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Preston Gomez helped Angels' Jose Arredondo solve control issues

The promising reliever was on thin ice with the team in 2007 because of his temper. Gomez, a scout and coach who mentored Latino players before his death last month, intervened, possibly saving the pitcher's career.

February 24, 2009|Mike DiGiovanna

TEMPE, ARIZ. — The Angels this season will wear black diamond-shaped patches, inscribed with the name "Preston," on the right sleeves of their jerseys in honor of Preston Gomez, the team's beloved advisor, scout and coach who died in January at 86.

If it were up to Jose Arredondo, the hard-throwing 24-year-old reliever who had a breakthrough 2008 season for the Angels, the patch would be sewn over his heart.

"I love that guy," Arredondo said, his soft voice barely audible amid the bustle of the team's spring-training clubhouse. "He taught me everything."

If Arredondo continues to dominate like he did as a rookie, when he went 10-2 with a 1.62 earned-run average and baffled hitters with a 95-mph fastball and a nasty split-fingered pitch, he will be Gomez's parting gift to a franchise he served for 28 years.

Arredondo was a self-described "troublemaker" as he came up through the minor leagues, a prospect whose arm was clearly major league-caliber but whose temper threatened to derail him.

In June 2007, at double-A Arkansas, Arredondo threw a tantrum when he was pulled from a game and got into an altercation with veteran outfielder Curtis Pride, who was trying to calm Arredondo in the clubhouse afterward.

The Angels suspended Arredondo for a week and demoted him to Class-A Rancho Cucamonga, where he brooded his way to a 2-4 record and 6.43 ERA in 28 games.

Arredondo had also been at Rancho Cucamonga in 2006 when he and catcher Michael Collins got crossed up, the right-hander firing a fastball when Collins expected a changeup. They then argued and fought in the dugout.

A few days into spring training last February, Manager Mike Scioscia summoned Arredondo, who grew up in the Dominican Republic, to his office for a meeting with pitching coach Mike Butcher and Gomez, a native of Cuba who had a special knack for mentoring Latin players.

The conversation went on for hours, with Scioscia and Butcher, speaking in English, stressing the importance of being professional, of taking his job seriously, of being a good teammate.

But the most pointed words were delivered by Gomez in Spanish.

"He dropped the hammer on him," Butcher said.

"Preston hit him right between the eyes," General Manager Tony Reagins said. ". . . He made sure he was accountable for everything, on the field and off."

Gomez spoke with Arredondo repeatedly that spring "about my discipline and controlling my temper -- he told me how things work in the big leagues," Arredondo said. "He was all over me, trying to make me better."

In late March, on the drive from Arizona to Southern California, Gomez stopped at a gas station in Blythe, Calif., and accidentally walked into the path of a pickup truck pulling up to the pumps.

Gomez suffered severe head and internal injuries, and spent much of the next nine months in hospitals and rehabilitation centers. He never really recovered and died on Jan. 13.

In Arredondo, the Angels have tangible evidence of Gomez's legacy.

After going 1-1 with a 2.12 ERA and 10 saves in 15 games at triple-A Salt Lake, Arredondo was called up on May 14 and gave up a home run to the first batter he faced, Nick Swisher.

But Arredondo did not allow a run over his next 12 innings and quickly emerged as the team's No. 3 reliever behind closer Francisco Rodriguez and setup man Scot Shields.

Arredondo held opponents to a .190 average, giving up 42 hits, striking out 55 and walking 22 in 61 innings, and his 11 earned runs allowed were the fewest in franchise history by a rookie reliever.

Also significant: He never caused a problem or had a dispute with a teammate or coach.

"I don't know if I've ever seen as dramatic a result from a meeting as Preston's was with Jose," Scioscia said. "That was probably the biggest contributor to this kid's breakthrough and understanding the talent he had and what was at stake if he didn't apply himself like he needed to.

"I think Jose has a lot of respect for what Preston did for him, and we want to keep that mind-set embedded in Jose."

Arredondo, married and the father of a 7-year-old girl and 4-year-old boy, said he feels "smarter now, more confident, more relaxed. I used to be angry. Now, I'm a happier person."

Bobby Magallanes, the Angels' double-A manager, said the difference is "like night and day" from 2007, when "it was almost like he had a chip on his shoulder, like people were after him."

Magallanes made the pitching change that sparked Arredondo's meltdown at Arkansas in 2007.

"He met me by the first-base line, flipped me the ball, and his body language was poor," Magallanes said. "He threw his hands up. He really let his emotions get the best of him."

To compound matters, Arredondo then got into a fight with one of the nicest players in recent baseball history. Pride tried to counsel Arredondo, telling him he shouldn't show up his manager like that, and Arredondo responded with clenched fists.

"Sometimes you get out of control for five seconds," Arredondo said, "and that's when you make a mistake."

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