Withhold judgment on Gonzalez

There may be truth in contention his link to PEDs through Biogenesis may be tenuous

Gio Gonzalez was 20 when I watched him pitch for the first time. He was at the Phillies' complex in Clearwater, Fla., and it didn't take long to see why Pat Gillick had insisted on him when the White Sox traded for Jim Thome.

You don't have to be a scout to see a hitter with tremendous bat speed, and by the same token it's pretty obvious when a guy has off-the-charts arm speed. That was my first take on the Nationals' 21-game winner, and it came seven years ago.

He could really throw the ball — fastballs in the low- to mid-90s and a tight curveball. He also was built like a whippet. The guy he immediately reminded me of was the guy who was known as Gator to his Yankee teammates, Ron Guidry.

The year Guidry turned 27, he had one of the best seasons a modern pitcher has had — 25-3 with a 1.74 ERA. He had everything you would want from a pitcher, except durability. He never made 30-plus starts in three consecutive seasons during his 14-year career. Should we blame a guy cut from the same cloth for trying to preserve himself a little better?

Gonzalez, one of four starting pitchers for Team USA in the World Baseball Classic, was tied to Anthony Bosch's Biogenesis Clinic in Miami, like many players who live in South Florida, including many who share the same agents as Gonzalez, the Levinson brothers.

When the Miami New Times came out with its initial report on Bosch, Gonzalez said his father was a client, not him. He maintained that stance when he reported to the Nationals' camp in Florida, saying Max Gonzalez was a patient at Bosch's anti-aging clinic.

Nationals manager Davey Johnson hasn't wavered in putting his faith in Gonzalez.

"Knowing Gio, I figured there's nothing much to it," Johnson said last spring. "I got to know him real well. I know that he is very conscious of taking care of himself. I know all pitchers are looking for vitamins and whatever they can to help, but he takes care of himself very well. I'm sure he wouldn't do anything to break the rules."

ESPN reported last week that Gonzalez is the one player who has been linked to Biogenesis who was not buying products Major League Baseball has banned. He may have been just trying to keep himself in shape to extend his career, not gain some chemical zip on his fastball.

It's going to be interesting to see how WBC fans react to Gonzalez and Team USA anchor Ryan Braun, the Brewers' slugger who has been identified as a Biogenesis client on the heels of his positive steroid test in the 2011 playoffs.

Braun avoided a suspension with an attack on the handling of his urine sample. While he is supported strongly in Milwaukee, he has not escaped the court of public opinion. His claims about a potentially tainted or tampered sample do not hold up with experts who know the ins and outs of testing, and now it's hard to believe that his contact with Biogenesis was only to help prepare his suspension case.

But union leader Michael Weiner makes a valid point when he urges reporters not to jump to conclusions about the Biogenesis clinic. Three players on records published by the New Times and other sites (Melky Cabrera, Bartolo Colon and Yasmani Grandal) have been suspended for PEDs, but players make their own individual choices.

Like any other boundary, there's a segment of society that will tiptoe up to it and not cross and the more reckless types, who hope they won't get caught.

Gonzalez reported Friday that urine and blood samples he submitted to MLB two days after the Miami New Times report came back negative for PEDs, adding that he knew they would. He and Braun will have a lot to talk about when Team USA gets together in early March.

Secret weapon: It's going to take a while to get used to the sight of the new Dodgers' hitting coach. Mark McGwire has moved from St. Louis to Los Angeles, becoming the 11th hitting coach in 16 years for broadcaster Vin Scully to talk about.

Dave Hansen was a scapegoat after a glittering lineup crashed in the second half last season, contributing to the Dodgers finishing 13th in the National League in scoring. McGwire was attracted to the job because he can spend most of the year near his lifelong home in Orange County.

McGwire clicked right away with manager Don Mattingly, who was on the Dodgers' long list of hitting coaches before he became a manager.

"It takes a while to build trust with (hitters)," Mattingly told MLB.com. "But I knew right away when I talked to him. You watch St. Louis' approach, that tells you something. The way their young guys improved tells you something. And (catcher A.J. Ellis) saying they're tough as the game goes on tells you something. It all goes back to him."

McGwire said he works more with hitter's heads than mechanics.

"There's so much failure and negativity that it's all about positive reinforcement, about the mental side of the game,'' he said. "You can do mechanics and the physical all you want, but it's about a game plan and watching what's happening. … It's a beautiful thing to watch them think and use their head rather than be mechanical.''

Double-barrel action: Keep your eye on Team Italy in the WBC. You just might see the only ambidextrous pitcher in professional baseball, Pat Venditte.

A long-time minor leaguer in the Yankee system, the 27-year-old Venditte has climbed to the door of the big leagues without getting a look. He missed most of last season with an injury to his right shoulder, which eventually required surgery. It was a bit of a surprise that he was cleared to pitch for Italy but he's listed on the final roster, which was released last week.

Venditte has longed for a chance to show that he can compete at the highest level. Italy is in the Arizona pool, where it will face the United States, Canada and Mexico.

progers@tribune.com

Twitter @ChiTribRogers

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