He was having Thanksgiving dinner when, as looked around the table, it suddenly dawned on him that everyone — everyone except himself, Fredi Gonzalez — was attending college or held a degree from one.
The family gathering included his wife and her daughters.
“I’m sitting there thinking that I’ve been pretty successful,” said Gonzalez, who managed the Marlins and Braves at one time and is now a Marlins coach. “But I don’t have a degree.”
Gonzalez’s two children from his previous marriage had graduated college. So had his mother, who not only earned a degree while living in Cuba, but earned a second at Biscayne College (which turned into St. Thomas University) at the same time she was learning to speak English.
All of it made Gonzalez feel like an outsider in his own family because, as he said, “I didn’t have that piece of paper.” And that’s when Gonzalez “kind of threw it out there” that, at age 55, why not give college a shot?
When the Marlins open spring training on Feb. 13 in Jupiter, Gonzalez will be on hand to coach and teach, instructing players in drill upon drill, a routine he has mastered after more than 30 years in the sport.
But he will also be there to learn, returning home after the daily workouts, booting up his computer and digging into homework he has been assigned for the online college course he signed up for after his Thanksgiving epiphany.
After all these years, Gonzalez is once again a student.
With the full support and encouragement of his family, Gonzalez decided to register for classes at Immaculata University in Philadelphia, where he lives in the offseason.
“It’s one of those things I wanted to prove to myself,” Gonzalez said.
College degrees are not all that prevalent among Major League players, many of whom were drafted out of high school and immediately began playing professionally in the minors. Gonzalez is a classic example. After graduating from Miami’s Southridge High in 1982, Gonzalez — a catcher — was drafted by the New York Yankees and spent the next six years trying to work his way up through the minors.
He didn’t get very far, never advancing higher than Double A, and after hitting an anemic .101 in 1987, his playing career ended quietly. But the experience wasn’t a total waste.
Gonzalez took some courses at Miami-Dade Community College (now Miami-Dade College) during his minor-league offseasons, and after landing his first coaching gig as an assistant at the University of Tennessee, took a few more courses while there, just in case.
“I stopped playing minor-league baseball and I got married,” he said. “I wanted to get a degree because I didn’t know what I was going to do. I knew it was important for my mom and dad for all of us to have an education.”
Gonzalez’s mother was an educator in the Miami-Dade school system.
But as baseball took over his life, college fell by the wayside.
The Marlins hired Gonzalez after Miami was awarded a Major League franchise in 1991 and, one year later — one year before the Marlins played their inaugural game — he managed the Erie (Pennsylvania) Sailors in the very first minor-league game in franchise history.
Gonzalez worked his way up the coaching ladder, eventually becoming Marlins manager in 2007 and then, after being fired in 2010, replacing Bobby Cox in Atlanta as Braves manager. He was Marlins manager in 2009, the last time they finished with a winning record, and went 434-413 in six seasons with the Braves.
He’s entering his third year as the Marlins’ third-base coach.
And now he’s working toward a degree in Business Leadership and having fun with it. About 40 credit hours he earned at Miami-Dade and Tennessee transferred to Immaculata.
“I’m like a super freshman, kind of a borderline sophomore,” he said.
Gonzalez joked that he is now eligible for senior and student discounts and has teased his children about becoming a student, leaning on them for money the same way they once did.
“I told my kids, ‘I put you through college, can you guys give me a little money for books?’” said Gonzalez, who is embracing the experience and bought an Immaculata University sweatshirt to wear.
Gonzalez’s wife, Trish, said she has noticed a difference in her husband.
“I do see that it’s put a light in him,” she said. “He’s met this head on. I tease him and say ‘how many classes are you taking?’ He’s putting in a lot of time. He sits there [doing homework] with his sweatshirt on and his Immaculata cap. It’s cute. He really is enjoying it.”
For now, Gonzalez is taking just one class in business leadership.
“The first eight or nine days, I told my wife, I’m stressing out,” he said. “It’s been 35 years since I opened a book.”
Gonzalez said he intends to sign up for more classes, but not so many to interfere with his coaching job with the Marlins. He figures he will have time to study after games during the season. But his routine will change as he juggles school and work.
“Instead of going home after a game, opening a bottle of wine and watching Netflix, now I’ll open a book and try to expand my mind a little bit,” he said.
The other day, with his wife looking on, Gonzalez opened his computer to find out how he scored on his first quiz. He received a passing grade and favorable comments from his professor.
It was a moving experience, causing him to choke up with pride.
“There were a few tears,” Trish said.
Gonzalez isn’t sure where his pursuit will take him, or how long it will take.
“At the pace i’m going, it’ll take me a while,” he said of earning his degree. “But if you don’t start, you’re never going to finish. Do I need it? Probably not at this stage of the game. But at least it makes you think. It gets your juices flowing. You can still learn. We can all still learn. We can still get excited.”
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