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The Boston Globe

Sports

Jonny Gomes is a survivor who makes good

Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff

FORT MYERS, Fla. — Jonny Gomes cried. Bawled, really, sitting in the dugout after the home run. His teammates looked at him strangely, this guy on the end of the bench, his eyes leaking.

They didn’t know. He couldn’t tell them.

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He had waited all spring for an at-bat. But that wasn’t what turned him into a weepy mess.

Gomes was scarcely four months removed from the heart attack that nearly cost him his life at 22 years old. Ten years later, he’s set to begin his Red Sox career.

“I [expletive] lost it,” Gomes said. “Lost it like a [expletive] 3-year-old kid who had his fricking toy taken away. I was a [expletive] mess.

“No one knew. I wasn’t wearing a shirt that said I had a heart attack. They just thought I was a kid, homer, Jonny Baseball. Dream comes true and he’s going to [expletive] shed one. I just couldn’t handle it.”

He had been lying to trainers while waiting for his chance in the majors. He was getting lightheaded in workouts, struggling to keep his heartbeat normal.

Six months later he got his first call-up.

“Everyone talks about the heart attack and stuff, and me and him look at that and we’re like, ‘If they only knew,’ ” Gomes’s older brother Joey said. “You go back and look at it, we seriously must have had 20 lives growing up. For a while we thought we just couldn’t die, I guess.”

Jonny Gomes, though, almost did. There was the heart attack. The car accident that claimed the life of his best friend. The childhood that sometimes lacked a permanent address. The trifecta, as Gomes calls it, which formed his personality and his view on life.

“It sounds cliché, but it’s like if you’re around me, you see how I go about my every day,” Gomes said. “You can’t ruin my day. You’re not going to ruin my day.”

It was the day before Christmas in 2002. The brothers had gone looking for last-minute gifts, and found enormous burritos for themselves. That’s why Jonny thought the sensation in his chest was indigestion.

There were shooting pains down his arm, which he assumed came from his latest workout. Nothing pointed to a heart attack.

He went to bed. He woke up. The discomfort was still there. He went to the hospital that afternoon.

“At this time I’m literally 100 percent manually breathing,” Gomes said. “Like if I don’t focus on a breath in, breath out, I’m going.”

The cardiologist who examined Gomes, Dr. Brian Strunk, told ESPN in 2011 that no drugs or steroids had been found in Gomes’s system to cause the anteroseptal myocardial infarction.

One of the three arteries that goes to his heart had pinched. And there was no guarantee that he was going to make it.

“Terrifying,” his mother, Michelle Gillespie Gomes, said. “When he was in the hospital I could barely go there because it was too much.”

She called a surgeon. She asked if it was possible to recover. He told her the heart is a muscle. He told her it can repair itself.

“I knew right then and there that Jonny was going to be fine,” she said. “Because I knew if it was possible, he would do it. And he did it.”

When Gomes was 16, he went joyriding with friends in Petaluma, Calif. — wine country, where he grew up. The driver lost control of the car at a high speed.

Gomes was in the backseat with his best friend, Adam Westcott, a fellow baseball player. The car hit a telephone pole. The door next to Westcott took a direct hit.

Westcott was, as Gomes said, “basically gone.” But Gomes took his shirt off, fashioned a tourniquet, tried to do anything he could.

Gomes refused the ambulance ride, knowing that ambulances were expensive and there was no money to spare. He consented only to a police ride to the hospital. Westcott died.

“I was mad,” said Gomes, who has a tattoo with Westcott’s initials. “But at the same time I made a pact to carry on his legacy. You take the positive out of everything, but you’ve still got to be a competitor, get mad, and have feelings and care.”

Gomes uses the word “homeless,” but struggles with it. He knows the connotations. He doesn’t believe they applied to him.

On the few occasions his mother went to a food bank, she quietly slipped the groceries into Safeway bags. She didn’t want her boys to know.

“I never really wanted my kids to have to worry that we didn’t have,” Michelle Gillespie Gomes said. “I did the worrying. I didn’t want them to be burdened with that.”

There was an eviction, a gap until new arrangements could be made. The brothers often stayed at friends’ houses, turning play time into a dinner invitation into a sleepover. No one knew. They didn’t want the sympathy.

Sports were prioritized. Paying for camp was more important than paying the electricity bill. It was, as Gomes said, “Fend for yourself,” whether that meant baseball equipment or food.

“We just did what we had to do to survive.”

When Gomes looks back, he sees how he could have lamented his path, been envious of others.

“I could have been bitter about not having anything in high school,” he said. “I could have been bitter about my best friend dying and having to deal with death at 16 years old. And then my own health. Just kind of took the positive out of all those.”

It shows. It’s the reason players like David Price call Gomes one of the best teammates he’s ever had. It’s the reason former manager Joe Maddon calls him a “present-tense guy.” Perhaps one of the reasons he’s been on three different division-winning teams the last five years.

As Price said, “He makes you want to be a better teammate. It affects the entire system in a good way. It brings people together.”

It comes from a genuine desire to treat everyone around him with respect, to appreciate what he has. To Gomes, you win “when you don’t get jealous, when you don’t root against someone, when you’re not selfish.”

“I don’t have the biggest family going, so when I’m on a team, that’s my family,” Gomes said. “I treat them like my family. The conversation, the brotherhood, all that, is something I look forward to.”

He watched veteran teammates — Scott Rolen, Cliff Floyd, Jim Edmonds — help younger players, saw them do it the “right” way, and he wanted to do the same. He rooted for his teammates — even the platoon partners whose failure could aid his success.

He remembered that baseball is not assured, nor is breathing. As he said, “I think that kind of gets lost when you’re in the big leagues. You forget that tomorrow is not a guarantee. You forget you are replaceable.”

“This is what it’s all about,” said Red Sox teammate Shane Victorino, who has played against Gomes since the minors. “It’s the kind of story that motivates me.

“There’s a guy sitting next to me that nearly lost his life. And now look at what he’s made of it.”

***

A look at Gomes’ production

The Red Sox are expecting Jonny Gomes to be a big run producer against lefthanded pitching. Gomes has had a better OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging percentage) against lefties than righties in each of his eight full-time major league seasons except his rookie year:

SeasonTeamOPS vs. LHPOPS vs. RHP
2005TB.888.914
2006TB1.051.648
2007TB.918.730
2008TB.705.595
2009Cin..914.859
2010Cin..856.709
2011Cin./Was..863.654
2012Oak..974.715

Amalie Benjamin can be reached at abenjamin@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @amaliebenjamin.

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