06/14/2011 – Daily News Record
Speed Key For Auburn’s Gonzalez Written by John Galle Daily News Record Special Correspondent
HARRISONBURG – Jay Gonzalez, an Orlando native, once spent two hours in a barbershop chair, getting tribal designs etched all over his head. On his day off from the Valley Baseball League grind Monday, Gonzalez – a rising sophomore outfielder at Auburn University – spent about half that time at Ketell International Hair Salon on South Main Street, settling for precise, eye-catching zigs and zags on just the sides of his faux-hawk haircut.
“I’ve been doing designs in my hair since seventh grade,” said Gonzalez, who started off with a Nike swoosh. “… I don’t do it for attention or fashion. I just do it because I like to be different. I like to be creative. Change it up a little.”
Not surprisingly, the confident outfielder has managed to attract attention in the VBL for something other than his hair, most notably for six stolen bases in nine games as Harrisonburg’s speedy leadoff hitter and for a highlight-reel diving catch in shallow center field against Luray on June 9.
Gonzalez specifically made it a goal to lead the Valley League in steals in his first collegiate summer season, and he is on pace for nearly 30 thefts, which would easily top Bobby Brown’s team-leading 11 steals last year and the league record of 23 held by Mike Garza (Woodstock).
Turks coach Bob Wease quickly compared him to Juan Pierre of the Chicago White Sox, a Turks star in 1997 who ranks 26th all-time in Major League Baseball with 537 stolen bases – the most of any active player.
“He’s just really quick, but he’s still awful raw as to how to run the bases,” Wease said of Gonzalez, who is hitting .286 after a 4-for-5 performance in Sunday’s win over New Market – still a far cry from what he’s used to as a career .400 hitter in high school.
“He doesn’t get the jump that he should get, but that comes with [experience]. … He doesn’t get a good jump but his speed makes up the difference. When he learns how to really get a jump on a pitcher, he’ll never be thrown out.
“I compare him a lot to Juan Pierre. When he got here, Juan Pierre was raw, but you see how many bases he’s stole in the big leagues. [Gonzalez] is a lot like Juan. In fact, he’s basically the same kind of hitter, a little punch-and-judy type guy. A little bunt, hit one to left field… or to shortstop and beat it out. He’s that kind of ball player.”
As for the 5-foot-10, 178-pound lefty’s stylish off-the-field persona, Turks catcher and college teammate Blake Austin gave his roommate a bit of a hard time about the new look, while pointing out that he’s won side bets – in the form of dinners – with Gonzalez, throwing him out in practice more often than not at Auburn.
“He’s the pretty boy of the team at Auburn and here with the Turks, too,” Austin said with a laugh. “He says [his skin is] natural, but I think he tans – sits out by the pool.”
Kidding aside, Austin called Gonzalez a “spark player” and “hard worker,” who comes off the bench for the Tigers playing behind upperclassmen on the depth chart.
“He does everything smooth, and it looks natural for him on the field,” Austin said. “… He causes problems, man, for pitchers and catchers. You gotta keep him close and know when he’s on the bag.”
Gonzalez patterns his speed-specialized playing style on Seattle Mariners star Ichiro Suzuki and believes his legs can put him into a big-league uniform one day.
“Growing up, speed was just a big part of my game,” said Gonzalez, who has lived five minutes from Disney World and Universal Studios since moving from San Diego to Orlando at 3 or 4. “Being able to turn a walk into a double or a triple, just by having the ability to steal. … I’m a huge fan of Ichiro only because he’s one of the few players in the major leagues that understands and knows his game and doesn’t try to do too much.”
At Harrisonburg (7-2), currently sitting in first place in the Central division, Gonzalez will get his chances to run.
Wease, a self-proclaimed old-school coach, prefers the small ball, hit-and-run and aggressive base-running aspects of baseball, which he believes are being emphasized less and less.
Plus, it helped that Gonzalez – a 27th-round Major League Baseball draft pick after his senior year at Freedom High School in Orlando – has been officially clocked at 6.5 seconds in the 60-yard dash; he came highly recommended by Auburn assistant coach Link Jarrett, who played for Wease.
“I’d like to find nine of them,” Wease half-joked, referring to his recruiting philosophy on speedsters like Gonzalez. “… Any guy that can run and steal bases can be an x-factor on any team.”
Regardless of hairstyle.