LEADING OFF for the best team in the National League: a centerfielder who spends up to three hours each morning sleeping in a hyperbaric chamber in his living room, inhaling pure oxygen to recover from the violence of the previous night's cuts. The Brewers' Carlos Gomez swings at 54.3% of the pitches he sees, the highest rate of any top-of-the-order hitter in the majors, and a good portion of the hacks that fail to make contact send him spinning down to one knee, his helmet tumbling off his nearly shaven head. Much of what Gomez does on the field comes with a surplus of swag, from his bat flips to his helmet taps to his postcatch outfield preening, but he insists that his Reggie-esque swings have nothing to do with style. "It's because," he says, "if I tried to stop [my follow-through], I think I'd break myself in half."
When the Brewers are at home, Gomez typically emerges from his hyperbaric chamber at around 9 a.m., replenished and in one piece. The 28-year-old from Santiago, Dominican Republic, fidgets around the Milwaukee condo he shares with his wife, Gerandy, whom he's known since they were in elementary school, and their two boys, Yandel, 5, and Yadiel, who was born in March, until it's time to return to Miller Park. There Gomez travels from the players' parking lot to the home clubhouse on an eZip electric scooter he keeps in his trunk. The scooter has an air horn athletic-taped to its handlebars, and if you assume he'll refrain from sounding it indoors, you don't know this MVP candidate who goes yard and swipes bases and robs homers in a manner that's as subtle and polite as an air-horn blast in a quiet clubhouse. This exuberance has endeared Gomez to Milwaukeeans and infuriated the Braves (who nearly brawled with him last year after he flipped his bat upon homering) and the Pirates (last month righthander Gerrit Cole took offense to Gomez's "pimped" triple and ignited an actual brawl). Which side you take in those skirmishes depends on how you answer this question: Are you O.K. with someone who is living the Dominican boyhood dream—"to play in the big leagues, to do what he loves"—playing with passion? Or do you believe he should have to put on a stoic face and adhere to some outmoded concept of respect for the game?
The Brewers, who got off to a 24--14 start after being projected by Vegas and most other preseason experts as a sub-.500 team, are thriving in part because they have no problem letting Gomez love the game outwardly and act as a leadoff contrarian. And why wouldn't they? Despite his impatience—he walked just 15 times in his first 173 plate appearances—Gomez had the fifth-best on-base percentage (.364) among regular NL leadoff hitters and was seventh among all batters in slugging (.558) and runs scored (26). In fact Gomez is at his best when he's at his least patient. He had made contact with the first pitch 31 times: In those plate appearances he had three home runs and an OPS of 1.484.
This is not to say that Gomez's act doesn't take some getting used to. Take his approach against the Diamondbacks on May 5: Brewers righthander Matt Garza labored through the top of the first, throwing 25 pitches, so baseball convention—and the old baseball men and the new, empirically minded ones will agree on this—dictated that Gomez take a few pitches when leading off the bottom of the inning to give Garza as much time to rest as possible. But Gomez suspected that Arizona's rookie starter Mike Bolsinger was expecting him to take. "Maybe," Gomez says, "he throw me a cookie, right down the middle." And what then? "Swing. And I'm not thinking, Hit a home run to centerfield. I'm thinking, Hit it out of the stadium to centerfield."
Bolsinger did serve up a cookie. Gomez swung so hard that he might've fallen down if he hadn't put barrel on ball, crushing it over the centerfield fence for his third leadoff homer of the season. "You take a pitch, how many seconds we give Garza to rest?" he says. "Four? Five? He's not going to rest enough. But if you go and hit a homer, he's going to have a whole minute rest. Because everybody starts to get wild."
BREWERS FANS, faced with the prospect of an awkward embrace with disgraced star Ryan Braun, who was returning from last year's 65-game suspension for his role in the Biogenesis scandal, were looking for new outlets for their affection in 2014. In February a stray, part--bichon frisé mutt wandered into the Brewers' spring training facility in Maryvale, Ariz., possibly after being hit by a car. The team—and the Internet—adopted him as an unofficial mascot, and Hank the Ballpark Pup's stuffed likeness and T-shirt are now best-selling items in the Miller Park gift shop. Fans found further objects of affection once the season began, such as Francisco Rodriguez, who hadn't closed games regularly since he was with the Mets in 2011. He took over for struggling incumbent Jim Henderson 48 hours before the first game and has gone 15 for 16 in save opportunities with an 0.45 ERA.
General manager Doug Melvin's recipe for a small-market contender has mixed highly rated homegrown talent that panned out (Braun, righthander Yovani Gallardo); homegrown talent that had less hype but reached stardom (catcher Jonathan Lucroy); emerging youngsters (righthanders Wily Peralta and Tyler Thornburg, second baseman Scooter Gennett and leftfielder Khris Davis); and calculated free-agent spends (third baseman Aramis Ramirez and righties Garza and Kyle Lohse). He has also made smart trades (for shortstop Jean Segura and unhittable lefty reliever Will Smith). None, though, was smarter than the one that delivered Gomez, who has taken over for Braun as the fan favorite and put his stamp on the franchise. Gomez arrived in a trade from Minnesota after the 2009 season in nearly as sorry a state as Hank the Dog. He was once a megaprospect: In 2002 the Mets signed him to a $60,000 contract at age 16, and he dazzled when he arrived at the team's instructional camp in Port St. Lucie, Fla., that fall. "We all thought back then that Carlos might be the next Vladimir Guerrero," says Joe Hietpas, a former catcher in the Mets' system who was at that camp. "He had everything. He was Jose Reyes fast, with the best arm in the outfield, and you saw flashes of power. He hadn't put it all together yet, but it was there."
Josh Wyrick, an outfield mate of Gomez's in rookie and low-A ball, remembers the prospect being challenged to throw a ball from home plate out of a park in Lakewood Township, N.J., in 2005. Gomez cleared the 400-foot centerfield fence with ease. Omar Minaya, who took over as the Mets' general manager in '04, recalls that Gomez's head-to-head sprints against Reyes in spring training were major events: "There was this excitement around it, like you were watching two thoroughbreds," he says. Gomez would typically win too. "He had more first-step explosiveness than Jose," Minaya says. "We talked about Carlos maybe being the fastest righthanded hitter out of the box since Ron LeFlore."
Gomez ran loud. His rookie-ball roommate Rafael Arroyo remembers being able to hear Gomez tearing up the first base line: "We used to laugh, because it sounded like he was yelling, "Dig! Dig! Dig! Dig! Dig! Dig!" Gomez would pace the dugout before games in the Dominican winter league, telling his manager, Mako Oliveras, "I'm ready for you! Put me in! You won't regret it!" Oliveras saw him as a five-tool player and not so much a thoroughbred but as a "wild mustang" who might resist being tamed.
The Mets rushed Gomez to the big leagues at age 21, in May 2007. He hit .232 with two home runs in 139 plate appearances, but for Shawn Green, a 15-year big league veteran who shared the outfield at times with Gomez that year, "there wasn't anyone I played with who had more athletic ability." When Gomez was shipped to the Twins as the jewel of the Mets' February 2008 trade for Cy Young Award winner Johan Santana, his new team saw that his glove and his speed were big league--ready, but his bat was not. They tried to convert him from a hacker into a contact hitter whose aim was to beat the ball into the ground. "I'm still learning how to hit then," Gomez says, "and they take my ability away."
Gomez batted .248/.293/.352 in 290 games over two seasons in Minnesota and failed to solidify a starting spot in the outfield. He also frustrated the Twins with his impatience and what the team saw as stubbornness at the plate. In October 2009, Gomez's final month with the team, manager Ron Gardenhire lamented that while he loved Gomez's energy, his approach was exasperating: "He irritates people. Sometimes me. We've been trying to get him to calm down and get him to control the situation, and sometimes the situation controls him. There are times when you're like, 'Go-Go, you have to see what we're trying to do here.' We just had a 25-pitch inning from our pitcher, and he goes up and falls down swinging on the first pitch."
Still, Melvin saw the then 24-year-old as a worthy trade target, and he was willing to give up shortstop J.J. Hardy—who had struggled at the plate in 2009, but was still an excellent glove man and only three years older than Gomez—to get him. "Sometimes those players with speed and athleticism develop a little bit later," Melvin says, "because sometimes we have a tendency to overcoach them."
Yet at first even the Brewers couldn't resist trying to tame him. Gomez was miserable in 2010: He hit five home runs with an OPS of .655 in 97 games. Manager Ken Macha scolded him for trying to hit home runs in batting practice. ("He would take me out and say, 'No! I don't want you to do that. Just hit the ball on the ground!' "). In 2011, Roenicke's first season as manager, journeyman Nyjer Morgan was given the majority of starts in center while Gomez continued to struggle. By mid-2012—having shown little improvement at the plate—Gomez was frustrated enough to go to his manager with a request that changed his career.
"I've played for 5½ years, and everybody tells me to hit the ball on the ground," Gomez told Roenicke. "Here's what I've done: nothing. Now I'm 26, I'm sick and tired and embarrassed of hitting .230, .220, .240 every year. I might be out of baseball and never even try my way. I know I can do better. I want to be me."
Gomez wanted to swing away. "It made sense," Roenicke says. "When you ask him to take pitches and hit balls the other way, he gets in a defensive mode."
Roenicke signed off, and in his new aggressor mode Gomez hit 14 home runs with an OPS of .809 in the second half of 2012, compared to five homers and a .703 OPS in the first half. The performance was enough for Melvin to offer Gomez a three-year contract extension worth $24 million to buy out his first three free-agent years, from 2014 to '16, which Gomez accepted. He now qualifies as a massive bargain. Last season Gomez hit 24 homers, stole 40 bases, had an .843 OPS, led the NL with a WAR of 8.9 and won his first Gold Glove—enough to finish ninth in MVP voting.
Gomez's father, Carlos Sr., was a famous, bat-flipping local star in Santiago, but at 5'9" he was too small to make the majors. He intentionally married a taller woman, Belgika, so his son would have big league size. Carlos Jr. grew to 6'3", 220 pounds; he agreed to his first deal with the Mets on Father's Day of 2002, will make $7 million this year and will be eligible to explore free agency at age 30—still young enough, in today's market, to command $100 million or more. He has moved his parents into a new house and told them to stop working. He is living out his and his father's MLB dreams.
WHEN GOMEZ yells "Papi!" in the clubhouse now, it's for Bob Uecker, the Brewers' 80-year-old radio legend. They have a daily routine of slapping hands as violently as Gomez swings at first pitches. In this, his 44th season in the booth, Uecker finally decided to cut back and skip as many as a dozen road series—but he vows to resume full-time duty if this hot start leads to the Crew's third playoff trip since 2008. "I've just got stuff I want to do before I take a Dixie," Uecker explains—namely, fishing on his 38-foot Sea Ray, the Front Row. "Gomez has been bugging me to go. I might use him as a trolling motor. He's got enough energy to do it."
While Uke traffics in one-liners, Gomez's comic relief alternates between ridiculous and unintentional. He showed up for the Mother's Day game with his goatee dyed pink; two days before he concluded a session of early batting practice by demonstrating, for the benefit of the pitching staff, how to celebrate a walk-off homer. Braun, who would not discuss the Biogenesis case, is more than happy to talk about Gomez: He says that recently Gomez informed him, while holding a plate full of kiwi, that the fruit had three times as much potassium as bananas. "I asked him how he heard it," Braun says. "He told me, now that he's wealthy, he's been Googling rich-people conversations so he knows what to talk to wealthy people about, and he came across that data."
Regardless of that data's veracity—it does not seem to be entirely accurate—Gomez's English has come a long way from the time he walked out of a rookie-ball clubhouse in Kingsport, Tenn., in 2004, wearing headphones and loudly reciting vulgar 50 Cent lyrics within earshot of teammates' aghast wives and children. A few players ran up to him and said, "Gomey! No good! No good!" He was baffled. He had no idea what he'd been saying.
Now, during road trips, he puts on beats in his hotel room and works on a rap track he's writing called "La Verdad de mi Vida," or "The Truth of My Life." As he prepares to serve a three-game suspension for the April 20 incident with the Pirates, the truth, according to him, is that he did nothing wrong other than overreact to Cole's profane recommendation that Gomez run rather than watch a ball that didn't leave the yard. (Gomez waltzed out of the box after clubbing a pitch from Cole deep to center, then hustled his way to a triple after the ball bounced off the wall.) As for the rest? "When I flip the bat or enjoy my home run, or enjoy my double? I'm not going to change this," he says, "and no one should be mad for this."
He vows that he will keep showing up to the park happy, keep igniting the Brewers by playing with childlike passion; and keep hitting in a way that his guru back in the Dominican Republic can appreciate. Gomez and his guru started working together in the winter of 2012, before Gomez's breakout season, and the guru has counseled him on dominating the strike zone and driving the ball back up the middle. After the blast off Bolsinger—Gomez's fifth nonpulled homer of the season—he received a text from the guru, who otherwise goes by Manny Ramirez: Attaboy, kid. Continue to hit the ball to centerfield. Manny has been watching him find his true swing: a big swing. Carlos, he might say, is finally being Carlos.
Says one teammate from Gomez's days as a teenager in the Mets system, "We all thought back then that Carlos might be the next Vladimir Guerrero."
"I might be out of baseball and never even try my way," Gomez told Roenicke. "I know I can do better. I want to be me."
Carlos Gomez isn't the only Brewer whose hitting philosophy boils down to grip-and-rip. This season Milwaukee is swinging at the first pitch more often than any other team, and seeing the fewest pitches per plate appearance.
FIRST PITCH SWING PCT.