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Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Interview Part 1: Tom Gamboa, Accomplished Something

Brooklyn Cyclones manager Tom Gamboa talks to Tri-City skipper Ed Romero before an August 2014 game at Tri-City. (G21D Photo)
Part 1: Accomplished Something | Part 2: Common Good
Part 3: Strange Deal | Part 4: Truly Passionate
Part 5: Player Stories

TROY, NY - Tom Gamboa wishes he could say it was more exciting than it was.

"I think for all the years that I had put in, my reaction, rather than excitement, was more like 'well, it was about time,'" Gamboa recalled to The Greatest 21 Days recently.

He was referring to his promotion to the majors in 1998 as third base coach for the Chicago Cubs.

It was a promotion that came after more than a quarter century in the game. He spent that time as a scout, minor league manager and coordinator and he'd been successful. He did all that after growing up loving baseball as a kid in Southern California.

Exactly what had happened - exactly what he had achieved - with that promotion to the majors, Gamboa said didn't really sink in until about three weeks into the season. The season opener had come and gone. The Chicago opener at historic Wrigley Field had come and gone.

It sank in, Gamboa said, as his Cubs visited the Los Angeles Dodgers.

"When I went out to coach third at Dodger Stadium," Gamboa said, "and looked out in the bleachers where I used to sit when I was in high school at Dodger games, then I did get real internal excitement of 'Oh my gosh, I really have accomplished something in my life."

Tom Gamboa at Bruno Stadium in Troy, NY, in August 2014 as his Brooklyn Cyclones warm up in right field. (G21D Photo)
Gamboa spoke to The Greatest 21 Days recently at Joe Bruno Stadium in Troy, NY, where his Brooklyn Cyclones were visiting the Tri-City Valley Cats. Gamboa served as manager of the Cyclones in 2014.

Sitting at the top of the Bruno Stadium stands, Gamboa covered his youth, growing up and learning the game from his father. He recalled declaring that if he didn't make it as a player, he'd continue on as a coach.

Gamboa didn't make it as a player. And he continued on as a coach and scout until he finally made the majors.

Gamboa also recalled the moment in 2002 that he became the symbol of fan violence, attacked on the field. He was blindsided by a father and son during a game in Chicago. Briefly knocked unconscious by the assault, Gamboa recalled coming back around by a punch to his jaw. (Part 3)

Gamboa traces his love for the game back to when he was 10 years old, growing up in the Los Angeles area. He recalled knowing then that baseball was where he would spend his career.

That realization, he said, came when he played his first Little League game.

"I was fortunate that I found my passion the first game I ever played," Gamboa said. "The adrenaline rush I got, I knew I was going to be doing it my whole life."

Gamboa recalled growing up in a broken home. He didn't know anything about the game until his mother Polly married the man who would be his stepfather, the man who gave him his name and the man he came to see as his real father, Jack Gamboa.
Brooklyn manager Tom Gamboa talks with Michael Conforto before an August 2014 game at Tri-City. (G21D Photo)
"He taught me how to play," Gamboa said. "After work, he played catch with me, he hit me ground balls, throw batting practice."

Jack Gamboa also signed his son up for Little League.

Wearing that uniform, being part of that team and the comroderie of it all, Gamboa said he knew he'd found his passion.

"I never wavered," Gamboa said. "I kind of gave up on the other sports and played baseball year-round. I never really thought about it. It was just a way of life."

He also recalled his father trying to inject a dose of reality into his son and his lofty goals. The younger Gamboa might not be good enough to play professionally, he recalled his father saying.

"I said, 'It won't make any difference,'" Gamboa recalled. "'I'll play until I can't play anymore and then I'll be a coach. And that's basically what I've done with my whole life."

Gamboa played through high school and through college. He recalled being good enough for the Orioles to keep tabs on him. They even drafted him out of high school, but he chose college.

The decision wasn't a hard one, he recalled. He had a full scholarship to play at UC Santa Barbara. A friend of his was also going to the school. They got to play four years together.

He also got to play summer collegiate ball in California, on a team comprised of players the Orioles had an interest in. Coming out of college, though, Gamboa had no takers.
Brooklyn Cyclone Adrian Abreu waits for a pitch at Bruno Stadium in Troy, NY, in August 2014. (G21D Photo)
That led him to Canada and Stratford, Ont. He played the summers of 1970 and 1971 for a team there. An assistant coach at Santa Barbara was connected to a team in the league and, when Gamboa wasn't drafted, he invited Gamboa to up play.

He played well. He was an all-star both years. More importantly, though, halfway through his second season, the manager of his Stratford team was fired. The man the club chose to take over as a player-manager was the young Gamboa.

Gamboa recalled playing center field and giving signs to the bullpen on who to get up. He then called time out, walked in to the mound and made the pitching change.

"It gave me an early head start into, even when I was playing, in thinking about managerial decisions," Gamboa said. 

He also saw an early end to his playing career. Those two seasons in Canada ended up being the extent of it.

But in Gamboa's mind, he had achieved something. He played two years post college. He was also twice an all-star in his league.

"In my own niche," Gamboa said, "I felt like I was successful. But I knew that my skills weren't good enough to play in the big leagues."

Instead, he turned his focus on coaching. He returned to California and became a teacher and  a varsity baseball coach. He also went to night school with the goal of getting his masters.

Then the Orioles came calling. They wanted him, not as a coach, but as a scout. So, he stopped everything and became a scout. (Continue to Part 2)

Part 1: Accomplished Something | Part 2: Common Good
Part 3: Strange Deal Part 4: Truly Passionate
Part 5: Player Stories

Go to Part 2: Tom Gamboa, Common Good

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