Jonny Gomes isn’t one to really get in trouble, he’ll tell you playfully, since he follows the rules a “majority of the time.”
Between that and knowing the waiver trade deadline was imminent, he sensed what was what when he was pulled from Atlanta’s game in the fifth inning Monday at Turner Field.
In the tunnel, manager Fredi Gonzalez told him he’d been traded to the Royals. As he hurried to pack and fly out as soon as he could, the first thought he remembers about where he was going was this:
“‘If you can’t beat ’em,’” he said, “‘join ’em.’”
Never miss a local story.
In the 12th inning of the 2014 American League wild-card game against Oakland, Gomes and teammate Sam Fuld crashed in the outfield to set up an Eric Hosmer triple that led to the victory that transformed the Royals franchise.
From afar, Gomes admired the rise of the nucleus of young Royals, the group he saw coming together late last season with what he recognized as “contagious” hitting and defense.
As it happens, it’s still contagious around here … with chickenpox, the operative reason he’s joined them now.
The Royals had been monitoring the renowned teammate, charismatic leader and pinch-hitter as they prospected for more outfield help after All-Star left fielder Alex Gordon suffered the groin injury that had kept him out for nearly two months before his return on Tuesday.
But that interest escalated in the last 48 hours when right fielder Alex Rios (and later reliever Kelvin Herrera) was diagnosed with chickenpox, which is expected to keep Rios out at least two weeks.
In fact, general manager Dayton Moore went as far as saying Tuesday that he essentially had acquired Gomes because of the chickenpox.
“It’s a first,” he said, smiling.
It was a first, too, for Gomes when he was administered a physical for baseball and asked whether he’d been vaccinated for or had had chickenpox.
“I’m definitely in the clear,” said Gomes, laughing and adding, “I think I’m up to date on all my rabies shots.”
In fact, Gomes probably has been inoculated, at least symbolically, for a lot more than that through five near-death experiences, as chronicled in a 2013 Sports Illustrated story entitled “The Five Lives of Jonny Gomes.”
“… and counting,” Gomes joked Tuesday.
If you’re keeping score at home, the close encounters were: an escape from inside a sleeping bag that caught on fire; surviving a car crash that killed one of his best friends; ducking behind a car to avoid gunshots; sustaining a heart attack; and … a wolf attack.
“Everyone’s got their story. I guess (I’m) battled-tested, if you will,” he said. “Couple wrong turns went right, and couple things checked off the list early on in my life.”
This all might in some way explain Gomes’ zeal for the game and appreciation for life.
That shows up in any number of ways inside and outside of baseball, as it did in Boston in the way he sought to honor victims of the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013.
Among other gestures, in the Red Sox’s first home games afterward (a doubleheader against the Royals) he used bats specially engraved with names of those who died in the attack.
After the Red Sox won the World Series, in part because of his three-run homer in game four, Gomes toted the World Series trophy to the finish line.
It was perhaps “somewhat of a Band-Aid,” he told reporters then, to recognize that site as “where the trophy was set, not where the bomb was set.”
That persona was part of his appeal to many teams and now the Royals, who put a premium on clubhouse chemistry and fit.
Moore and manager Ned Yost were as emphatic about that as anything when they spoke of Gomes, 34, and his history supports that this is a tremendous addition to that mix.
“A student of the game, first and foremost. Knows himself as a player and knows his role,” Red Sox manager John Farrell told reporters covering the Red Sox when they played the Braves in spring training. “He was a leader even though he wasn’t an everyday player.
“He made others around him believe in themselves even more so. He always had a flair for saying the right thing at the right time.”
And so it began on Tuesday with the Royals, with whom Gomes almost certainly will make his fifth playoff appearance in six seasons after Cincinnati (2010), Tampa Bay (2012), Boston and Oakland.
Seated alongside Gordon at a news conference before the game, he said that the return of “the guy right next to me is going to be a lot more important than me. But I’ll do anything I can to help this ballclub and not clog it up and mess it up, and keep (it) going north.”
In the most tangible immediate way, that will mean getting plenty of at-bats in the next few weeks with the Royals scheduled to face a dozen or more left-handers, Moore said.
Although he was hitting just .221 for Atlanta, he had an .878 on-base plus slugging percentage against lefties — and his 162 career home runs is second among Royals only to Rios (167).
As for where he might fit on a playoff roster, Gomes would figure largely to have a pinch-hitting role — to which he’s accustomed even if he can’t quite explain his success.
“I wish there were a method to the madness,” he said.
He could say the same about his own unique journey. And its latest chapter: because of the chickenpox joining a team he probably wanted to put a pox on a year ago.