A month before he joined the Orioles as the organization's new executive director of international recruiting, curiosity took Fred Ferreira to the Mexican coastal city of Mazatlan.
With more than 40 years of experience scouring for international talent, Ferreira has uncovered many diamonds in the rough throughout Latin America. And his most recent such discovery emerged last November in the Mexican Pacific League, a world away from the intimidating cathedrals of the American League East like Yankee Stadium and Fenway Park.
Ferreira didn't need to see much to be convinced he liked this right-hander pitching for los Venados de Mazatlan. One inning and he was sold, as watched Miguel Gonzalez strike out the side on nine pitches.
"He may have pitched the inning before but I didn't know," Ferreira said. "I don't even remember his stats for the whole game. I just remember the one inning: Nine pitches, nine strikes, no foul balls or anything."
When Ferreira was hired by new executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette in December, Duquette made it clear that his top priority was adding organizational pitching depth. Ferreira made signing Gonzalez, who was released by Red Sox that month, his top international priority. Duquette said he liked that Gonzalez, now 28, advanced through three different levels of Boston's system last year.
Gonzalez's trip from the dusty fields of Mazatlan to the splendor of the major leagues — where he has emerged as one of the Orioles' most unlikely success stories in a clubhouse of many — is just one leg of a long-winding baseball journey that included injury and frustration.
"As a person I feel a lot stronger for everything I've been through," said Gonzalez, who is 6-4 with a 3.57 ERA heading into Friday night's start in Boston, against the organization that let him go nine months ago. "It just makes me realize that after all that hard work and all the ups and downs, I got the opportunity and I'm just enjoying myself right now.
"Every day I wake up and I still can't believe I'm here."
"The injuries hit him hard"
Before signing with the Orioles as a minor league free agent this spring, Gonzalez spent seven years in various minor league stops, and he came tantalizingly close to making the jump to the majors.
After his first year as a full-time starter in 2007 — Gonzalez was 8-4 with a 3.38 ERA with the Los Angeles Angels' Double-A affliliate in Arkansas — Gonzalez said he was told he'd begin the next season in Triple-A.
But he had been suffering from knee issues since he was 13, and he needed surgery to repair a torn meniscus, which kept him sidelined for all of 2008.
The folowing offseason, Gonzalez thrived in Mexican League and was selected in the Rule 5 draft by the Red Sox. That spring, he suffered a 90 percent tear in a ligament in his elbow, forcing him to undergo Tommy John surgery, which made him miss the entire 2009 season.
Gonzalez said family helped him through missing two full seasons. Gonzalez was born in Guadalajara, Mexico, but his family immigrated to the San Fernando Valley of Southern California when he was 3. Family was always a source of strength in numbers. His father, Miguel, was one of 16 siblings, and his mother, Noemi, has six brothers and sisters.
Baseball was always a constant, too. Games were usually organized by Gonzalez's uncle, Fernando Martin, and they didn't necessarily need baseballs. Tennis balls, sometimes smashed soda cans, would do, until they would break windows in the neighborhood.
"I knew he was a special kid," Martin said of Gonzalez. "He has a lot of pride. To him, it's all about his family. He'd do anything for any of us. He's a focused kid and he worked so hard to feel proud of himself, but to also make the family proud in him. … The injuries hit him hard, and I'll admit, there was some doubt in my mind whether he'd make it, but he was motivated to get back."
"He always stayed positive," said German Gonzalez, Miguel's 23-year-old brother. "It's one of his biggest qualities. He just never gave up."
"He looks a lot better now"
It took two years for Gonzalez to get his arm strength back, but now he's throwing 90-92 mph regularly, topping at 94. Confidence in his fastball has allowed him to get back to what made him successful, aggressively pitching inside and out and mixing in his offspeed pitches.
That's what impressed Ferreira that November night in Mazatlan.