GOODYEAR, Ariz. — The airport doors opened and Oscar Gonzalez couldn’t help but flash an enormous grin.
He had just been a hero for the Guardians in the postseason to cap his breakout rookie year — which was better than expected. After Cleveland was eliminated from the playoffs, Gonzalez flew home to the Dominican Republic, where he was surprised to see herds of people waiting for him to exit the airport.
It was mostly his family that was crowding those hallways, but Gonzalez said some fans from the area were there, too. Singing and chanting broke out, translating the now-25-year-old’s walk-up song — the theme from “Spongebob Squarepants,” if you haven’t heard by now — into Spanish.
Gonzalez’s loved ones rushed him. He was a star to them, as expected. But he was then escorted outside to a white SUV before he changed his sweater to a Guardians jersey to embark on a parade route from the airport back to his hometown.
“I wasn’t expecting it,” Gonzalez said with a grin, through team interpreter Agustin Rivero. “I knew I was gonna do something, and in my mind it was maybe something simpler, smaller — but it ended up being something significant. Somehow bigger than I expected.”
Fans lined the streets. Gonzalez waved and smiled as the top half of his body poked out the roof of the car. People were screaming for him. Fireworks were set off. It was the warm welcome of a true celebrity, one who represented his friends and family on baseball’s biggest stage.
“It was just like seeing my hometown all together rooting for me,” Gonzalez reflected.
Eventually, Gonzalez made it back to his house. Little did he know he was in store for another surprise. One of his brothers got together with the rest of his family to make a sign that read, “Welcome to Bikini Bottom, Spongebob,” in Spanish. The sign has Gonzalez batting with a big picture of Spongebob in the background.
It wasn’t just the fan base that bought into the Spongebob theme; Gonzalez’s family is fully invested.
“I never had an idea [Spongebob] was going to be this big,” Gonzalez said, with a laugh.
It was just a children’s show that Gonzalez loved growing up (or maybe still to this day, considering his profile lists “Spongebob Squarepants” as his favorite TV show in Cleveland’s media guide). All he wanted was to give kids something to enjoy when watching the game that he loved so much. Now, it’s one of the biggest things he’s known for.
Gonzalez’s other claims to fame? Well, he delivered the walk-off homer in the 15th inning of Game 2 of the Wild Card Series against the Rays that sent his team to the next round. Then in Game 3 of the ALDS against the Yankees, he served a two-run walk-off single up the middle to give Cleveland the edge in the series.
“My dad always likes to replay all those games,” Gonzalez said. “We watched all those games [this offseason]. One of those times I was standing next to him and seeing the situation — that’s when it really touched my heart.”
During his Minor League career, Gonzalez was known for his power and his ability to hit. But his lack of plate discipline was a red flag when it came to transferring his talent to the big league level. Instead, Gonzalez proved that he can produce, hitting .296 with 27 doubles and 43 RBIs in 91 games in the Majors in ’22.