WASHINGTON -- One is a 27-year-old starting pitcher, a two-time All-Star with one of the best curveballs in the sport. The other is a 21-year-old Army cadet whose future will likely lead him to a battlefield rather than a baseball diamond. Yet, Nationals lefty Gio Gonzalez and Armany Hidalgo have more in common than you'd think.
Before Washington's game against the Mets on June 4, Gonzalez and Hidalgo shook hands on the edge of the outfield grass. They met on a sun-splashed afternoon at Nationals Park to talk about the values that bridge their respective lives. Family. Philanthropy. Honor. And above all else, loyalty.
"I'm very loyal to my family, I'm loyal to my friends, I'm loyal to the fans that have been loyal to me," said Gonzalez, who is 3-3 with a 3.34 ERA this season. "Loyalty to you and to me is almost like I'm not going to turn my back on you. You need my help? I'm going to be there."
Nobody understands that better than Hidalgo, a senior finance major and member of the Army ROTC program at St. John's University in New York. For the past three years, Hidalgo has participated in regimented fitness, weapons and tactical training programs with his fellow corps members. After he graduates from school next spring, he will commission as a second lieutenant in the Army.
Despite their differences in age and careers, Hidalgo and Gonzalez bonded over a number of shared experiences. Both have Hispanic roots, and they share similar interests and owe much of their success to their respective fathers.
Max Gonzalez worked multiple jobs to help raise Gio and his siblings. The elder Gonzalez also taught his son how to throw that trademark curveball, using a grip that the Nationals southpaw has not changed to this day. Meanwhile, Sergio Hidalgo is a retired major in the military and returned home from his final tour of duty in October. He taught his son about the values of the Army as well as the history behind it.
"I've always been around military lifestyle. He would teach me about discipline, duty, respect, loyalty, all the Army values," Hidalgo said of his father. "He opened the door for me."
When Superstorm Sandy ravaged the East Coast, Hidalgo led a group of 20 cadets from St. John's to Rockaway, N.J., where they helped a lieutenant and his parents recover from the storm. Gonzalez has poured the same philanthropic spirit into his nonprofit, the Giving Individuals Opportunities (GIO) Foundation.
"I'm honored to even talk to you right now," Gonzalez told Hidalgo.
After representing Team USA in the World Baseball Classic in March, Gonzalez said he was excited to simply be in the presence of someone like Hidalgo, who represents his country on a daily basis. The two exchanged stories of what it was like to put on their uniforms for the first time and see the letters "USA" sprawled across their chests.
"Wearing this uniform, I feel that it's more than just me," Hidalgo said. "I'm with the entire Army, but more than that, I'm with the entire military all over the world. I'm just a fraction of the whole."
Added Gonzalez: "It's the highest honor you can have, to represent your country, to represent the people that have stuck by your side."
As the two continued to talk and batting practice approached, the conversation turned to Spanish. Hidalgo's father joined in, followed by Nationals closer Rafael Soriano, then reliever Fernando Abad.
While the daily grind of baseball cannot even begin to compare to the challenges of military service, Hidalgo said that the same values are there. As he prepares for a career in the armor division or finance corps of the U.S. Army, Hidalgo was comforted by the bonds that he shares with the Nationals lefty.
"We actually have a lot of similarities," Hidalgo said. "It's definitely a life-changing experience and something that I'll carry on and tell my grandkids one day."
Tom Schad is an associate reporter for MLB.com.