The hum of conversation is prevalent throughout the visiting clubhouse at Miller Park in Milwaukee on this Tuesday in early May. Its occupants, the Los Angeles Dodgers, are like many baseball teams, in that the time leading up to batting practice is used primarily for relaxation. Those not immersed in small talk can easily be spotted by the glare of their iPads or iPhones. Others sit in an attached dining room pouring over the gluttonous pregame buffet – a spread also stocked with every kind of snack food, fruit and vegetable imaginable. There may be only one World Series winner each year, but all baseball players eat like champs.
Pushed flush onto two sides of a support beam in the middle of the clubhouse – one that doubles as a mount for a flat-screen television currently airing MLB TV – are two long tables, serving as a sort of de facto computer station. Five different laptops sit on the tables: Some have programs for statistical breakdowns, some for charting pitch locations and others allow for film study. These days, major league teams haul so much computer equipment on the road that a clubhouse could double as an incubator for startups.
Wedged between two coaches who simultaneously stare at their laptops is first baseman Adrian Gonzalez. Dressed as if he had just gotten out of bed, Gonzalez is donned head-to-toe in Dodgers swag – shorts, a T-shirt, high blue socks and shower shoes. The San Diego-born slugger (he lives in Los Angeles right now but says when he retires he'll move back to San Diego) is locked onto a laptop screen that shows video splits of a Brewers pitcher. Media members can't get close enough to see exactly who it is – and after learning about Gonzalez's marriage to his routine, I wouldn't even want to risk the consequence of distracting him – but it appears to be a right hander. I reasonably assume that he is looking at footage of Milwaukee's starter that day, Matt Garza. But given that Gonzalez is as driven a student of hitting as any player on the Dodgers, he could also be dissecting the tendencies of any of the Brewers' right-handed relievers, though he can't know if he will face any of them tonight. Such preparation is exactly what sets him apart from so many hitters.
"The key to hitting is keeping it simple, not thinking too much," Gonzalez asserts. Still, it's clear he puts a premium on the mental aspects of the game. In fact, one could contend that's precisely why he is such a successful hitter.
He finishes his film study and darts for his locker, set in the corner of the clubhouse. The corners are typically reserved for a team's best players, and given the star power on this Dodgers roster – one that includes brand-name players like pitchers Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke (tonight's starter), shortstop Jimmy Rollins and currently injured outfielder Yasiel Puig – his locker placement pays particular homage to what Gonzalez has accomplished. To catch Gonzalez in a free moment, I have to beeline across the clubhouse to his locker. He has the look of someone who has a place to be. Maybe the batting cage? I really don't know, but it's clear his pregame routine allows for little non-baseball related activity. Asked for a convenient time to be interviewed Gonzalez sighs: "Let's just knock it out now." That sounds like Gonzalez is trying to be a jerk. But it's clear his primary concern is facing Garza, a pitcher with no-hit stuff (In 2010, while with the Tampa Bay Rays, Garza threw the first no-hitter in franchise history, facing the minimum 27 batters).
But Gonzalez appears to be the player with the edge in this pitcher-hitter matchup. Garza's first season in Milwaukee has been a rough one, while Gonzalez is, so far, enjoying the best start in his 12-year career. He is hitting .355 with 9 home runs and 32 RBI (he leads the Dodgers in average and runs driven in), currently sports a .430 on-base percentage, is slugging .674 and has an OPS of 1.104 – all career highs if the season ended today. So has Gonzalez changed anything with his approach? "Nothing," he responds, and if he'd answered any earlier, he would have interrupted me. This seems to indicate two things: 1) The question gets asked a helluva lot, and 2) It's starting to get annoying.
"If you're doing bad, you stay with a routine," Gonzalez says. "If you're doing good, you stay with a routine. Because the most important thing is to not let the highs or the lows affect how you go about your business. That's why in baseball, routine is so important."
Gonzalez doesn't always get the credit he deserves. Which, though he may be unwilling to admit it, can be annoying – at least as it pertains to these kind of interviews. See, Gonzalez might be the most underrated of baseball's current stars. The 2010 season, his last with his hometown San Diego Padres, was the only time the he finished in the top-five in league MVP voting. He has only been selected to four All-Star teams, and, after his sizzling start in April – he hit five home runs in the first three games of the season, the first major league player to do so – he was named National League Player of the Month, just the second time he's ever taken home the honor. During that torrid opening month, Dodgers manager Don Mattingly told reporters: "Adrian's just so smart. He plays the game of cat and mouse all the time. He has a really good understanding of what they're trying to do to him, and what that guy can do and cannot do, and he takes advantage of that."
"It's unexplainable," Gonzalez says. "You're in a groove, you're locked in or whatever. But you try to ride it as long as you can, because it will go away. That's the way it works. You will have slumps. When you're in the zone, the less it's going to affect the slump you're going to be in eventually. So the more you can ride those good times, the better the season is going to be at the end of the year. But we all know everybody is going to go through a slump.
"It happens every year," he continues, "And there's no reason to think it's not going to happen this year."
A hitting groove may be inexplicable. But the path to get there is much more understood. In 2000, Gonzalez was the first player selected in the MLB Draft by the Florida Marlins. Three years later, the organization traded him to the Texas Rangers before he had played a game in the majors. He played sparingly for the Rangers in 2004 and 2005 before being dealt to the Padres prior to the 2006 season. While in San Diego, it seemed like Gonzalez was annually the talk of trade rumors – he had established himself as a proven left-handed bat, a commodity sought after by contending teams. It finally happened before the 2011 season, when the Padres shipped him off to Boston. Gonzalez didn't even spend two full seasons with the Red Sox before being sent to the Dodgers in a blockbuster that also included pitcher Josh Beckett, outfielder Carl Crawford and infielder Nick Punto.
"The first time I got traded from the Marlins to the Rangers it was different, not expected. But once you get past that, basically every year a team is different," Gonzalez says. "So it's like starting a year with a new team."
Gonzalez is currently in his third full season with the Dodgers. But it appears he can finally unpack his suitcases. He is signed through the 2018 season when he'll be 36. Considering that this team is a World Series contender, they won't look to sell off parts – unlike the previous four organizations with which Gonzalez has spent time. And it's a World Series win that, ultimately, might end up validating his career. It's hard to blame him for being so committed to his routine. Having moved around so much, it's given him a semblance of normalcy. Ironically though, his steadfast routine might prove most beneficial in the most stable environment of his career.
To the baseball outsider, a routine that involves such rigorous film study – even of situations Gonzalez may not see in a given game – seems excessive. And to others it might be about the more finished product. A great month. An MVP season. Or a World Series title. But even as the "dog days" draw near, on this early day in May, Gonzalez reminds us that his approach nets benefits every day: In the seventh inning, with Brewers reliever Neal Cotts on the hill, Gonzalez homered.