That Gomes even became a baseball player is surprising when you consider he was born in Brazil, the son of Decio Gomes, a former professional tennis player and current coach. But thanks in part to the influence of Japanese immigration to São Paulo, Gomes was introduced to baseball at a young age, showed promise, and chose it over tennis.
“My friends never asked me why he doesn’t play tennis,” Decio Gomes said in a telephone interview from his home in Miami. “They said, ‘Why doesn’t he play soccer?’ ”
Soccer, of course, is the pulse of Brazil. But when Yan was a boy, his hometown, Mogi das Cruzes, was known for its youth baseball program. Yan and his two brothers loved the game, and continued to play it after the family moved to Miami when Yan was about 12.
Decio Gomes, who had grown up in a tennis-playing family, initially tried to carve out a career on the sport’s satellite tour, as it used to be known. He played in small tournaments across South America for little money, but after two years of that uncompromising life, he turned to coaching. Most recently, he is the varsity tennis coach (boys and girls) at Westminster Christian Academy, Alex Rodriguez’s old school.
Meanwhile, Yan and his brothers played tennis here and there as they grew up. The family, after relocating to Miami, were regular visitors to the annual tournament in Key Biscayne, Fla. Yan said he once had the opportunity at a clinic to hit with Justin Gimelstob and guesses that he might be the biggest tennis fan among professional baseball players.
He watches the big tournaments when he has the chance, and in August he spotted Madison Keys, the United States Open women’s finalist, in the lobby of the Indians’ Manhattan hotel.
“I don’t think anyone else on the team knew who she was,” Gomes said.
Decio Gomes believes that his son’s early foray into tennis may have helped his hand-eye coordination. Learning to serve might have contributed to his son’s catapult arm, which is among the best in baseball.
Credit Ken Blaze/USA Today Sports, via Reuters
But Sandy Alomar Jr., an Indians coach and a former catcher, believes that Gomes’s strong, accurate throws are also the product of his uncanny ability to quickly extract the ball from his glove and get into a throwing motion, something Gomes and his fellow Indians catcher Roberto Perez work on regularly with Alomar.
“His transfer is one of the best I’ve ever seen,” Alomar said.
Terry Francona, the Indians’ manager, also noted that because Gomes and Perez are so feared behind the plate, the Indians rarely have to pitch out to catch potential base stealers, saving pitchers from unfavorable counts.
“I bet you we’re toward the bottom of the league in pitching out,” Francona said, and added: “We don’t have to put our pitchers in a hole, because those guys throw so well. It’s been a big weapon for us the last couple years.”
On his pickoff throw to second base on Friday, Gomes never left his knees and still fired a strike.
For Gomes, now 30, it was the product of hard work dating to his childhood. He may have dabbled in tennis, but he was singularly devoted to baseball. His father said that when his son was growing up, he never asked to have a birthday party because it was in July and he was always more interested in playing in tournaments for his baseball travel teams.
That dedication was rewarded, first in a college career at the University of Tennessee and later at Barry University in Miami Shores, Fla., and still later by a 10th-round draft selection in 2009 by the Toronto Blue Jays.
Gomes built on his reputation as a relentless worker as he moved through the minor leagues, and he made his major league debut against the Yankees in 2012, collecting two hits off Phil Hughes. But after that season, the Blue Jays traded him to Cleveland with Mike Aviles for pitcher Esmil Rogers.
At the time, Gomes was more of a utility player. But Cleveland’s bullpen coach was Kevin Cash, a former catcher and now the manager of the Tampa Bay Rays. Cash had been a scout with Toronto and felt strongly that Gomes would excel as a catcher.
“Kevin was a big part of our decision to get Yan,” said Chris Antonetti, the Indians’ general manager. “It worked out really well.”
Antonetti also noted that even if Gomes was never the most naturally gifted player, he was as dedicated as anyone else in the game. That, in fact, is part of Gomes’s ethos.
“I can’t promise that I will put up amazing numbers,” Gomes said he would tell them, “but I will promise that I will show up and work hard every single day. I truly believe that if you work hard, it’s going to pay off. If you don’t, there is always someone out there trying to take your job.”
Or, in the case of his at-bat against Betances, there is always some talented pitcher trying to get you out. What impressed Allen, the Indians’ closer, the most in that plate appearance was that Gomes had to be guarding against one of Betances’s feared breaking balls. But within a microsecond he would shift his focus, foul off the pitch and keep the at-bat going.
“After seeing six nasty breaking balls, he gets 98 up around the shoulders?” Allen said. “That’s really, really hard just to get a piece of it. He just battles and battles and battles.”
And now with a deciding Game 5 in the series looming on Wednesday night, the question is whether Gomes will have a key moment where he can battle some more.