GLENDALE, Ariz. — Yan Gomes is the most talked-about player from Brazil in Indians history. He also happens to be the only Brazilian-born player ever to play in the majors.
That happened last May, when he was called up from Triple-A Las Vegas because Adam Lind, the everyday first baseman for the Toronto Blue Jays, had fallen into a deep slump.
Gomes got his first big-league hit in his debut game, against the New York Yankees, but didn’t establish a foothold in the majors, batting .204 with four home runs and 13 RBIs in 98 at-bats.
This is Gomes’ second year at big-league spring training. He wasn’t sent back to the Blue Jays’ minor-league camp until the final week, but he had no illusions about making the roster.
“Not really,” he said. “But I did think I impressed people enough that if something happened, I had a chance to be called up.”
Who knows what Gomes’ future would be if he still were with the Jays? But Gomes and Mike Aviles were traded to the Indians in early November for reliever Esmil Rogers, and Gomes began what might become a full-time career as a catcher.
Last year and earlier, Gomes played almost everywhere on the diamond. Even in his brief time in the majors, he started 13 times at first base, six at third, five at catcher, two at designated hitter and entered at least one game as a defensive replacement in left field.
But after Tribe manager Terry Francona and his coaching staff watched Gomez behind the plate, Gomes’ career path began to change. Asked several days ago if Gomes was competing for the job of backup catcher, Francona said, “We want to see if he can develop into an everyday catcher. So far, we haven’t seen anything that would indicate he can’t.”
“I’m just ready to do anything they want me to do,” Gomes said. “I like that they’re open with me.”
The hardest part of catching, in Gomes’ view, is calling a game and learning the pitchers and hitters. Those are skills that take time to develop, and it’s difficult to short-cut the process.
The thing that has made Gomes something of a spring training sensation is his workmanship at the plate. In 25 at-bats, Gomes is hitting .348 with one home run, four doubles and six RBI.
As baseball people like to say, the ball jumps off Gomes’ bat.
“I can hit pretty good,” he said.
Last year at Las Vegas, Gomes batted .328 with 13 homers, 29 doubles and 59 RBI in 79 games.
Maybe the biggest question about Gomes is why he began playing baseball in the first place. Brazil is a hot bed of soccer; baseball is more of an afterthought.
But Gomes said he has played the game since he was six, which is six years before he and his parents, Claudia and Decio, came to the United States from Sao Paulo and settled in Miami.
Gomes “played everything like every kid does,” he said.
But one day his father had a chance meeting with a Cuban youth baseball coach at the grocery store. The coach was trying to put together a team, and Decio suggested to Yan that he head over to the field.
“You didn’t need to try out or anything,” Gomes said. “Everybody could play, but there just aren’t that many kids who did play. But I kind of fell in love with baseball.”
Gomes has little or no remaining accent from his native country after attending high school and college — Barry University and Tennessee — plus living in the U.S. for 13 years.
“When I came, I couldn’t speak a lick of English,” he said. “It was tough to get that going, but I learned pretty quick.”
The Gomes family emigrated to the U.S. not to give their son a better opportunity to make it in baseball but “to have a better life,” he said.
However, they are pleased that he has made it this far in his quest to be a major leaguer. That is not surprising, inasmuch as Decio and Claudia are former athletes who performed on the international stage.
“My dad is a tennis instructor who’s had a pretty interesting life,” Gomes said. “He turned pro when he was 18 and played a little on the circuit, but he thought he would have a better opportunity as a coach. My mother was a swimmer; she competed all around the world and swam in the Pan Am Games.”
Decio and Claudia followed their son’s budding college career closely.
“They would come to see me play at Tennessee,” he said. “They love me being in baseball.”
It might not be long before those excursions include trips to Cleveland.