Tom Gamboa had a critical life decision to make during the summer of 2011.
The then-63-year-old Minor League manager, having spent the better part of the previous four decades on and around the baseball diamond, received news that his mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer and had only a few months to live.
Gamboa, who was managing the Angels’ Class-A Advanced affiliate in Inland Empire, Calif., at the time, was still a full three months away from season’s end.
That left the baseball lifer to decide whether he’d finish out his tenure with the 66ers or spend as much quality time as he had left with his ailing mother.
The decision turned out to be a no-brainer for the Los Angeles native, who had already managed nine Minor League clubs at virtually every level of professional ball, not to mention a pair of stints as a Major League coach.
“For years, I didn’t put family first,” Gamboa revealed during an exclusive interview with the Eagle Tuesday evening, shortly after he’d finished up his duties at the Mets’ Spring Training facilities in Port St. Lucie, Fla.
“I couldn’t risk missing the good time that my mom had left.”
And so on June 1, 2011, Gamboa made family a priority over baseball for the first time since his initial managerial stint in Butte, Mont., back in 1979.
Over the next 15 months before his mother’s eventual passing, Gamboa took her to movies, plays, concerts and out to dinner whenever possible, relishing the opportunity to make her remaining time as pleasurable as he could while thinking he’d left baseball behind for good.
“During that time I was already taking my MLB pension,” intimated Gamboa, who served as third-base coach for the Chicago Cubs in the 1990s and, more famously, as first-base coach for the Kansas City Royals in the early 2000s.
“I actually started playing tournament golf, so after my mother died, I just didn’t go back [to baseball],” he added.
At least not until he received an unexpected phone call from Paul DePodesta, the vice president of player development and scouting for the Mets.
Needing a manager in Brooklyn following Rich Donnelly’s departure to Triple-A Tacoma this winter, DePodesta was looking for someone with the experience and know-how to help first-year pro ballplayers cut their teeth in the Minors as Donnelly had for the previous three summers on Coney Island.
“Paul DePodesta called and asked how attached I was to retirement,” Gamboa recalled. “Being out of the game for two years, I was flattered he would think of me, to be honest.”
Now 66 and seemingly content to keep hitting the links rather than standing around the batting-practice cage, Gamboa again was confronted with a decision.
And for the second time in three years, it was an easy one.
“I’m excited to come back and teach young guys,” Gamboa said after accepting the post of Cyclones manager for the upcoming 2014 season last week. “I think I was born to teach.”
He’ll get plenty of opportunities to do so during Brooklyn’s 76-game grind of a New York-Penn League season.
Following the annual MLB Draft, DePodesta and the rest of the Mets’ brain trust will decide which players to send to Coney Island in June for the Cyclones’ 14th season at MCU Park.
Though he hasn’t yet visited the recently renovated 7,500-seat (not including standing room) facility by the sea, Gamboa has already heard plenty about the Cyclones’ home.
“[Former Staten Island Yankees manager] Mike Gillespie told me every team in the league wishes they could play every game there,” Gamboa said. “He said the electricity will remind you of Wrigley Field. I’m looking forward to it.”
Gamboa, who captured pennants during previous stints at Triple-A Albuquerque (2000) and Double-A Arkansas (2005), will be joined on Brooklyn’s all new 2014 staff by pitching coach Tom Signore and batting instructor Benny Distefano, who served in the same role under Wally Backman here in 2010.
“We look forward to welcoming the new coaching staff to Brooklyn for the 2014 season,” said Cyclones Vice President Steve Cohen. “They all have a track record of success, and we are hopeful that they will help guide our team back to the playoffs for the 2014 season.”
Despite his impressive career resume, Gamboa is perhaps best remembered by the general public for an ugly event that took place during his coaching days with the Royals.
On Sept. 19, 2002, while serving as Kansas City’s first-base coach in a game at Chicago’s Comiskey Park, Gamboa was the victim of a random attack by a pair of intoxicated fans.
The father-son duo tackled Gamboa to the ground and hit him with several punches before security could intervene.
The bizarre incident became headline news and was replayed on virtually every news program in the nation.
Gamboa lost partial hearing as a result of the unexpected ambush, and tried as best he could at the time, and even now, to downplay the significance of it.
“It was a negative because in our game the focus should always be on the players,” Gamboa said. “It got shown a thousand times. I was so naïve, I didn’t even know I would have to address the media afterward.
“After a lifetime in this game, and being fortunate enough to have pennant-winning teams, other than [among] people inside the industry, that’s what I’m remembered for.”
If he can bring home a pennant to Coney Island, or Brooklyn’s first NY-Penn title since 2001, Tom Gamboa won’t ever have to worry about how he’ll be remembered in our fair borough.
Opening Day for the 2014 season is June 13 at Staten Island, with the Home Opener scheduled for the following day.
Full season, partial season and group plans for the 2014 season are on sale now by calling 718-37-BKLYN.