by Howie Stalwick

Opposing pitchers find this difficult to believe, but college baseball's leading home run hitter has a heart of Gold.

"He's a wonderful, wonderful person," longtime Gonzaga Baseball coach Steve Hertz says of Nate Gold, the Bulldogs' senior first baseman. "He's probably one of the best kids we've had here."

"He's one of those guys, you put a little asterisk by his name and never forget," concurs Gary Van Tol, Gold's coach at Treasure Valley Community College in Ontario, Ore.

"I'd say this from the heart -- he'd trade all 30 of his homers for us to win the league," says GU left fielder Sam Hess. "He doesn't care about records at all."

Maybe not, but Gold long ago shattered Jeff Hainline's school record of 21 home runs. Despite a recent slump, Gold entered the week leading NCAA Division I with 30 home runs, which ties the West Coast Conference record.

"It gets kinda boring [watching Gold hit home runs]," Hess deadpans. "It's kinda discouraging: 'Oh, whatever.' I don't know if it's jealousy or what."

The Bulldogs, tied for third (and last) place in the airtight Coast Division of the West Coast Conference at 13-14, must close the regular season with a three-game sweep of first-place Pepperdine (16-11) Friday through Sunday at Gonzaga Stadium to have any chance of keeping their season alive. The WCC division champions play a best-of-three series next week to determine the WCC's automatic entry in the NCAA tournament.

Gold came into the week leading the WCC with the 30 homers, 68 RBIs, 55 runs, 174 total bases and an .849 slugging percentage in 51 games. One of 40 candidates for the Dick Howser Award as college baseball's player of the year, Gold was batting .332.

"He's got power," Hertz says, "if you roll up the morning paper and put it in his hands."

"He's got power," Hess adds, "when he shakes your hand, he almost breaks it."

Gold packs 220 well-chiseled pounds on a 6-foot-3 frame. His forearms are on loan from Popeye. "His work ethic is better than anybody," Hess says. "That kid will hit baseballs until the sun goes down."

"He's an extremely hard worker, probably as good as anyone we've had," says Gonzaga hitting coach Mark Machtolf.

"Off-the-charts character," Hertz says. "Off-the-charts work ethic."

So-o-o-o, let's see if we've got this right. Gold hits for average, hits for power, fields well (just six errors in two years at Gonzaga), works his butt off and seems to be more popular than a millionaire giving away money. So how come he's never been drafted by a major league team?

"I have no idea," Gold says with a shrug.

"I don't know," says Hertz, who is in his 25th year of coaching -- 23 as head honcho at GU. "I gave up trying to figure out that stuff."

Gold isn't what you'd call fast on the base paths, but that's true of virtually all power-hitting first basemen. Van Tol, who now works part-time in the Chicago Cubs organization, notes that the pros prefer first basemen who hit and field from the left side. Gold is righty-righty.

"What the pros can't see is his makeup and how far he's come," says Van Tol, himself a former Gonzaga standout. "He's a throwback. His pro club is going to learn that."

"I could see him going as high as the third round [in next month's draft]," Machtolf predicts.

Gold only hit .264 last year ("There's an adjustment from junior college," Machtolf says), but he made the all-WCC second team after leading Gonzaga and ranking among the league leaders with 13 home runs and 48 RBIs.

"He's a difference-maker," University of San Diego Coach Rich Hill says. "He just makes the whole game dance. Those kind of guys are exciting. He just creates so much anxiety [for opposing teams]."

Scouts often worry about an amateur player's ability to hit for power once they exchange metal bats for wood bats in the pros. However, Gold was a first-team all-star in a wood bat league in New England last summer and as a sophomore in junior college, when his league switched to wood bats.

Gold, an avid fly fisherman and bird hunter, was a first-team all-state pick as a senior at Utah prep power Viewmont in suburban Salt Lake City. Viewmont coach Roger Farnsworth says Gold has "really hit the weights hard" and improved significantly since high school, but Farnsworth adds that he was surprised when only Salt Lake Community College and Treasure Valley recruited Gold out of Viewmont.

The pros? Not even a whiff.

Gonzaga beat out schools like Utah, Washington State and Lewis-Clark State to lure Gold from Treasure Valley. Machtolf did much of the recruiting work on Gold, a business management major, and the two have worked together closely the past two years on hitting.

"This year, he's striking out less and handles the breaking ball better," says Machtolf, who played college baseball at Stanford after a three-sport career at Gonzaga Prep.

"Mark Machtolf got my swing to where it is now," says Gold. "I give him credit for what I'm doing. I have total trust in him."

Hess feels the same way about Gold, though he had his doubts when the two first met as teammates on a summer team in Kelowna, B.C., two years ago.

"I thought he was full of crap," Hess says.

Uh, care to explain, Sam?

"He's really straightforward," Hess explains of Gold's too-nice-too-be-true demeanor. Maybe he's just playing people, Eddie Haskell-style. "When you talk to him at first, you think he's full of it, because you just don't think he can be the way he comes off.

"He's very polite. We'll have dinner with my parents, and they'll laugh at him because he's almost too polite. He'll compliment my mom for the meal all the way through it: 'Oh, this is just so good. Oh, this is just

great.' "

Geez. What a jerk. And Machtolf is quick to pile on.

"The only bad thing I can say about him," Machtolf says, "is that he's going to graduate."

There's a trip to the post-season on the line as Nate Gold plays his final home series when the Gonzaga Bulldogs host the Pepperdine Waves at August/A.R.T. Stadium, on Friday, May 17, at 3 pm, Saturday, May 18, at 1 pm, and Sunday, May 19, at noon. Free. Call: 323-4046.

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