My fandom for Juan Gonzalez goes back, back, back ...
The 1990s Rangers slugger was my favorite childhood player. I have the drawings to prove it.
Juan Gonzalez was pure power, an RBI machine who drove line-drive lasers across the field.
He was my favorite childhood player. I have the drawings to prove it. We shared a personal encounter, too. And recently, a different sort of connection, one that makes me really proud.
I became a fan of the Rangers, and the slugger known as "Igor," in 1993 — I was 9 years old when I fell in love with baseball. The All-Star Game and Home Run Derby were held in Baltimore. Ken Griffey, Jr. got all the attention for becoming the first batter to hit a ball off of the warehouse beyond right field, but Juan Gone was amazing that day. He hit the longest ball of the derby — 473 feet to the third deck — and outlasted Griffey in two playoff rounds, winning with a 445-foot blast.
His swing was effortless and smooth. His hands twirling above his head, his bat flowing through the zone, his biceps bulging, his hair flowing, the sunlight reflecting off his earring, his bushy mustache, his effortless smile.
He looked cool. And he could hit baseballs really far.
"Igor" was the derby champ, and the next day's newspaper showed him holding up the trophy, so I cut out the photo and article and put it in my scrapbook alongside photos and articles about other athletes I admired, like Nolan Ryan and Emmitt Smith and Shaquille O'Neal. My artistic talents were starting to develop, too, and athletes were natural drawing subjects for a sports-obsessed boy.
Especially "Juan" ... er, one athlete in particular.
Gonzalez followed a long, plodding path to stardom. The Puerto Rico native signed with the Rangers at age 16 in 1986. He was a lean, lanky, line drive-hitting outfielder.
"We project him as being another Cesar Cedeno or Jose Canseco type player," Rangers head scout Sandy Johnson said at the time of the signing. "He's just awesome. He has great power. He can do it all. Defensively he's just outstanding." Pretty soon, he was garnering comparisons to another standout outfielder, Dave Winfield.
Gonzalez and a fellow Rangers prospect — Sammy Sosa — followed parallel tracks to the big leagues. They both had superstar potential. But they were both raw and unrefined. Gonzalez could be moody and sulk if things didn't go his way, and he needed to learn how to hit breaking balls. Sosa was undisciplined at the plate.
If they could only figure it out ...
"He has the potential to bat .300 with 25 home runs and 100 RBIs," Gastonia Rangers manager Chino Cadihia projected of Gonzalez's ceiling in 1987. "He's a tremendous outfielder with a cannon for an arm. ... If he gains 15-20 pounds in the right places, he will no doubt be a type A player in the big leagues." Baseball America selected Gonzalez as the Rangers' top prospect in 1988, ahead of Sosa, lefty Brian Bohanon, and right handed pitcher Kevin Brown.
Gonzalez and Sosa continued to move up the ladder to Port Charlotte of the Single-A Florida State League in 1988, then to Double-A Tulsa in 1989. When Rangers outfielder Pete Incaviglia got hurt, it was Sosa — not Gonzalez — who got the call. Sosa made his Rangers debut on June 16, 1989 against the Yankees in New York. The Rangers had bigger plans for Gonzalez, and having him in the wings made Sosa expendable, so the Rangers didn't fret about including Sosa (along with pitching prospect Wilson Alvarez) in a trade with the White Sox for designated hitter Harold Baines.
"Sosa was farther along as far as his baseball maturity, but I'm talking about long-range potential, not who's playing better now. Put it this way: Gonzalez would not have been in that trade," then-GM Tom Grieve told T.R. Sullivan with the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. "He and Sosa are two different players. Gonzalez is bigger and stronger and has more long-range power potential."
And yet, after a 24-game tryout with Texas in 1989 (he hit his first of 434 MLB home runs and batted .150), Gonzalez with all of his long-range potential was stuck in Oklahoma City for most of the 1990 season, taking out his frustrations on Triple-A pitching while Sosa was playing every day for a 94-win White Sox team.
Gonzalez didn't leave any doubt that he belonged in the major leagues after he was recalled near the end of the 1990 season, batting .289 with four home runs and 12 RBIs in 25 games.
He was ready. And he spent the 1991 season reinforcing that fact, overcoming a spring training knee injury to smash 27 home runs and drive in 102 runs. That season also saw Gonzalez pairing with a fellow Puerto Rico native who would take the Rangers to new heights — catcher Ivan "Pudge" Rodriguez, all of 19 years old at the time of his MLB debut. They had long careers and lots of glory ahead of them.
It helps having other bats in the lineup, and "Igor" had that in his early seasons in Texas. Julio Franco. Rafael Palmeiro. Ruben Sierra. Canseco. Gonzalez led the league in home runs in 1992 and 1993 with 43 and 46 dingers, respectively. He was on his way.
Heading into the 1994 season, Gonzalez faced lots of expectations — 45 million of them, to be exact. He signed a contract extension that ended up paying $45 million over seven years, making him one of baseball's highest paid players.
He hoped to bring a championship to Texas. But the contract and all the championship talk came with expectations that largely went unmet in 1994 and 1995. Juan missed too many games due to injuries. His personal life was spiraling. He didn't hit enough home runs (19 in 1994 and 27 in 1995). He struggled with his swing. The team's move to a new stadium, the Ballpark in Arlington, required some time for Gonzalez to adjust, especially the deeper dimensions to left-center.
The Rangers' win totals matched the slugger's output. The team had never reached the playoffs before, a snakebitten franchise that had endured decades of losing and fighting and wilting in the Texas heat.
All of that — Gonzalez's and the Rangers' fortunes — changed in 1996. Texas started the season with a seven-game win streak and didn't look back, remaining in first place for most of the season.
That season also marked the first time I got to see Juan and the Rangers play live — April 27, 1996 in Baltimore. My parents took me and my brother. Bobby Witt outdueled hard-luck loser Scott Erickson. An eighth inning error by Palmeiro, the sure-handed first baseman who was playing at the time with Baltimore, led to the floodgates opening on a two-run double by Kevin Elster.
Texas won 4-2, and Juan Gone went 0-for-4 with a walk. It was so exciting to see him and other Rangers players in person, walking around, playing in front of me, breathing the same air. We got four autographs that day: Dave Valle and Benji Gil with the Rangers, and Roberto Alomar and Jeff Huson (a former Ranger!) for Baltimore.
A special day in a special season. I happened to bring along a camera — this was before we all walked around with cameras in our pockets — and snapped some pictures from my left field seat.
Gonzalez missed most of May with a left quad injury, but from June 1 until the end of the season he was electric — he smashed 41 home runs and drove in 114 runs, pacing the team. Other standout players included Rodriguez, third baseman Dean Palmer (38 home runs, 107 RBI), and left fielder Rusty Greer with his .332 batting average, and the pitching staff was anchored by Ken Hill (16-10, 3.63 ERA).
On September 27, while the Rangers were in the 13th inning against California, word came down that the Mariners had lost — meaning Texas had clinched its first division title in franchise history. The game continued for another two innings before the Rangers could celebrate. Losing to the Angels never felt so good.
Up next stood the Yankees in the American League Divisional Series. New York, as it turned out, was laying the foundation for a dynasty.
The Yankees went ahead 1-0 early in Game One, and that was the score in the top of the fourth inning with David Cone on the mound. "Pudge" Rodriguez opened the inning with a single, and Greer followed with a walk. Up came Gonzalez. He worked the count to 1-1. Cone tried to keep the ball down, but it caught too much of the plate.
Gonzalez swiped his hands through the zone and struck the ball cleanly. A flare to left field. Tim Raines climbed the wall, but the ball tucked within the foul pole into the stands for a three-run home run as Texas took Game One.
Juan continued his home run binge. Two home runs in Game Two, and home runs in Game Three and Game Four to tie the record for homers in a playoff series with five.
But the Rangers didn't have enough pitching ... that was usually the problem. Texas was eliminated in four games despite Igor's heroics.
The MVP results were announced the following month, and Gonzalez was named the American League's most valuable player, just edging out Seattle shortstop Alex Rodriguez, 290-287, in one of the closest all-time votes.
You can spend all the time in the world arguing that Gonzalez wasn't the most valuable player in the league that year, and that someone else was more deserving of the MVP award (the same pattern played out in the National League, where Padres third baseman Ken Caminiti won the MVP despite not leading the league in any major categories). But to me, it was an easy choice, the right choice.
The letdown followed, as it is prone to do.
Gonzalez tore a ligament in his left thumb playing winter ball that offseason in Puerto Rico, and he needed surgery. He wound up missing the first month of the 1997 season. He bounced back in typical fashion — 42 home runs, 131 RBIs in 133 games — but Texas slid to third place in the A.L. West.
Igor had something to prove in 1998. And so did the Rangers.
He opened the season with a blistering .351 batting average and 36 RBIs in April, and added 35 more runs batted in (and 10 home runs) in May. As the All-Star Game approached, he was nearing 100 RBIs, something only one other player (Hank Greenberg) had done. That was all the way back in 1935.
The Rangers played the Mariners on July 5, 1998, the final game before the break, and Juan entered the game with 97 RBIs. Seattle sent Randy Johnson to the rubber.
Gonzalez came up with one runner on in the first inning and smashed the ball to left-center for a home run, putting him one RBI away from the elusive milestone.
He struck out in the third and again in the sixth.
He came up again in the bottom of the seventh after Will Clark gave Texas a 5-4 lead with a double. The Big Unit was still pitching, and this would be Gonzalez's final at-bat, his final chance to reach 100 runs batted in before the break.
He worked the count to 2-1. Johnson delivered and Gonzalez swung, lifting the ball. Griffey Jr., playing centerfield, raced back but ran out of room, and a scrum developed in the grassy area beyond the wall as children tried to grab the baseball. Gonzalez pumped his fist as he rounded first base.
One hundred and one ribbies.
The fans gave Igor a standing ovation, and when he returned to right field after the inning was over, tears formed in his eyes as the cheering continued.
He finished the season with a league-leading 157 RBIs and another MVP award (Sosa, his former minor league teammate, finished with 158 RBIs for the Cubs as he won the award for the National League).
Another division title for the Rangers, and another first-round playoff defeat at the hands of the Yankees, came in 1998. New York topped Texas again in 1999, and following that season, I was the one with tears in my eyes when Gonzalez got traded to the Tigers in a deal that sent Gabe Kapler, Frank Catalanotto, Francisco Cordero and Justin Thompson to Texas. The Rangers didn't want to commit to a long-term deal for Gonzalez, so with one year left on his contract, they shipped him away.
He became a baseball nomad, bouncing from Detroit to Cleveland, back to Texas, then heading to Kansas City and wrapping up with one final at-bat with Cleveland in 2005 when he re-aggravated a hamstring injury while running out a ground ball.
My drawings of athletes gave way to me writing about them, reporting on them and talking to them.
I went to college and started my journalism career, which shifted my fandom — being a journalist means disconnecting your rooting interest and telling the story. But I still maintained my support of Gonzalez as his career wound down.
I was working as a sports videographer in my native central Pennsylvania in 2006 when Gonzalez signed with the Long Island Ducks of the independent Atlantic League. And wouldn't you know it, the Ducks were in Lancaster to play against the Barnstormers.
I was asked if I could head to the Barnstormers' stadium and try to interview my childhood idol.
I raced to the stadium and waited. And waited. And waited. Eventually he would have to come out of the clubhouse ...
After what seemed like hours, Gonzalez appeared in uniform.
I swallowed my fear and pushed the butterflies down and approached him. Said hi. Stuck out my hand. He shook it. I said a bunch of words, JuanhiyouremyfavoriteplayercouldIaskyouafewquestions?
He was gracious but declined the interview. I wasn't upset — I knew very well about his shy side, and I recognized the circumstances weren't ideal for Gonzalez. I was just happy to meet him.
After my book about Caminiti was released in late May, a gracious post on the website Beisbol 101 caught my eye.
The essay was written by Luis Rodriguez-Mayoral, a writer and baseball ambassador whose name was familiar to me. During the 1990s, Luis worked for the Rangers, and he was close with Gonzalez. I remember reading about him and seeing him listed in a team yearbook.
The post was about Luis' interactions with Ken. They first met in 1988-89, when Ken was playing winter ball for Mayaguez in Puerto Rico. They shared a friendly connection.
In 1997, the Rangers and Padres were playing against each other in Interleague play, and Luis was tasked with gathering the reigning league MVPs for a photograph together. Ken arrived, and he and Luis hugged. And then Juan appeared, and they posed together for photographer Brad Newton.
Luis and I later spoke on the phone, and he told me how he talked to Juan about Ken — "what an arm" — and about my book, too. Which floored me to have my childhood idol learn about me.
Luis has since sent me a copy of the photo of Gonzalez and Caminiti, my past and present focuses, standing beside one another. I'm going to cherish it forever.