2006: Luis Gonzales Not Ready to Retire

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PHOENIX (AP) – Luis Gonzalez wants to finish his career with the Arizona Diamondbacks.

But the 38-year-old outfielder’s future is uncertain as enters the final year of his three-year, $30 million contract. The Diamondbacks hold a contract option for 2007, and there’s already speculation that he’s not in the team’s plans beyond this summer.

Gonzalez had a message for the front office as he reported for training camp Wednesday morning.

“I’m not planning on retiring any time soon,” Gonzalez said. “And I don’t plan on getting pushed out of the game. I’m not going to give my job up. They’re going to have to tell me they’re going in a different direction.”

General manager Josh Byrnes shook his head when asked if the club was trying to ease Gonzalez out. He said Gonzalez’s drive to prove he still belongs is “healthy.”

“He’s determined to do better this year and it could impact his contractual future,” Byrnes said. “I think that’s healthy determination, but no one’s pushing him here.”

To many Diamondbacks fans, it may be impossible to envision the club without Gonzalez in left field. He’s been with the team for eight of its nine seasons, and he had a hand in its most memorable moment.

In 2001, Gonzalez became a local legend when he blooped a game-winning single off New York Yankees closer Mariano Rivera in the ninth inning of Game 7 of the World Series. As the Diamondbacks have trimmed payroll – the team dealt the aces of the 2001 World Series, Curt Schilling and Randy Johnson – Gonzalez has become the last link to the franchise’s finest hour.

“This is a guy that, you think about the Arizona Diamondbacks, and Luis Gonzalez is the face of the team,” manager Bob Melvin said.

But change is a constant in major league baseball. Gonzalez could become expendable if the Diamondbacks fall out of contention this season and decide to build for the future.

With Gonzalez due to make $11.5 million this year, a trade could be difficult. Gonzalez has the right to veto any trade as a player with at least 10 years in the majors and five with the same club.

Gonzalez’s teammates won’t believe he’s gone until his locker is empty. As Gonzalez chatted with reporters before Wednesday’s workout, infielder Alex Cintron walked past and whispered, “He won’t retire. He’s going to hit 30 home runs.”

Perhaps. There was a time when Gonzalez’ batting numbers were as reliable as those on a calendar. He enters his 17th season in the major leagues with a career .285 batting average, 316 home runs and 1,251 RBIs.

But his production fell off dramatically last year as he struggled with elbow and shoulder injuries. His 24 homers, 79 RBIs and .271 batting average were his lowest numbers in those categories in any full season with Arizona.

Gonzalez said he feels stronger than he has in recent springs. He lifted weights during the offseason and even took boxing lessons to improve his strength and flexibility.

“For me, it was frustrating the last couple of years because you know you’re not 100 percent and you’re trying to make it through,” Gonzalez said. “I don’t pay (attention to) the age stuff, because when you have love for the game and you go out there and play hard, I feel like I’m in better shape than a lot of young guys. I work just as hard as those guys do. That doesn’t bother me. They can say whatever they want about your age and stuff like that, but if you can go out there and still produce, it doesn’t matter.”

Gonzalez said he doesn’t know how many more years he’d like to play but said he hopes to reach 3,000 hits. He enters this season with 2,214, which is 15th among active major leaguers.

With heavy-hitting third baseman Troy Glaus having been traded, Gonzalez will be asked to provide much of Arizona’s power. Melvin, for one, expects a lot out of Gonzalez, who is likely to bat cleanup this year after batting third in 2005.

“It wouldn’t surprise me if he had a career year this year,” Melvin said.

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