “It hurts to see what Cuba is now.”
More than 27% of players on opening-day rosters in the major leagues last year were born outside the mainland U.S., as were more than 47% of minor league players.
The Caribbean hotbeds ó the Dominican Republic, Venezuela and Puerto Rico ó contributed the largest numbers, but that was not always the case.
Long before the Dominican’s emergence, Cuba provided a mother lode of baseball talent. The renowned Dolph Luque and Mike Gonzalez put it on the major league map in the second decade of the last century, and by the time Gomez went directly from Havana to the Washington Senators’ infield in 1944, that team already had four other Cuban players, all signed by Havana-based Joe Cambria, a scouting legend.
The subsequent parade of outstanding Cuban players included Camilo Pascual, Pedro Ramos, Minnie Minoso, Cookie Rojas, Mike Cuellar, Luis Tiant, Zoilo Versalles, Tony Perez and Tony Oliva.
The revolutionary takeover by Castro in 1959 and his ensuing lockdown eventually reduced the parade to a trickle of players willing to defect ó a dangerous act that risked reprisals for relatives remaining in Cuba and generated the possibility that the defecting player would never be able to return or see his family again.
Gomez hadn’t defected. He left to play in the big leagues when Cuba was an open door through which he could go and come at will.
That suddenly changed.
Between 1959 and 1969, he was prevented from returning.
A brother, Rafael, spent 14 years as a political prisoner before Gomez, working delicate channels, was able to get Rafael, his parents and two sisters to the U.S.
Another brother, Jose, still lives in Cuba, residing with 15 other family members in an apartment designed for six, Gomez said.
In a baseball context, some diplomatic doors have been opened over time, and the respected Gomez has been given the opportunity to return occasionally.
Provided the right spot and right official, he has quietly pleaded his case for an end to the repression.
Use baseball, he argues, as a way to regenerate, spiritually and economically.
“In almost every case,” he said, “the players who defect want to come back and live in their homeland, play in their homeland, during the winter.
“If the Hernandez brothers [Orlando and Livan] were allowed to pitch against each other in Havana during the winter, 50,000 people would be there. Baseball should be a resource in Cuba. Instead, players are finding ways to leave, and Cuba gets nothing in return. I remember Walter O’Malley always telling me that Havana would be the first city outside the U.S. to get a major league team. It can’t be the first now, but all of the potential is still there.”
He referred to the passion, population, proximity to the U.S. and weather.
Open the island, Gomez predicted, and soon there will be as many academies in Cuba as there are in the Dominican and Venezuela.
“Within 10 years,” he said, “there would be more Cubans in the big leagues than Dominicans or players from any other country.
“Look how many Cubans are in the big leagues now despite what they have to go through to get there. It’s just a shame.”
The gentleman was a long way from elder statesman in 1944.
He was 21, a major league shortstop with a seemingly bright future, but he appeared in only eight games before being sent to the minors that first year, and that was the extent of his big-league playing career.
“I really wasn’t ready,” he said, “and when all of the U.S. players returned at the end of the war, there were fewer opportunities. I was a good fielder with a strong arm, but I never learned how to hit until it was too late. I had a little power and made the mistake of thinking I had a lot of power. That wasn’t the way I needed to hit.”
Good field, little hit, great insight.
Gomez’s passion and intelligence attracted more attention than his talent.
He managed in the Mexican Winter League and was offered a minor league coaching opportunity by the Dodgers.
Ultimately, Buzzie Bavasi would take him to San Diego as the first manager of the expansion and financially challenged Padres ó “there were many times I was told not to cash my check for two or three days,” Gomez said ó and when that no-win situation expired after three-plus seasons, he would have managing opportunities with the Houston Astros and Chicago Cubs.
Before, after and in between, he studied under Branch Rickey, among others, and coached under the likes of Walter Alston and Tom Lasorda in Los Angeles, Red Schoendienst in St. Louis and Gene Mauch in Anaheim.
“They all had special skills, but to me, Alston was the best,” Gomez said. “He was great with pitching, the same consistent person every day, and he had the respect of the players. No one challenged Walt.”
No one challenges Scioscia or they end up with a one-way ticket aboard the Guillen express.
“I see a lot of Alston in Mike,” Gomez said. “He has the same good head that Alston did, he keeps everyone involved, he obviously controls the team in the clubhouse with the support of management, he never gets too high or low and he never says ‘I.’
“It’s always ‘we.’ It’s always about the team.”
Up until two years ago, when a herniated disk required surgery, Gomez made every trip with the Angels, another resource for Scioscia and conduit to the players.
Just recently, the manager, picking up vibes that Francisco Rodriguez was voicing clubhouse displeasure with his contract, asked Gomez to have a talk with the anointed closer.
“Francisco is a great kid with a great future,” Gomez said. “He didn’t need a lecture, only to be reminded that the money will be there in time, that his focus needs to be on his job and not the contract. He understands that.
“He understands the club is showing the same confidence in him that it did in Troy Percival when Percival replaced Lee Smith as the closer and he’s grateful for the help Percival gave him in preparing for the job. There’s no problem. He’ll be fine.”
Said Scioscia: “The fact that Preston has a special bond with our Latin players is strictly a side benefit. Basically, he’s all about baseball and connects with everyone. He’s helped all of us with his vision and perspective.”
Staying involved, said the gentleman from Cuba, has helped keep him young, has helped keep time on his side.
Maybe he will still see the open homeland that is a large part of his vision.