He has been in town for fewer than four months, yet Adrian Gonzalez was greeted by a line snaked around the premises of the East Los Angeles Civic Center on Saturday.
He’s handing out toys that he donated as part of the 12th Annual Winter Wonderland Holiday Celebration and East L.A. on Ice, a community gathering five miles southeast of Dodger Stadium in which all interviews but one were conducted in Spanish.
“It’s a great feeling seeing the smiles on the kids. It’s just incredible,” Gonzalez said. “This is a time of happiness and joy and togetherness and just seeing that is great.”
As a Univision cameraman held a microphone towards Gonzalez and a group of young girls waited to have their picture taken with him several feet away, others peered in from the outside of the glass-enclosed room, snapping their own photos and shooting video of the Dodger whose largesse has benefitted so many.
“I don’t want to equate it with ‘it’s our new Fernando Valenzuela’, but it’s even more exciting than that because with Adrian coming, he’s unbelievably fabulous and everybody knows who he is,” said L.A. County Supervisor Gloria Molina, one of the event’s organizers.
“I think the Dodgers are very fortunate to have someone like him, not only because he’s a great baseball player and well-known, but more importantly because he’s always somebody that’s contributed to the community.”
That he certainly has. The 2007 winner of the San Diego Padres’ Chairman’s Award for assistance to the community, Gonzalez and his wife Betsy co-founded founded The Adrian and Betsy Gonzalez Foundation five years ago in a collaboration to empower underprivileged youth and provide the required means and fewer hurdles towards athletics and extra-curricular activities.
On Saturday, he was offering sage council on which Christmas presents to choose in front of tables stacked with action figurines, dolls, books, and sports equipment.
“Our foundation’s set up for all of Southern California, so it worked out perfect,” Gonzalez said. “It’s nice, being back where we can actually be involved in the offseason and be a part of it. For us, being able to be so close and help out is incredible.”
That he is a bilingual San Diegan who grew up on both sides of the border and represented Mexico in the 2009 World Baseball Classic only further expedites his entrenchment amongst the Dodgers’ Spanish-speaking base.
“Since he’s Mexican, he’s giving back to the community that needs it the most, like us,” said Justin Ortiz, a volunteer and high school student at the event from East Los Angeles.
Many San Diego foundations and non-profits greatly benefitted from Gonzalez’s time as a Padre. He held a bowling party for children at a foster home; headlined an event to raise money for a toddler badly injured when struck by a drunk driver; and his contributions to San Diego’s Children’s Hospital, Big Brothers and Big Sisters and the Make-A-Wish Foundation were so bountiful and regular that the latter two publicly bemoaned his loss when Gonzalez was shipped to Boston.
“This will definitely be a loss for us,” Tina Rose, marketing director for Big Brothers Big Sisters of San Diego County, told the Union Tribune of Gonzalez’ 2010 trade.
There is little surprise how quickly Dodger fans in Los Angeles’ Latino community have offered their allegiance towards Gonzalez. At the event on Saturday, which also saw Gonzalez cut the ribbon on the temporary ice rink at the East L.A. Civic Center, you would have assumed that the first baseman who bat .297 with three home runs in only 145 at-bats with his new club had worn Dodger Blue his entire life.
“You can look. It’s a great community,” Gonzalez said. “It’s the type of community I grew up with my whole life, and it’s what I can relate to. It’s awesome. This is a great place to be, and I’m just really enjoying it.”
“I’m just glad to be back here and enjoying the community and everything that comes with the culture and the food and everything else.”
A Los Angeles institution, the Dodgers drew Molina’s praise as she spoke on the intertwined roots between the city and the professional sports franchise – “even though it was a little bittersweet how they got here originally, moving so many families out,” she said.
“Now everyone loves going to the Dodgers. I hope the ticket becomes more affordable, but even with the cost and everything that’s associated with it, people love going there,” Molina said.
“And when you see players like Adrian that are coming, the Latino community just embraces the Dodgers even tighter.”