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Rays' former teammates miss Gomes' fearless style

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Published:   |   Updated: March 20, 2013 at 02:06 PM
HOUSTON -

There is a framed photo hanging on the wall of Andy Sonnanstine's bedroom that shows Sonnanstine trying to separate former Yankee Shelley Duncan and former Ray Jonny Gomes during the famous dustup between the two in spring training 2008.

Gomes signed the photo: "Sonny, I always got your back."

Ask his former teammates in the Tampa Bay clubhouse about him, and one of the first things they say about Gomes is that he did, indeed, always have their back.

"Something goes down like that, he wants to be the first guy out there," B.J. Upton said. "He was always there for us."

Gomes returns to Tropicana Field on Monday when the Rays begin a three-game series with the Reds. It's the first trip back for Gomes, who was released by the team after the 2008 season.

It's a pretty safe bet Rays fans, who still miss his gritty, can-do attitude and the swagger he brought to a young team, will give Gomes a warm reception.

"They loved him when he was here," James Shields said. "How could you not? He played the game the right way, he played the game hard. He's had to scrap his whole career. For him to be where he's at right now is awesome. He works hard. He's one of the hardest-working guys I know."

On the field, Gomes provided some power during his days in Tampa Bay. He hit home runs. He drove in runs. Slid head first. Nobody slapped a head harder when celebrating a walk-off win.

He once jumped into the ring to join the action during "Legends of Wrestling Night" after a home game in May 2007, hitting one combatant with a garbage can. The can remained in front of his locker for the remainder of the season, his dented trophy from a wild night.

There were more talented players on the team, but none could match the moxie of Jonny Gomes. That's why, despite being left off the 2008 postseason roster, Gomes remained with the team and watched the games from the dugout.

"Smart move by Joe (Maddon)," Sonnanstine said. "Because if you took him out of the equation, maybe we're not as aggressive, don't have that 'we're not going to lose' mentality. Even if he's not playing, you need that guy in the dugout."

When you measure the impact Gomes had on the team, the last place to start, according to Sonnanstine, were his numbers.

"He does wonders that don't really show in the stat line," Sonnanstine said. "There's no statistic for clubhouse chemistry and making everybody feel invincible."

The Rays had to get past the mighty Yankees and Red Sox to reach the 2008 World Series. They fought with both. Gomes was in the middle of both brawls, receiving a two-game suspension for his fight with Duncan in spring training and five games for his role in a June melee at Fenway Park.

Don't underestimate the impact those incidents had on the young team. Gomes looked at the aura of those two franchises and started throwing punches. His teammates followed his lead.

"He was the muscle," J.P. Howell said. "He was never scared."

But Gomes was also the voice. He kept things loose with his comments and jokes and wasn't afraid to get in a teammate's face if he felt it was warranted.

Gomes and his older brother Joey, a one-time Rays prospect, were raised by their single mother in Petaluma, Calif. Life wasn't easy. In high school, Gomes walked away from a car accident that killed his best friend. He survived a heart attack when he was 22.

That's why Gomes wasn't afraid of the Red Sox and the Yankees, and why life in the big leagues was like living in Shangri La.

"His style is priceless," Sonnanstine said. "He treats every day as if he's on Cloud 9. … He's absolutely one of the best teammates I ever had. I miss playing with him."

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