Tooning Up For the Big Leagues

By IAN WILSON

From Saskatchewan to Seattle, Marco Gonzales always managed to take his game to the next level.

The 28-year-old is one of the more notable alumni of the Western Canadian Baseball League (WCBL), and after signing a four-year, $30-million contract extension with the Mariners this year, the reliable left-handed pitcher should be memorable to those who follow the summer collegiate circuit.

Gonzales was a diamond dynamo long before he toed the rubber in Canada. He turned heads at Rocky Mountain High School in Fort Collins, Colorado, where he posted an immaculate 11-0 record and a 2.20 earned run average (ERA) in his senior year. As a result, Gonzales was named the state’s best high school baseball player. The Colorado Rockies took notice and drafted him in the 29th round of the Major League Baseball (MLB) draft in 2010, but the southpaw opted to play for Gonzaga University instead.

That decision ultimately led Gonzales north of the border. Upon completion of a season that saw him split West Coast Conference Player of the Year and Freshman of the Year honours with Kris Bryant, the two-way threat was looking for a place to play during the summer.

Gonzales had already logged 105 innings and 110 at bats for the Bulldogs in 2011, so a heavy workload was not high on the priority list.

FATHER KNOWS BEST

After talking to his dad, Frank Gonzales, he considered his options. The senior Gonzales, who coached Marco through high school, spent part of the 1997 season playing for the Calgary Cannons of the Pacific Coast League.

“It’s a great city,” Frank said of Calgary. “I have always been a fan of Canada … Calgary and Denver are very similar.”

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1997 baseball card of Frank Gonzales with the Calgary Cannons

When his time with the Cannons came to an end, Frank ended up pitching for the Elmira Pioneers of the independent Northeast League in New York State. That’s where he met and became pals with the team’s director of recruiting, Rye Pothakos.

“He’s been a life-long friend,” Frank told Alberta Dugout Stories of Pothakos.

Fast forward to 2011, when Pothakos was handling recruiting duties for the Saskatoon Yellow Jackets of the Western Major Baseball League (WMBL), the predecessor of the WCBL.

“Marco had thrown lots of inning and was slated to go to the Cape Cod League, but it was time for a break and less innings,” said Frank.

“So, we all came to Saskatoon. Rye, of course, opened his home for the summer. It was an awesome experience … we spent a couple months living with Rye and his family. My wife, Gina, visited and we had a great time.”

Frank and Pothakos coached the Yellow Jackets, while Marco pitched and played first base. Marco’s younger brother, Alex, served as the team’s bat boy.

PITCHING TO CONTACT

Marco was just starting to show what he could do at the college level, and while he played just over half of the WMBL season in 2011, there was no mistaking the talent he possessed.

When he joined the Yellow Jackets in mid-June, the 6-foot-1, 185-pound player was not an imposing physical presence, nor was he a power pitcher with a devastating fastball.

“Marco was not the classic, big-bodied intimidating presence that you see with many pitchers who end up pitching at the next level. Marco’s delivery was free and methodical, to the point where he looked like he wasn’t really putting much effort into it. I recall watching him and thinking, ‘It doesn’t even look like he is trying,'” said Yellow Jacket teammate Steven Latos, who grew up in Lloydminster and got to know Pothakos through the Team Saskatchewan baseball program.

“The thing that made Marco so successful was his ability to command all of his pitches and throw each of them for strikes at any count. I recall his changeup being the ‘go to’ pitch to get himself out of jams, as he could either spot it on the corner or get it to dive out of the strike zone. Throwing from the left side, it seemed that everything he threw had some sort of movement on it. While he would tend to pitch to contact, it was pretty rare for someone to square him up. His fastball never lit up the radar gun, but his ability to throw consistent strikes with his off-speed made his fastball sneaky fast.”

On the mound, Gonzales made three starts and appeared in seven games for Saskatoon. He never surrendered more than four hits or two earned runs in any of his WMBL outings and his stats from that summer were stellar: 25.1 innings pitched, 2-2 record, one save, 29 strikeouts and a 1.06 ERA.

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2018 Topps baseball card of Marco Gonzales

One particular pitching performance stands out for Latos – a tough-luck loss to the powerhouse Okotoks Dawgs, who went 34-12 in the regular season that year. Gonzales pitched six innings, allowing three hits and a walk while punching out eight batters. The only run he allowed in the 2-0 loss was unearned.

“That really showed he was on a different level than the rest of us,” said Latos, who now works as a lawyer in Calgary and suits up in the senior men’s Foothills Major Baseball Association with the Giants.

“Okotoks was the class of the league. We rolled into Seaman Stadium with a pretty dismal record. Marco went out and made the Dawgs look extremely average … it was pretty clear following that game that he was a class above.”

Gonzales also hit one of his two WMBL home runs during that mid-July series against the Dawgs.

IMPACT PLAYER

The impressive feats were not limited to his work on the mound, according to Pothakos.

“The entire time Marco was in Saskatoon … great memories,” said Pothakos, who is the manager of the Greek National Baseball Team and the director of recruiting for the Regina Red Sox.

“Each game, either on offence or on the bump, Marco amazed everyone. Each and every game he did something that stood out.”

In getting a close look at Gonzales, Pothakos witnessed a quality player with a “compete level second to none.”

His numbers at the plate tell the same story. During 25 games and 92 at bats, Gonzales batted .326 with 14 runs, 15 RBI, eight doubles and seven stolen bases.

“Much like he was on the mound, Marco didn’t look like an intimidating threat at the plate. That said, he had a lot of pop in his bat and was able to drive the ball,” said Latos.

“Marco didn’t swing and miss a whole lot. Strikeouts were rare. It was pretty impressive to watch him excel both on the mound and at the plate … if you didn’t know him, based on his fielding and hitting, you’d assume he wasn’t a pitcher.”

Latos, who played four summers in Saskatoon, also remembered Gonzales as a solid teammate.

“Marco was a pretty reserved guy who went about his business at the park. Despite everyone knowing he was probably the best player at the park, he didn’t carry himself that way. He just quietly did his job,” Latos told Alberta Dugout Stories.

“I do recall him trying to help me develop a better changeup, which ended up being a lost cause. Away from the diamond, I also remember him hanging out with the boys at the local watering holes and being a pretty social guy.”

IN THE CARDS

Gonzales was named a first-team WMBL All-Star at the end of the season, and from there it was back to NCAA Division 1 competition with the Gonzaga Bulldogs. He went a combined 15-5 with 188 Ks through 198.2 innings while improving as a hitter in his sophomore and junior years.  In 2012, the Cape Cod League and the U.S. collegiate national team both came calling and Gonzales impressed in both settings.

By 2013, his resume included championships, most-valuable player honours and a John Olerud Award, which is given annually to the best two-way player in college baseball. The St. Louis Cardinals responded by making Gonzales a first-round, 19th overall selection in the MLB draft.

The tenacious hurler rapidly climbed the minor-league ranks, making his MLB debut with the Cardinals on June 25, 2014 at a familiar venue. Gonzales took the mound for five innings at Coors Field against the Colorado Rockies, the organization that employed his father as a minor-league pitching coach, in front of dozens of family and friends.

Looking back to Marco’s time in Saskatoon, Frank said he thought his son had the tools to go far in baseball – even back then – but his path to the majors was not a sure thing.

“I knew he would make a professional impact, but there’s no guarantees. You have to find your way. You have to separate yourself and become a big leaguer. He has done that,” said the pitching coach of the Double-A Hartford Yard Goats.

Gonzales missed the 2016 season after undergoing Tommy John surgery on his left elbow, and he was dealt to the Mariners in exchange for Burnaby, B.C. native Tyler O’Neill on July 21, 2017.

MAKING IT AS A MARINER

In Seattle, he established himself as a regular in the starting rotation, going 13-9 with 145 strikeouts and a 4.00 ERA in 2018. Last year, Gonzales took over from Felix Hernandez as the Opening Day starter for the Mariners and put in a second consecutive season of consistently solid pitching in Seattle, registering a 16-13 record, a 3.99 ERA and 147 Ks through 203 innings.

That prompted M’s general manager Jerry Dipoto to lock Gonzales up through 2024 (with an option for the 2025 campaign).

“We’ve found our home,” Gonzales told reporters at a press conference announcing his new contract in February.

The MLB success experienced by the former WMBL star is no surprise to his former Yellow Jackets coach.

“I’m not shocked at all,” said Pothakos.

“If there were a next level, Marco would find a way to win there as well. He is very savvy, intelligent and competes like nobody else I have seen.”

Latos, however, said his ex-teammate has exceeded his expectations.

“Back in 2011, if you would have told me that Marco was going to have the career he has had so far, I likely wouldn’t have believed you. Nothing against him or his talents, you just don’t see a lot of smaller guys have the sort of success he has enjoyed,” said Latos.

“That said, it was obvious to me that if anyone was going to make it, it was going to be Marco … I think it is a big testament to his character that he has identified what he needs to do to be successful.”

CATCHING UP

Marco’s brother, Alex, was hoping for a return to Saskatchewan this summer. The catcher, a senior at Metropolitan State University of Denver, was looking to upgrade from bat boy in Saskatoon to backstop with the Regina Red Sox.

But the cancellation of the WCBL season put an end to that plan.

Here’s hoping the recently announced 2020 MLB season does not meet the same fate.

Frank, meanwhile, is proud to see both of his sons excel at the game.

“It’s very humbling and exhausting,” he said. “There’s a lot of baseball in our family. I’m just glad Gina is a huge fan of her boys.”

Judging from their ex-teammates and coaches, she’s not the only one.

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