Backbone Personified: WVU’s Ivan Gonzalez
On any team that has success, there are a few different types of players that contribute. There are the stars, who are simply more talented and can overwhelm the opposition. There are those with one standout ability, which is so good that it makes them an invaluable piece of the team. There are motivators and “team guys,” who simply fit in well, keep things loose, and come up with contributions in key situations.
All of those types are needed for a team to enjoy sustained success, but there’s one more category that often remains hidden, or at least out of the limelight. It’s the player who does a little bit of everything, the “glue guy” who holds it all together, who makes plays everywhere on the field or court. Without such a player, a losing streak can often morph from two or three games to five or six. Morale can drop. Questioning of the approach can begin. But witha solid glue guy on the squad, none of those things happen. He holds it together, keeping the team on the right path via his leadership and experience. He communicates that to his teammates, and leads by example. For West Virginia’s baseball team this year, that player is senior Ivan Gonzalez.
Take, for example, the leadership role. After the Mountaineers dropped the first two games of a three-game series to TCU earlier this month, Gonzalez was quick to spread a message of determination and continued focus to his teammates.
“That it’s just a grind. That’s baseball,” the Round Rock, Texas, native said of his words to the players he calls “his guys.” “You can’t win them all. I just told my guys to keep moving and keep doing what we are doing. I remind them to take it pitch by pitch, and to just do the right thing on and off the field.”
WVU took that to heart, and kept its collective head down even though it trailed TCU 5-3 going into its last at-bat in the next game. Lo and behold, though, the Mountaineers scored three in the bottom of the ninth to turn an almost certain loss into a win.
That’s the kind of leadership Gonzalez has been providing, even though it’s easy to overlook, as he often is. He’s not the biggest player on the field by a long shot (he’s generously listed at 5-foot-9 and 190 pounds), and he’s not a flashy player. However, without his contributions at the plate and in the field, WVU would not be anywhere near its current level of achievement.
Defensively, he is one of the best catchers in Mountaineer history. He routinely blocks potential wild pitches and digs balls out of the dirt, and is more accurate than a Patriot missile in nailing would-be base stealers. This year alone, he has thrown out almost 50% of those attempting to swipe a bag (16 of 33) — a number that has allowed the Mountaineers to pile up a massive 87-25 advantage in stolen bases. Add in his ability to whip post-pitch pickoff throws to catch runners napping, and he’s a defensive weapon that has cut down numerous potential runs.
When he requires a rest from catching duties, Gonzalez doesn’t head to the bench. He’s also a solid defender at third base, where he has played some 49 of his 203 games, and has a career fielding percentage of .984 – an excellent number considering that he has bounced between two positions demanding a widely varying set of skills. Add in a smattering of designated hitter appearances, and the picture of a player who helps in many different ways is complete.
Gonzalez is 10th on the all-time WVU hits list with 220, and also ranks among career leaders in games played and games started, but the numbers are just part of the story in his value to the team. His leadership, and ability to keep his pitchers on track and manage a game, are just some of the intangibles that have made him an excellent, if underappreciated, Mountaineer.
“Our philosophy for catchers in our program is to make the pitcher throw well that day,” head coach Randy Mazey said of his senior stalwart. “We’re leading the Big 12 in pitching because he’s back there. He’s been a workhorse back there. He gets beat up so much, he’s sore all the time, laying in ice baths and trying to recover. He’s just a grinder. It’s going to be a sad day when he leaves us.”
That day, while approaching, isn’t here yet. Gonazalez and his teammates still have the Big 12 Championship and an NCAA Tournament to play, and he hopes the building process the team has gone through this year has it prepared for the postseason.
“If you start slow but know the identity of your team and keep building, it carries on through each game. That’s what we did. We started a little slow, but once [the conference season hit], we found guys that fit their roles and understood their roles. It’s contagious. Now that we have found our identity, it has made us better. We will just keep rolling with it.”