Monday, March 7, 2016

Vet SS Heber Gomez recalls Academy experience

Veteran Monterrey Sultanes infielder Heber Gomez is readying for his 21st summer of playing in the Mexican League.  The native of El Carrizal, Veracruz struggled during his Liga debut as a 19-year-old in late 1996 with a six-game audition for the Tabasco Olmecas, batting just .154 with two singles in 13 trips to the plate as the overmatched youngster struck out five times.

Despite his inauspicious beginning, Gomez persevered and has since built a reputation as a steady glove at short and an opportunistic batsman, one with a good eye who rarely strikes out with the patience to draw a walk.  Over 1,757 career games, including the past 13 seasons in Monterrey, the 38-year-old has collected 1,886 LMB hits for a .289 average (topping .300 four times) with 351 doubles, 73 homers, 883 runs scored and 738 RBI's plus an OBP of well over .300.  He batted .275 in 95 games last year for the Sultanes.  Gomez has also spent ten of the past eleven winters with similar results in Mazatlan, where the Venados retired his number 34 last November. While not a perennial All-Star, he's been a consistent player and contributor on winning teams.

It all had to start somewhere and for Gomez, it was at the Mexican League Academy in Carmen, near Monterrey.  The Sultanes hold their training camp at the so-called University of Baseball, where Gomez recently reflected back to when he arrived in Carmen as a teen in 1996, the year the facility opened.  "Those were two very intense months at the Academy," he's quoted as saying in a story on the Liga website.  "I remember very well that after training, we had to water the fields, raking and clearing rocks."

Gomez was one of the first products of the Academy to advance to the Liga, along with catcher Saul Soto and shortstop Domingo Castro, both of Aguascalientes.  Castro hit .333 while Soto batted .331 for the Rieleros in 2015.  "We got to be the first generation and didn't have the things the boys have now," recalls Gomez.  "They've got air-conditioned rooms and service for laundry, which we had to do ourselves.  What's been the same for years is the dream the guys have of making their debut in the Mexican League, but now they have a better gym, better fields and better equipment."

Shortly before his number was retired by the Venados four months ago, Gomez was asked how long he hoped to keep playing in Mazatlan and replied he'd like to play another two or three years.  However, he added, when he retires as a player he'll probably be done with the game altogether.  "I don't see being either a manager or coach.  I don't have plans to stay in baseball.  I want to return to Veracruz.  I have some investments there with my dad and want to be in business."

When that time comes, it's not hard to envision Heber Gomez approaching business the way he's approached baseball the past two decades:  Focused and prepared to make sure the job gets done right.