Spring Training: Gonzalez lauds 'difference' with Braves

Former Pirates closer delighted to be part of contender

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BRADENTON, Fla. -- Moments after Mike Gonzalez introduced himself earlier this spring to Bobby Cox, the Atlanta Braves' venerable manager, Chipper Jones strolled to his stall with something to say.

"No sooner am I out of the office than Chipper came over, welcomed me and told me, basically, this is how things are here, and this is how they're going to be. He told me, 'We're here to win.' " Gonzalez recalled by phone from Kissimmee, Fla., the Braves' training site. "My reaction was, like, 'Whoa!' You could just tell the difference right away."

The difference?

"Such a positive attitude. The expectations are so high here, and you can sense it everywhere. These guys ... they've got a vibe about them. It's a winning attitude, man."

Gonzalez stressed that his remarks should not be interpreted as criticism of the Pirates, the team that developed him, turned him into a closer and, in January, traded him to Atlanta for first baseman Adam LaRoche. He described the Pirates as a young team still learning how to win and, as he put it, "definitely on the right route to getting there."

Rather, he said, his view of the difference in the two teams is much more a reflection of the Braves, whose record run of 14 consecutive division titles ended last season.

"This team ... the playoffs are all they know. That's all Chipper and Andruw Jones and John Smoltz and Edgar Renteria know. You know, it's one thing to have veterans who are supposed to be leaders but aren't your key guys. These are the key guys here. ... I'll tell you, it's definitely been a growing experience for me already this spring. I feel lucky. And I feel even luckier because I've been able to see both sides."

Gonzalez will see his former teammates today when the Pirates and Braves meet in Kissimmee for a Grapefruit League game. He is scheduled to pitch, too, and described himself as "very excited about that."

He sounded no less excited to renew acquaintances.

"I love those guys, and I wish them nothing but the best. It's a great group, and you could see last season that everyone was starting to figure out what it takes to win."

He gave a large portion of the credit for that to manager Jim Tracy.

"The losing kills you, man. It really does. It beats you down. I understand now why Jason Kendall felt the way he did, the frustration he had at times. We were just losing and losing and losing."

The Pirates continued losing under Tracy, too, going 30-60 before the All-Star break. But they went 37-35 the rest of the way.

"Actually, things started to change right when Tracy came in, but some guys didn't get it. I don't know what happened in July. Maybe it's because some of the veterans left, and the team became ours. I don't know. But, whatever happened, the younger guys started catching on to the stuff that Tracy was trying to tell them from the get-go. He was finally getting into everybody's heads."

With what?

"He got the whole team to the point where it wasn't about individual statistics anymore. We got to the point -- all of us, as players -- where we just wanted to win. And I believe they're going to continue going that way. You know what? I'm excited for both teams. I really am."

In at least one way, though, the move to Atlanta brings a backward step for Gonzalez.

He became the Pirates' closer last season and excelled, going 24 for 24 in save situations. But that job with the Braves belongs to veteran Bob Wickman, and Gonzalez will revert to the setup role he had in Pittsburgh in 2005.

Still, he displayed not a trace of disappointment.

"Look, I'm not going to lie to you, man: I can just taste October, and that's all I care about. Seriously. That's the way these veteran guys are making me feel. And you feel it from the top all the way down. I mean, obviously, I've been successful closing, but the rush for me is being with this team and having a pretty good chance of getting to the playoffs."

He paused and raised his voice.

"Playoffs, man!"

Which brought him back to that chat with Chipper.

"After we talked about the team a little, about what's expected here, he told me how happy they were to have me, how they turned their big weakness -- the bullpen -- into a strength. I heard it all offseason, but to hear it right there from a player like that, to hear that I can be part of that ... my confidence was already, like, boom!"

Associated Press
Braves pitcher Mike Gonzalez will see his former teammates today when the Pirates take on the Braves in Kissimmee for a Grapefruit League game.
Click photo for larger image.
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