Mining for Paul Goldschmidt's gold
Even while atop the baseball world -- as he is now, with some of the best offensive numbers in all of baseball over the last three weeks -- the Diamondbacks' 24-year-old first baseman cannot be flattered nor coaxed into saying much of anything about himself.
But there are plenty of others lined up who are more than eager to do that for him.
"Paul's an easy one to talk about," said Goldschmidt's high school baseball coach at The Woodlands High School in The Woodlands, Texas, Ron Eastman. "He's about as hard- working and as humble a young man as you could ever want in your program."
Eastman isn't alone in such sentiment. He shares it with, well, just about anyone you'll talk to about Goldschmidt, regardless of how well they may know him.
Throughout the game, the two couples sitting in front of Harrington seemed intrigued by the bits they were hearing of the coach's conversation, intermittently peeking over their shoulders and turning their ears to get a better listen. Then, later in the game, after hearing several innings' worth of pretty enlightened baseball conversation, one of the ladies turned around to ask Harrington who he was -- whether he was a coach or somehow connected to the Diamondbacks organization.
After some digging, the four learned of Harrington's relationship with Goldschmidt and engaged in a full-blown, backs-to-the-field conversation with the coach. But before they got too far, they had to know: "Is Paul really that humble?" Harrington, jazzed by the opportunity to brag on his old first baseman, smiled and affirmed that quality of Goldschmidt's, gladly giving examples of his work ethic, character, and leadership.
"Paul is still Paul, and that's refreshing," Harrington told me over the phone on Monday. "He respects his coaches. He respects his teammates. He respects the game of baseball. What you see is what this guy is."
Guys like Goldschmidt never come this humble. He's brawny in stature, at 6-foot-3 and 230-pounds, Herculean in strength, crushing 471-foot home runs, and lavish in history, hitting home runs in state championship games and grand slams as a rookie in postseason games. But you'd never know that if you talked to him.
"Any awards anything personal like that kind of goes out the window for me. I'm just trying to help the team win," Goldschmidt said, looking completely disinterested in another question about his personal accolades.
Those eight words -- "I'm just trying to help the team win" -- are staples in just about every Goldschmidt interview. That approach has paid some dividends.
While playing for Coach Eastman in his senior year of high school, Goldschmidt helped lead his star-studded Highlanders baseball team -- which included current Toronto Blue Jays pitcher Kyle Drabek -- to the 2006 Texas State Championship. The team was also recognized by Baseball America and USA Today as the national champions in high school baseball, losing only one game all season in one of the country's most competitive baseball regions.
Then, in 2011, Goldschmidt spent most of the year helping the Double-A Mobile Bay Bears to their Southern League Championship, though he was not around to enjoy it. The first baseman was, instead, with the Diamondbacks, helping the big league club to capture the division, contributing eight home runs and 26 runs batted in in 48 games over the final two months of the season.
Maybe Goldschmidt, baseball's hottest hitter over the last three weeks, ought to consider nixing a couple of words from that phrase of his, to say: "I'm just helping the team win."
Instead, Goldschmidt will probably stick to his typical courtesies -- highlighting the contributions of his teammates rather than talking about his own game exploits.
The hard worker
"Paul Goldschmidt might be the hardest worker you'll ever meet," Coach Harrington told me. "Seriously.
You and I will be working for him one day. Whenever this kid finishes his career in baseball, he's not just going to kick back. He's going to start some sort of business or something, and he'll be really successful at it. He's successful at whatever he does."
After hitting a home run in his first at-bat of the season, Goldschmidt finished the month of April with a .193 batting average and a slugging percentage that was well below .300, recording just three extra-base hits in 18 games. He was averaging a strikeout per game and was losing significant playing time to the left-handed hitting Lyle Overbay. But, of course, he never let up.
"A lot of stuff is out of your control," Goldschmidt said, as we discussed his early season struggles. "You know, whether you get a hit, get sent down, called up -- whether it's good or bad, it's out of your control. So during those struggles, my focus remains on the stuff I can control -- my work ethic, my hustle, stuff like that."
A lot of times, failure improves our work ethic. That wasn't the case with Goldschmidt. His work ethic is a constant -- an indelible trait that manifests in times of failure, success, and everything between, something that's still alive today in San Marcos, Texas, according to Coach Harrington.
"Paul's legacy still lives in the Texas State baseball program. It's alive in our locker room. It's alive in our weight room. It's alive in our academics. He did so many unbelievable things for us, and he was the one who really pulped the working environment we have today."
Goldschmidt, I learned, isn't really much of a question answerer. He's an asker.
Alan Zinter, former hitting coach of the High-A Visalia Rawhide, remembers when the 21-year-old Goldschmidt played for him.
"Paul's very structured in his routines and he's committed to improving his game every day. He's humble, so he's not afraid to ask questions and to observe and absorb information." Zinter picked up on something that Diamondbacks Manager Kirk Gibson would later notice, after Goldschmidt was called up to the big leagues last season.
"Goldy's got a good head on his shoulders," Gibson said earlier this season. "He's a good student of the game. He asks a lot of questions, has a lot of conversation with the veterans and with our coaches."
"That's something I learned back in college," Goldschmidt said. "When you're the freshman, you talk to the upper classmen and just try to learn from them. And we've got a lot of veterans on this team and a great coaching staff, so I like to talk to them and pick their brains."
One of Goldschmidt's favorite interviews is 10-year veteran Lyle Overbay, who has been instrumental in the 24- year-old's acclimation to the major league level.
"We talk a lot, but I don't consider myself his teacher," Overbay told me. "We mostly just talk through situational stuff, defensive stuff. Whenever he has any questions as far as that kind of thing, you know I've kind of experienced a lot of that through my 10 years where he doesn't have that experience. But if he can ask about that kind of stuff now, it may not take him 10 years to figure all that out. And we talk quite a bit."
That inquisitive nature is, again, a rarity for a player with Goldschmidt's sum of talent -- players who have thrived at the lower levels and, all too often, think they may know all they need to know. But Goldschmidt's studious, inquisitive nature flows from his humble, hard- working makeup, according to Harrington.
"Don't underestimate his baseball IQ. When Paul was on the bench [at Texas State], he was at work with every single pitch -- studying the opposing pitcher, talking through situations with the coaches, creating a plan, appreciating the game."
August 1, 2011 was the day Goldschmidt was called up to the Diamondbacks from Double-A Mobile. The team was set to begin an all-important series against the division-leading and World Champion Giants in San Francisco, whom they trailed by two games in the pennant race.
Goldschmidt got the start at first base and singled off of Matt Cain in his first at-bat. The next night, Goldschmidt hit a go-ahead two-run home run off of Tim Lincecum in the fifth inning, immediately helping the team to a series win and a division tie. A month later, Goldschmidt's new manager was seeing what Eastman and Harrington and Zinter had seen in the years prior.
"What he's done is he's become a part of this team," the skipper responded. "His performance is really uplifting and inspiring. It really is. And you just have to be in awe of him. We all are."
More than on-the-field performance, though, Gibson was beginning to learn exactly who Goldschmidt, the humble, hard-working, studious teammate was, after just a handful of games for the Diamondbacks.
"He has shown tremendous character up here," the manager said at the time. "Just controlling his emotions and playing the game the way he's capable of playing it. He has gone about his business and worked hard. The kid really asks a lot of questions, trying to better understand at-bats and defensive situations."
That was last season, though. Things are different this year. Not with Goldschmidt's makeup, of course, but with his numbers.
In 51 games this season, Goldschmidt has matched his home run and RBI total from the 48 games he played in last season, while upping his batting average by nearly 50 points -- to .293 -- and his on-base-plus-slugging percentage by more than 80 -- to .890.
It took me a while to dig into who Paul Goldschmidt was. But after some mining, I found that there's more gold in him than what you see arranged on the back of his jersey. The hottest hitter in baseball is full of the stuff.
Paul Goldschmidt failed to extend his hitting streak on Tuesday night against the Rangers. But even if he was able to extend it, you know he wouldn't have talked about it. He would have just used a familiar eight-word phrase.
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