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Juan Gonzalez has hit a happy beat in life
Forth Worth Star Telegram

The heat is tropical and the air is still as the Rangers take batting practice on an early July day. The patter of line drives and idle batting-cage talk begin to fill the Texas air. But as Juan Gonzalez steps into the cage, the chatter seems to suddenly dim.

Ears perk. Heads abruptly turn.

"I don't know how to explain it," teammate Lee Stevens will say later, "but when Juan hits, the ball just sounds different.

"You and I could take the exact same bat and go out there and swing at the exact same pitch, and it wouldn't sound the same as when Juan hits it."

The noise is the rhythm of a prodigious record being chased.

Hack Wilson of the Chicago Cubs, the eternal RBI king, has a 68-year head start. But Juan Gonzalez of the Rangers is gaining fast.

In his 13th professional baseball season, Gonzalez at long last hears the beat. Part merengue, part Latin love ballad, it has brought the Rangers right fielder happiness, and it has found him peace.

In their native Puerto Rico, weeks of rumor ended four years ago in a very public kiss. From her concert stage at Roberto Clemente Coliseum, singer Olga Tanon leaned down and kissed Juan Gonzalez, and in the process, they say, broke a million island hearts.

The slugger and the recording artist had known each other since they met at the Pediatric Center for Children with HIV in San Juan. Their budding romance, like DiMaggio and Marilyn, had been hard to conceal.

"I went to the concert," Gonzalez recalled, "and yo pues, enamorado al fin. "

He was in love.

"She leaned over, I kissed her," Gonzalez said, breaking into a smile, "and out of that kiss, they have written many novels."

In 1996, despite missing 28 games because of injuries, Gonzalez - nicknamed "Igor" in his native Puerto Rico - hit 47 home runs and drove in 144 to earn the American League's Most Valuable Player Award. Last season, after spending the first three weeks on the disabled list, Gonzalez came back with 42 homers and 131 runs batted in.

Yet, somehow, this season for Gonzalez has been even better. He has 96 RBI in the Rangers' 85 games before last night, and he chases Wilson's seemingly unapproachable single-season RBI mark (190), set in 1930. He smiles broadly and frequently.

And he hears the beat.

Olga Tanon was born in Santurce, Puerto Rico, on April 13, 1967. She began her musical career in the mid-1980s by singing with the group, Las Nenas de Ringo y Jossie. Merengue is the native beat of the neighboring Dominican Republic, but the little girl with the big voice adopted it and harvested it into a career that has featured seven platinum albums.

Her third solo album, in 1994, Siente El Amor , reached the Billboard magazine top three. The same album won Tanon honors for Univision's best tropical artist of the year, best tropical album of the year and best song of the year.

Like one of her early songs, she was Mujer de Fuego - a lady on fire.

Once they met at the children's hospital, Gonzalez said, "I wanted to get to know her. And I worked on it very well."

Youthful mistakes

Until we've walked where Juan Gonzalez has walked, his manager says, we just won't understand. Rangers manager Johnny Oates has walked the streets of Vega Baja, Puerto Rico, during visits each of the past two off-seasons.

"I don't think you can appreciate how far he's come until you've been there," Oates said. "We might be making choices between going to the movies or going to the skating rink. But look at the choices the kids there were faced with growing up - do you want to do drugs or get beaten up?

"I think it says so much about him that he was able to rise above the peer pressure in Vega Baja. He had enough intelligence to say, don't want to do that.' "

Gonzalez didn't always make the right choices, however. When he reached his junior year at Vega Baja High School, the world began to move fast.

The Rangers signed him to a contract at age 16. When he was 19, moving up to Triple-A Oklahoma City, he got married.

That marriage ended in divorce, as did his second marriage two years later. Three years after that, Puerto Rican volleyball star Elaine Lopez, sister of Atlanta Braves catcher Javier Lopez, found herself in the news contesting whether she was Gonzalez's third wife or not. Juan didn't think so, and the "marriage" was dissolved after only two months.

"When I married for the first time, things didn't go the way I expected," Gonzalez said. "When things don't go right, you try to end up as friends, and each person goes his or her own way."

You can scour the Gonzalez dossier for dirt or trawl the police files for late-night mischief, but this - his failed love life before age 25 - is the extent of it. Oh, he bashed more than a few water coolers after striking out. And he was a well-publicized no-show one night when he was to receive the top award at the Rangers' annual banquet.

"Crimes of immaturity," someone once called it.

"I know we've all made mistakes," Oates said. "You take a 16-year-old kid, playing professional baseball for the first time. He reaches fame and fortune very, very quickly.

"He looks like a bronzed statue. And when he gives you that smile, with that dark mustache and those beautiful white teeth, every female who is looking is going to look.

"And he was a young man who looked back a lot."

Growing up

The looking all changed when Gonzalez met Olga. Already a celebrity, Tanon presented yet another adjustment for him. She didn't need his money. Tanon describes herself as "demanding and meticulous," and tried to establish a sense of order in the young slugger's life.

Asked what attracted him most to her, besides the obvious physical attributes, Gonzalez answered, without hesitation, "Her character."

The Olga Tanon story that Rangers people like to tell involves the woman who runs the elevator at Detroit's old Tiger Stadium. For more than two decades, Sarah Simpson had quietly suffered in cramped, non-air-conditioned discomfort, shuttling media and dignitaries to and from the press box.

Tanon accompanied Gonzalez on a Detroit trip and noticed the elevator lady, sweating in sauna-like silence. That night at the hotel, Olga told Juan, and the next day the two bought a fan to be installed in the stadium elevator.

To this day, Sarah Simpson remains probably the biggest Juan Gonzalez and merengue music fan in Detroit.

Gonzalez has long told friends that if he wasn't a ballplayer, he would have been a social worker. One day, after he retires from the game, he thinks the same feelings may turn him to politics in his native Puerto Rico.

As Gonzalez put it, "The reason I like politics is because I like to help those who are forgotten, those who have been rejected by society. I identify with the poor, with those who have suffered. Where I come from, I saw a lot of people suffering.

"I still see some of those things on the streets and in the neighborhood where I grew up. Many of those people have gone the wrong way.


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