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On Gio Gonzalez, growing up, and saying goodbye

What is there to say when the team that defined your childhood begins to fall apart?

MLB: Milwaukee Brewers at Washington Nationals Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

A professional baseball field is intimidating, maybe awe-inspiring for an 11-year-old. The players themselves, though, look like Greek gods, especially when you’re approximately 4’9”.

“You should say something to them, see if they’ll come over,” my Dad said. I obliged, scared to offend the players and expecting nobody to respond. Somehow, I had made my way onto the field for batting practice; I was just happy to be there.

Then, Gio Gonzalez—that Gio Gonzalez, the really good baseball player!—talked to me, saying something about how he couldn’t hit.

A lot of things stand out about the 2012 Nationals’ season that made it magical. Bryce Harper’s debut, the full-throated singing of Take on Me that the team could never seem to replicate, the endless walk-offs and one-run wins — it all came together at once, suddenly and out of nowhere. It was like lightning, like finding a diamond in what we thought was a coal mine.

But for me, the magic of the 2012 season came down to timing: I was 11, old enough to appreciate the day-to-day ins and outs of the baseball season, to watch most of the games. The 2012 Nationals just happened to be the first team I watched every day. I never realized how lucky I was, that most people’s first exposure to baseball is more painful. It was the same lightning, the same magic.

The author, right, age 11 and clearly unaware of the concept of opening one’s eyes for a photo, and Gio Gonzalez, left.

The first free-agent signing I ever heard about was Jayson Werth; I forgot about it quickly after. But when Mike Rizzo acquired Gio Gonzalez, my Dad informed me excitedly: the Nats had acquired a young pitcher from Oakland — he walked a lot of guys, but he was working on it — he could be the guy to push them over the edge.

Over the edge, indeed. Aside from Bryce Harper and perhaps Michael Morse, Gio was the pinnacle of the Nats’ 2012 magic. His 21-win season, his 2.89 ERA, his demeanor — he seemed unstoppable. So when *that* Gio Gonzalez—not the one we think about today, but the earth-shaking, happy-go-lucky kid from Hialeah—said hello to me, I couldn’t believe it.

That day cemented my obsession with these Washington Nationals. Too anxious to go to the elimination games, I shed tears at home after Game 5 — I had watched with the TV on mute while my parents watched in person past midnight, far past my bedtime then (Patrick will attest that Wire Taps typically come in around 2 AM these days), only to see it all collapse. I was there for the 18-inning game (I left in the fifteenth), and I went to the last two Game 5s. I’ve watched countless Bryce Harper walk-offs and dazzling Max Scherzer and Strasburg performances. This team has made me wildly happy, cynical, and depressed, often in the span of hours.

These experiences from the last six years aren’t unique. Most Nats fans were there, falling in love with Harper, Anthony Rendon and Scherzer and groaning about the Lerners, the endless carousel of managers, and the team’s inability to make it out of the first round of the playoffs. Tons of players— Jordan Zimmermann, Ian Desmond, Adam LaRoche, Wilson Ramos, Werth, Denard Span, Daniel Murphy, Danny Espinosa, Craig Stammen, Tyler Clippard, Drew Storen, and Morse—have left since then.

But Gio feels different. At least, he does to me.

Gio got to the Nationals when I found them: I was a rising sixth grader when I met him; he was a bachelor with a dog. Next week, I’ll start my senior year, and Gio has two kids now. Seeing him in a different uniform marks the end of an era in his life, and one in mine — he talked last night about how he “grew up here,” and I grew up with him; I came of age with this Nationals team. Over the last six years, as I grew up (both vertically and generally as a person), I watched Gio Gonzalez every spring, summer, and fall. I can only say the same things for Bryce Harper and Ryan Zimmerman — seeing them go will be equally painful.

The Brewers cap and the image of him in the visitor’s dugout serve as a harsh reminder: the remnants of this iteration of the Nats will disperse pretty soon. Bryce Harper will almost certainly leave this fall, while Zimmerman and Strasburg could be out the door by the end of 2019. These Nationals, once a constant in my life and in that of the city’s, the first real competitive ballclub this city saw since the 1920s, will be gone. It’ll be hard to stomach.

As for Gio: though he was often infuriating to watch, Nats fans loved Gio for who he was as a person and for what he could be at his best. Moreover, a tweet I saw yesterday from James O’Hara noted something important: years from now, when we aren’t actually watching him pitch, Gio Gonzalez’s stats will make the case that we underrated him for all these years.

Beyond that, it’s hard to know much. Maybe he flourishes with the Brewers and gets himself a contract next year. Maybe he crashes out and signs a minor-league deal with a Spring Training invite somewhere else. Maybe he wins the World Series with the Brewers.

But Gonzalez can hang his hat on one thing: he’ll have a place in the ballclub’s history books, ones that, for the most part, are pretty empty. Fans, myself included, will mention him for years to come as an example, as part of a cherished memory from this unbelievable stretch. For a late-December trade that had a few question marks on it, that’s more than any of us could have possibly asked for.