June 14, 2012
By Brian Rice
ATLANTA - In the fall of 1987, Fredi Gonzalez had a decision to make: Prepare for a seventh year in minor league baseball, still pursuing the dream of making the Major Leagues as a player, or hang up his spikes and take a job as a student assistant coach at the University of Tennessee.
Now in his second season as the manager of the Atlanta Braves, Gonzalez still has fond memories of his days in Knoxville and the career path that his stop at Tennessee led him down.
A native of Cuba, Gonzalez grew up in Miami and was drafted by the New York Yankees out of Miami Southridge High School in the 16th round of the 1982 Major League Baseball Draft. He then spent the next six seasons toiling in the minors, primarily for Single-A clubs in Greensboro, N.C. and Fort Lauderdale, Fla. , although he did have two stints with Double-A Albany in 1986 and 1987.
As the 1987 season came to a close, Mark Connor, who had been a coach in the Yankees' farm system before being elevated to the pitching coach at the Major League level, approached Gonzalez with an offer to join him on his new staff at Tennessee.
"He had a chance to go back to the Yankees as pitching coach," Gonzalez said of Connor. "He had a real young family, lived in Knoxville, still lives in Knoxville. He saw me play a couple years as the pitching coach, I was a catcher there, and he asked me `Are you ready to start your coaching career?'"
Connor's offer was for Gonzalez to work on his four-year degree while getting a start in coaching. The trade-off was giving up the dream of reaching the Majors as a player, something the career .199 hitter decided was the best thing for him and his family.
"I said I could probably hang out a couple more years in the minor leagues," Gonzalez said, recalling his feeling on his playing career. "It was probably time for me to start getting into coaching and what a great decision, not knowing what was going to happen in the future."
THE NEXT STEP
In two seasons, Connor and the Volunteers went 44-65, but the experience proved to be valuable for Gonzalez. When Connor departed after the 1989 season to return to the Yankees, Gonzalez found a job as manager for the Single-A Miami Miracle of the Florida State League.
After one season back in Miami, he then took over the Single-A Erie (Pa.) Sailors in 1992, a position that led to his rise as a manager in the Florida Marlins organization, when the team signed Erie as its first Minor League affiliate later that year. He would manage at all levels of the Marlins farm system until being named third base coach for the parent club in 1999.
"I was lucky really, managing the minor leagues all my career there," Gonzalez said.
Gonzalez moved to the Atlanta Braves organization in 2002, spending one season as the manager at Triple-A Richmond, before moving up to Atlanta in 2003 as third base coach.
Following the 2006 season, the Marlins brought Gonzalez back to the city where he grew up, giving him his first opportunity to manage in Major League Baseball.
After a 71-91 record in his first season, Gonzalez led the Marlins to just their fifth winning record in 2008 (84-77), and backed it up with an 87-75 mark in 2009, just the second time in franchise history that Florida had recorded back-to-back winning seasons. He would leave the Marlins after a 34-36 start to the 2010 season, but it later proved to be a move that would open up the door for another homecoming.
Braves manager Bobby Cox announced prior to the 2010 season that it would be his last in the Atlanta dugout. Two days after Cox's final game with the Braves, Gonzales was tabbed to replace his mentor.
"I had a chance to coach third base the first time around and coach here under Bobby Cox for four years and always wanted a chance in the major leagues," Gonzales said. "And here I am, I got two opportunities, first with Florida, and now with the great organization of the Atlanta Braves.
"You feel very fortunate and very lucky because there are a lot of people who are better coaches and better managers than I ever will be and have never gotten that opportunity."
Take even a brief look around Gonzalez' office just off the clubhouse at Turner Field, and the influence of Cox is present all around, from the large "6" that hangs over his desk, honoring the retired number that Cox wore, to framed photographs from their years together.
The physical reminders of his mentor aren't the only elements from Cox's tenure that Gonzalez has tried to uphold in Atlanta though. Much like Tennessee head coach Dave Serrano has with the Volunteers, Gonzalez says the way the players carry themselves on the field is a key element to success.
"There is a right way to play the game of baseball and you know I think sometimes TV makes it hard because of all the highlights," he said. "Everybody thinks baseball is about highlights instead of making the regular fundamental plays and making the routine outs and not having to worry about those jump throws from shortstop, and all those over the wall catches.
"I think the fans appreciate if you hit a ground ball to shortstop or second base and you run all you can to first base. You know you can lay your head tonight on the pillow and say `We lost today but our team played hard.' You can bring effort every single day to the ballpark, you know the three-run homer, nine-inning complete game shutout does not come often, or sometimes at all, but the effort and the ability to play the game the right way, you can bring that every single day."
Even with his successes at all levels of professional baseball, Gonzalez still reflects fondly on his time with the Volunteers.
"It was a nice start in my career as a coach at Tennessee," he said. "There are a lot of fun memories of my two years there. My daughter was born there in St. Mary's Hospital and I still have great friends there in the Knoxville area and I go there at least once a year to visit.
"I keep going back to the University and I think another building has popped up. I talked to (longtime UT Football Equipment Manager) Roger Frazier just two days ago and he's telling me they're getting ready to move into a new building, a new indoor facility. I said I was there when they were building a brand new one, it was beautiful, I can't believe they're doing away with it and he said `Fredi that's been 20 years ago.'"