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' THIS IS WHAT I AM, THIS TOWN' Orioles' Gomez got his drive from San Isidro

SAN ISIDRO, Puerto Rico -- To find Leo Gomez, take the beach road east out of San Juan along the northern coast of the island, turn inland through the town of Loeza and past a collection of shanties, and there he is: in the front room of his apartment on the main road, the door open to the breeze, his 2-year-old son bouncing a ball in front.

Missing him is almost impossible, for rare is the person in this small workingman's town who doesn't know all about Nando. That's the name he goes by here: Nando, somehow evolved from Leonardo.

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They know he lives in a small, tidy apartment attached to his wife's grandmother's house. They know he drives his father's old purple wreck. They know he might be taking grounders over at the field behind the middle school, or working out in the little batting cage in his basement, or maybe over at the cage in Loeza, getting seven swings for a quarter.

They know the details, not just because Gomez became the Orioles' third baseman last season, but because he came home in October with a bag of gloves, wristbands and batting gloves and gave them to children. Because he didn't big-time it. Because he says things like this: "It is very important to me that I never change just because I am in the big leagues. This is what I am, this town. And I will never forget it."

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When he says he is San Isidro, he means he is what San Isidro represents, which is, above all else, sweat and modesty. It is an unpretentious burg, the houses small, simple and clean, a place where any gain is the result of labor, not bloodlines.

It brings into perfect focus the story of Leo Gomez. The part about his driving six hours a day to play winter ball. The part about his taking all those extra ground balls last season after the Orioles told him they were worried about his defense.

The part about his asking for an American roommate when he came to the United States in 1985, so he could better learn English. The part about his playing a month of winter ball this season, instead of resting on his success. The part where he says, "Anything my parents want, I will give them."

It all illustrates a basic earnestness that doesn't often surface these days on the sports page. We have come to be skeptical when we see it, but here is one time suspicions can safely be laid down. Here is a kid with big brown eyes and close-cut dark hair who, at 24, is going to try to do the right thing.

It's not difficult to see where he got it. His father, Alejo, worked construction for 40 years, at first pouring concrete and 'u hammering nails and later becoming a foreman. Leo and his three brothers and two sisters grew up watching their father leave for work before sunrise, followed soon by their mother, a school dietitian.

Alejo Gomez's work never was easy, especially in the 100-degree Puerto Rican summers, but his kids never lacked for anything they needed. "He worked his butt off," Leo Gomez says.

Leo gave them a little bit of trouble for a while. A self-confessed "wild man" in high school, he fought often and dated five girls at the same time. "I was afraid of him," said his wife, Lee.

But even then he demonstrated a purposefulness, a trait shared by many Puerto Rican major-leaguers, on whose island the high TTC

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schools and colleges do not play baseball.

"I played in a Sunday league," Gomez said. "I was more into basketball, like a lot of kids here. I wanted to sign pro here, but my father knew there wouldn't be money in it. So I stuck with baseball."

Alejo Gomez had watched one of his older sons, Marcos, make it as far as Class AAA, and understood Leo had similar ability. Alejo took Leo down the street to the field every day after work.

"He'd get home at 4, sit for maybe 15 minutes, and say, 'Let's go,' " Gomez said. "I look back on that and it's amazing. Coming home from a long day of working construction, and then going right back out in the sun."

All the work paid off in November 1985. Gomez had been out of high school a year, working at a computer factory, when he heard word of atryout camp in nearby Caguas. There were 70 players there, 10 third basemen. Gomez was the only player signed.

His minor-league line went straight up. Today, he has a wall littered with awards. Carolina League Player of the Month. Eastern League All-Star. Orioles Minor League Player of the Year.

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Soon he was good enough to play in the Puerto Rican winter league. He signed with the team in Ponce, all the way across the island, a three-hour drive. He played little but made the drive every day.

"Basically I did it for 15 practice swings a day" in batting practice, he said, shaking his head. "I was exhausted going back and forth. I think I lost 12 pounds. But I needed the money, and I kept thinking something would come of it. I finally started playing my fourth year."

When he made it to Baltimore in September 1990, he made two errors in his first game. Afterward Frank Robinson said jokingly he was on a 324-error pace. Gomez clearly could hit, but his glove was costing him in his one-on-one with Craig Worthington for third base.

When he finally got his chance after Worthington was injured last May, he responded in customary fashion. He suggested a program of taking extra ground balls before every game. Cal Ripken Sr. stood at the plate and hit one after another after another.

"Senior told me, 'You see [Cal] Jr.? He got to where he is because he worked,' " Gomez said. "He said, 'Brooks Robinson was like you in the beginning, but he kept taking ground balls and got better and better and better.' I only made one error in the last 82 games. I know the Orioles couldn't believe that."

They were basically happy with his entire season, though they'd like to see him improve on his .234 average. But he led American League rookies with 16 home runs and made the league all-rookie team.

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That did not satisfy him, though. After the season he went to the Florida Instructional League to work on his lateral movement in the field, then came home and played a month of winter ball because he wasn't hitting to right field anymore. He took off the glasses he'd worn all season and hit .545 for a week. "No more glasses," he said.

It is a telling moment in any player's career: how he responds to making the major leagues. The Orioles were disappointed in Worthington's reaction after his fine 1989 season. He showed up late for spring training, and the club felt his attitude was casual. You can be sure Gomez won't be guilty on the same charges.

"I'm a hungry guy," he said. "You come see where I come from, you understand. I don't want to go to the States and get paid to sit on the bench and watch. I want to play every day. It's a game I love, but it's my job. I know I can make some money if I have a couple of years in the big leagues. I don't need to be rich. I just want to be comfortable and help my family.

"Sometimes people don't understand Latin players, what drives us. They don't see where we come from. I had a roommate in 1986, a guy who owned a Porsche, a rich guy. I asked him why he played baseball. He said he liked it. I asked him why he didn't give up his spot to someone who needed it. He didn't understand that."

What drives Gomez, as much as any force, is his desire to make his parents' life better. He sees them every day during the winter, just as he spoke to them at least once a week last summer.

"They'd still ask me, 'You need anything, like money?' " Gomez said. "I just hope I get a chance to do something back."

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His parents walked down the street when Gomez was honored in November at the local Sunday league. The city gave him a plaque for making the majors, and the league named the season in his honor. Now the city is thinking about naming the field after him -- the field on which Alejo hit him thousands of ground balls.

"The people are very happy for me," Gomez said. "But I think they are really happy I came home no different. Maybe they wonder if I'd become one of those who won't sign autographs. That's not me. I will always be the person who grew up here. Maybe I will buy a house in Florida, but this is my life. This is what I want. My heart will always be in Puerto Rico."


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