WASHINGTON -- Left-hander Gio Gonzalez feels he is not only representing the Nationals, but the Latin community as well.
When he is on the mound, Gonzalez thinks about the Latin players, such as Roberto Clemente and Luis Tiant, who made it possible for him to be a big leaguer.
"It's an honor to have a legacy that has been going on for a while -- from Luis Tiant to Pedro Martinez to guys who have had an impact on all our lives," Gonzalez said. "You have the best of the best of Latin baseball players -- Roberto Clemente. It's an honor to have a Latin last name that contributes in that role of baseball."
Gonzalez, 26, has represented the Latin community well himself. He is a leading candidate for the National League Cy Young Award. He has a Major League-leading 20 wins, is fourth in the NL in strikeouts with 201 and has an impressive 2.84 ERA. Gonzalez has been in the big leagues since 2008 and won 57 games.
There always a smile on Gonzalez's face when Latin fans come up to him and express how they love seeing a player like him be successful in the big leagues.
"A fan came up to me and says, 'Man, you are a Latin baseball player. You mean something to the Latin world. It's an honor to just shake your hand, because you represent a small culture.' To us, it's a huge culture. It's almost a family-type of thing," Gonzalez said. "When you see that kind of stuff, it's an honor to have a Latin name like a Gonzalez, a Ramirez and a Rodriguez. It means a lot."
Gonzalez, whose family is of Cuban descent, grew up in Hialeah, Fla. He said the town is known as "Little Havana" and he often goes back there to tell the kids they could be big league ballplayers, just like him.
"I go out there and talk to the kids," Gonzalez said. "I walk with them, spend time with them. I want them to have that mentality that life in baseball is fun. It's hard work, dedication. It's putting your priorities in life and letting them know you are a representative of a small town, a small city that most people don't know what it is.
"You can put that city on the map every day of your life, not only with the city name on your back, you have your Latin name on the back. All in all, you are representing a big part of the world -- D.C., Hialeah, Oakland. There are so many parts of the world I've been honored to represent. But most importantly, it's that last name that always stands out the most."
The first person Gonzalez thinks about when he considers his success is his father, Max. It was Max who taught his son the fundamentals of pitching. Max taught Gio how to throw his famous curveball and perform his long-toss program.
It was Max who told his son to warm up his arm with a basketball and a softball. Gio said his father is the reason he has never had an arm injury.
"As a son looking at his father, it's the world," Gio said. "Not only does it mean all the hard work and all the dedication, [it means] all the sweat, blood and tears it took to get where we are at now. It means a lot. It's an honor, not only for my father, but my mother, my brother, my cousins, my aunts -- the whole family that represents my last name."
Max Gonzalez never played professional baseball. He simply studied the game and knew its history. Gio went so far as to say that Max is a walking encyclopedia when it comes to baseball history. But Max is more than just a baseball coach. He taught Gio about life.
"I could have gone a different direction. All it took was listening to someone that is really out there to help," Gio said. "I don't think he led me the wrong way. He put the time and work to give me what I needed."
When talking about his parents, Gio gets emotional. They sometimes had to call bill collectors to inform them they would be late paying a certain item. Gonzalez's mother, Yolanda Cid-Gonzalez, often worked two jobs to make sure her son became a baseball player.
"I think about the time and effort my parents put in and what they did for me," Gonzalez said. "It would have been stupid of me to walk away and leave it on the table. I think the dedication, the time and the effort, it was my way of saying, 'We did what we had to do to be where I'm at now.' Without them, I wouldn't be where I'm at now. That lets you know what a Latin family is about, what the culture is about. They are going to be by your side no matter what."