Gio Dons the Red Jacket
This past weekend, The Masters was played, as it is every April, at Augusta National. When Bubba Watson sunk his par put on the first playoff hole to seal his victory and went to retrieve the ball, he broke down in tears of joy. It is considered one of the greatest feats in sports when a player wins The Masters, and he is rewarded with its symbolic trophy, a green jacket that the past year’s winner helps the winner put on in the post-tournament ceremony.
There was a moment on Thursday, as the Nationals opened their home season in Washington D.C. with an extra-inning, walk-off win over the Cincinnati Reds, in which a Nationals player caught a bit of that same pure emotion that only sports can offer. It was not the two-run single by Adam LaRoche that broke open a scoreless tie in the fifth inning. It was not the franchise player, Ryan Zimmerman, sliding across home plate with the winning run after a wild pitch in the 10th frame. No, it was a simple, one-out single to left field by Gio Gonzalez, his first Major League hit, that drew not only pure joy from the athlete himself, but a standing ovation from the sold out crowd of 40,907 at Nationals Park.
Gonzalez had only a select handful of at-bats at the big league level prior to 2012, having spent his entire career in the American League. He had claimed in Spring Training that all he wanted was to get that first hit, to get one out of the way so that he didn’t have to worry about it. Fast-forward to Game 2 of the season at Wrigley Field, where he took a rip at a fastball from Matt Garza, sending it deep towards the right-center field gap. The solid contact surprised everyone, Gonzalez included, but the ball hung up long enough for former National Marlon Byrd to track it down before it landed.
And so, here he stepped into the batters box in his first home start, after grounding out to shortstop in his first at-bat. Now in the fifth inning, this would likely be his final plate appearance of the afternoon. He got a fastball from Mat Latos and put a good swing on it, certainly a better cut than one might have expected, given his short batting history, but one that reflected his at-bat from Chicago five days earlier. This ball hung up as well, but got down just in time between Reds left fielder Ryan Ludwick and the left field line.
As Gonzalez ran to first, he watched the ball the whole way. As it finally fell to the grass, he whipped his head towards the Nationals dugout, mouth open in an ecstatic, toothy grin. After he rounded first, he walked back to the bag with his head tilted back skywards, an expression of relief, yes, but more so pure happiness. As the bat boy returned the ball to the dugout for safekeeping, he also retrieved the pitcher’s big red jacket, to help keep the hurlers arm warm through the rest of his sparkling home debut.
“Big smile, big smile,” he laughed.
Gonzalez gave credit to his father, with whom the pitcher worked in the offseason to get his swing back in shape, but admitted he still has a long way to go.
“I’m not going to say I’m a great hitter or anything like that…I’m just happy to get the first one out of the way.”
While the pomp and circumstance of the green jacket carries much more prestige, you would be hard-pressed to find anyone as happy as Gio Gonzalez to be wearing that red Nationals jacket at first base on Thursday afternoon.