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A catcher's journey

When asked about the journey that took him from his hometown of Panama City, Panama to the United States and ultimately to being a catcher for the Georgia Bulldogs, Fernando Gonzalez offered a simple smile.

His reason was simple. Realizing one's dream is about exciting as it gets.

With the encouragement and blessing of parents Yaravy and Alexander Gonzalez, Gonzalez was 16 when he moved from Panama to Florida, ultimately matriculating to just outside of Marietta where he spent his junior and senior years attending North Cobb Christian High.

The goal: to get his high school degree so he could play college baseball.

“It’s been great. When you make these kinds of decisions and look back, you think about what would have happened if I had not gone that way,” Gonzalez said. “But you look at everything, I’ve got my high school degree, I’m playing baseball at a D1 school in the SEC … you sit down and say I’m in the right place.”

Bulldog skipper Scott Stricklin certainly believes so.

As Georgia gets ready for the first official day of preseason drills on Friday, he’ll do so knowing the Bulldogs’ situation at catcher could not be in better hands.

Gonzalez’s freshman year saw him start 33 games behind the plate, where he set a school record with a perfect 1,000 fielding percentage while throwing out 45 percent of baserunners who attempted to steal.

How much do Georgia pitchers enjoy having him behind the plate? Fellow sophomore Liam Sullivan is quick to chime in.

“I love Fernando behind the plate. He receives the ball really well, he helps me steals strikes and I feel really good with him every time on the mound,” Sullivan said. “He’s not super loud, but he’s always there for you and when he needs to, he’ll slow you down.”

With a year under his belt, Gonzalez hopes to be even more of a help to his pitchers and ultimately the entire Bulldog team.

“You’ve got a lot of things last year that you’ve got to learn,” he said. “You go back, and you watch the things of what you should have done. This year will be a lot better because you’ll have those experiences.”

To say Gonzalez’ literally fell into Georgia’s lap would not be incorrect to say.

It was the summer of 2019, and with Stricklin and his staff concerned that touted commit Corey Collins was going to go high in the major league draft, finding another catcher suddenly became a priority.

So, after getting the OK from Collins, Stricklin, pitching coach Sean Kenny and hitting coach Scott Daeley put the word out that the Bulldogs were in the market for a catcher.

A short time later, Stricklin received a call.

“We a call from a summer coach who said I got a guy, he’s from Panama. I remember saying ‘he’s a Florida kid?’ He said no, he’s from Panama ... Panama City, Panama,” Stricklin recalled.

That’s when the wheels in Stricklin’s headed started to spin.

“Your first thought is, ok, he’s a Latin kid, does he speak English? I don’t know. We don’t have any foreign kids, but track and field, tennis and golf do, so is he able to pass TOEFL test? Is he equip to do that? I don’t know. I didn’t any of that,” Stricklin said. “I don’t know anything other than he’s a Latin American catcher, and most of those guys are playing professional ball. Then you ask yourself, if he’s good enough to play and is from Latin America, why is he not playing pro ball?”

Stricklin’s concerns went away.

“You find out that his dad’s a lawyer, his mom is a banking professional and they wanted him to come to this country and get a college degree, to get a high school degree so he can play college baseball,” Stricklin said. "So then, you start to say, OK, this guy came to the United States to play college baseball.

He originally moved to Florida, then moved to the Marietta area. So, that summer coach helped us out, just by saying I’ve got a guy. After we got through the first minute of the conversation, we realized this might be something that we’re looking for.”

One recruiting trip later by Daeley and that notion was confirmed.

“He (Daeley) sent me a text and said no-brainer,” Stricklin said. “We get to talk to Fernando and realize what he’s all about. He’s such a good kid, great head on his shoulder, great student. It was about a two-week recruiting process where he came over here a couple of times, his parents flew in, they came over to see campus and it just clicked.”

It did not take Gonzalez long to start clicking on the field, and as the season progressed, so did his bat.

By the time, the season was over, this “defensive” catcher wound up batting .254 overall, but in SEC play hit .293 with two homers and 12 RBI.

“One of the things I’ve worked on is slowing the game down. I feel last year I had a lot of at-bats where I wanted to do too much; I was thinking too much,” Gonzalez said. “This year, with the experience and knowing how the league works, it’s going to help me as far as not wasting at-bats and making sure whatever I do, it helps the team in some way.”

Stricklin expects Gonzalez’s overall game will take another step forward this spring.

“I think he’s a middle of the order hitter to be honest with you, but he doesn’t have to hit in the middle of the order on this team. He’ll hit in the back of the lineup for us, which makes us a really deep lineup. It could be Chaney Rogers, Parks Harber and Fernando Gonzalez hitting 7-8-9 … could be,” Stricklin said. “You look at that, it’s 1-2-3 for a lot of people, so we feel really good about our club offensively and how Fernando fits in, but long with being a defensive catcher, we feel he can be an offensive force.”

Fernando Gonzalez' journey has
Fernando Gonzalez' journey has (Mackenzie Miles/UGA Sports Communications)