To catch a thief
In the Chiriquí province of western Panama, baseball isn’t just a game, it’s part of the culture.
Jason Gonzalezknows this very well.
He spent his first 11 years in Panama, where the game is a way of life for youth. Every day, there was a game somewhere in town, and Gonzalez would run home to grab his glove.
But no day was bigger for baseball than Sundays. Eighteen-year-old Gonzalez remembers those days best: Afternoons when family and friends would come together simply to play the game and his aunt worked the plate as the umpire.
The 5-foot-9 senior now brings that schoolyard style and passion to every game at Randolph High School, no matter the sport.
On the soccer pitch, he was one of the best players for the Blue Devils. As a senior, he opted to try football, where his foot skills helped him kick a 44-yard field goal against Cape Cod Tech.
No matter what uniform he puts on, his speed and instincts stand out.
And on the diamond, he’s rewriting the record book at Randolph.
“The first time I ever saw the kid play I said, ‘Wow, this kid is a player,’” said fourth-year coach Rick Beach.
And those instincts and speed have really emerged on the base paths. Entering the final five games of his senior season, Gonzalez has registered 95 stolen bases.
Many of those steals came while Randolph was a member of the Patriot League. As a freshman, against baseball powers such as Hingham, Middleborough, and Silver Lake, Gonzalez swiped 20 bases. When the league broke into two divisions, Randolph played two years in the Fisher division against smaller schools like Pembroke and Hanover.
He stole 24 bases his sophomore year, and 26 as a junior.
Now, as an independent, Randolph is able to play a schedule that better matches the talents that they, too, possess on the diamond.
That has not slowed Gonzalez, who has swiped 25 bags this year.
Beach is not sure if 100 career steals is a record. But he knows it is a mark few, if any, players have reached. Especially for a kid who has never played a game of Legion or AAU ball.
“When I was at North Quincy, as a team, we stole 102 bases one year,” said Beach. “I look at Jason and, to do it year in and year out, it’s amazing. I’ve sat here and talked to other coaches and they say, ‘One hundred stolen bases, can you imagine?’
“It’s truly unbelievable, and he only plays 20 games a year.”
And as in those games in Panama, Gonzalez will play where he is needed.
His best position is the outfield, but he has also played a handful of positions in the infield. Entering this season, Randolph had won 10 total games the last three seasons. Gonzalez was the pitcher of record in nine.
His athleticism was on showcase in the 2011 season finale against Dorchester. At the plate, Gonzalez was 5 for 5 with a home run, seven runs batted in, five stolen bases, and four runs scored.
And he also picked up the win on the mound, striking out eight batters.
“Nobody really comes to watch this kid play,” said Beach, “and it’s sad, because he is something special.”
Gonzalez is determined to play college baseball and has his eyes on Newbury College, where the head coach is Kraig Kupiec, a former history teacher at Randolph High. So there is a comfort level.
“It’s going to mean a lot [to reach 100] because I didn’t expect to achieve something like this my senior year,” he said. “If I knew before that 100 bases was going to be such a big deal, I’d have tried even harder.”
The importance of a natural base runner is something many local teams will be looking for come postseason play.
With the introduction of BBCOR bats across the state this season and their wood bat tendencies, the game has become smaller, and the focus of many teams has shifted to defense, pitching, bunting, and base stealing.
That was no more apparent than in a recent Marshfield-Plymouth North showdown.
In a 2-2 game against then-undefeated Marshfield, North junior Ryan Moskus reached first on an infield single. On a pickoff attempt to first, Moskus put his head down and ran, sliding into second safe on the throw from the first baseman. He later scored on a double to lift the defending Division 2 state champs in a statement win against one of the best teams in the region.
“He has good instincts,” said Plymouth North coach Dwayne Follette. “That’s what separates him from other guys. It’s the hardest thing, and you really can’t teach it. You can’t teach how to get a good jump, how to get a good read, and when to take off.”
Moskos, nicknamed “Speedy,” has not been thrown out in his two seasons with the varsity club.
He is a perfect on eight attempts this season. Last season, as a pinch runner, Moskos was a perfect 10 for 10 in stolen bases, with several coming in the Eagles’ state title run.
Follette knows it’s that kind of instinct, speed, and reliability that is going to make or break seasons for most baseball teams, especially in the tournament.
“The margin for error is so slim,” he said. “I tell my team we won the state title in 2008 because we got bunts down. Even back then with the aluminum bats, execution becomes critical in tourney games.
“You can’t lose out. You have to execute.”
When Marshfield softball coach Rick Frederickslearned he was going to be minus two-year ace Leah LoConte (muscle injury), he knew that he would have to lean a bit more on six sophomores to get through the rugged Atlantic Coast League schedule.
“With it being their first varsity experience, they were nervous out there in the beginning,” said Fredericks, “but the seniors did a good job pulling them all together.”
The Rams (12-4) lost four of their first five games, but have since won 11 games in a row, and need only two more league wins to clinch the ACL crown.
One of the pleasant surprises has been the emergence of sophomore Jaime Nielsen, who went 10-3 with an earned run average near 2.50 in LoConte’s absence.
LoConte returned just a few games ago, and is already 2-0 with a five-inning perfect game against Nauset on Tuesday.
Now, with the tournament in sight, Fredericks has more than just LoConte to lean on in the postseason.
“It’s great,” said Fredericks on having two aces on his staff. “If one is having an off night, I have someone to put right in there.
“It gives me a nice sense of security knowing they can both be in there.”
Abington’s senior ace Kelly Nortonstruck out a career-high 17 of the 21 batters she faced on Monday in tossing a perfect game in a 10-0 win over Rockland. It was her fifth career no-hitter. She now has two perfect games and a no-hitter in her last four games against the Bulldogs.
Andrew MacDougall can be reached at email@example.com.