Tough road to majors hardens Reds' Gomes

Tough times go away. Tough people don't.

Those words are tattooed on the right arm of Cincinnati Reds starting left fielder Jonny Gomes, who was homeless and survived two brushes with death before making it to the majors.

"Tough times are different for people, but you have to keep your head up and be a tough person, don't be a tough time," said Gomes, whose Reds will play the Chicago Cubs at 1 p.m. today in an exhibition game at Cashman Field.

The gritty Gomes, 30, was born and raised in Petaluma, Calif., where he, his mother, Michelle, and older brother, Joey, sometimes had to spend nights at a homeless shelter.

When Gomes was a sophomore at Casa Grande High School, his best friend, Adam Westcott, was killed in a car accident in which Gomes was seated next to him in the back seat. Gomes, who escaped serious injury, has Westcott's initials tattooed on his arm.

An 18th-round pick of the Tampa Bay Rays in 2001, a seemingly healthy Gomes suffered a heart attack at age 22 on Christmas Eve 2002.

Thinking he had indigestion, Gomes slept through the night, but the next day his mother took him to the hospital, where he underwent an emergency angioplasty to unclog a heart valve.

Doctors told Gomes he would have died had he not gone to the hospital.

After fearing his career could be over, Gomes was cleared to play less than three months later and made his major league debut that season for the Rays.

He finished third in the American League Rookie of the Year voting in 2005 and had three productive seasons for Tampa Bay before faltering in 2008, when he was left off the playoff roster and could only watch as the Rays advanced to the World Series.

Gomes agreed to a minor league deal with Cincinnati in 2009 and had 20 home runs and 51 RBIs for the Reds.

He had a career year last season, his first as an everyday player, batting .266 with 18 homers and a career-high 86 RBIs to help lead the Reds to the National League Central title.

Gomes has struggled this spring, going 1-for-17 with a homer, but manager Dusty Baker has named him his starting left fielder.

"Gomes deserves to play most of the time," Baker said, quashing speculation that he would platoon Gomes with veteran Fred Lewis and prospect Chris Heisey. "There are times when depending on who we're facing or whatever I need, that Jonny won't be playing. I explained that to him.

"That's right now. Now June, July or August, who knows? It depends on how Jonny is doing."

Off the field, Gomes is enjoying life. He's married with two children -- 16-month-old daughter Zoe and son Colt, who was born on Valentine's Day -- and will make $1.75 million this year.

Despite the dark days he's endured, Gomes, who sports a Mohawk hairdo, is one of the most colorful characters on the Reds and strives to keep the clubhouse loose.

"When you have adversity and have almost bumped into death a few times, you learn to take every day like it's your last," he said. "And keep smiles on faces."

■ NOTES -- The Reds will be led by reigning NL Most Valuable Player Joey Votto and outfielder Drew Stubbs in today's split-squad game. The Cubs will feature outfielders Alfonso Soriano and Kosuke Fukudome. ... Right-hander Carlos Zambrano is slated to start for Chicago at 1 p.m. Sunday against the Los Angeles Dodgers, who are expected to start right-hander Rubby De La Rosa. The Dodgers will showcase former 51s stars James Loney and Matt Kemp along with shortstop Rafael Furcal. ... Reserved seats are available for today's game, and grass seats are available for Sunday's game. The tickets cost $35 each.

Contact reporter Todd Dewey at or 702-383-0354.