A Rising Star
By Ken Sins
Texas Rangers' Souvenir Program
The baseball world, still at the getting-to-know-you stage with Juan Gonzalez, gathered more insight into the Rangers' young slugger the day before the All-Star Game at Baltimore's Oriole Park at Camden Yards.
Gonzalez was an obvious invitee for the Home Run Derby, a long-ball competition that's become the equivalent of the Slam Dunk sideshow at the NBA's All- Star Weekend.
Presented with a national starring role, Gonzalez turned in an Oscar-worthy performance. In a display of raw power, Gonzalez and Seattle's Ken Griffey, Jr. had seven homers apiece to lead the American League to an easy 21-12 victory over the National League.
Gonzalez hit the first balls ever to reach the facing of Camden Yards' upper deck in left field, a distance estimated at 473 feet, and the back wall in center field, an estimated 455-foot poke. Gonzalez then won a playoff against Griffey for the individual title, 5-4.
The workout-day crowd of 47,981 gasped in amazement. Gonzalez is not yet a household name despite winning the 1992 AL home run title with 43, making him the youngest to lead the majors since Johnny Bench in 1970.
Fans unfamiliar with Gonzalez home run trot expected someone like Cecil Fielder, Barry Bonds, or Albert Belle to walk away with the individual title.
Wake up, America. Introducing Mr. Juan-de-rful.
"It was very exciting to surprise everybody," Gonzalez says. "I never thought in my mind that I'd win the Home Run Derby. I even surprised myself."
Rangers fans and Amercan League pitchers hardly raised an eyebrow, however. They've become accustomed to following the flight path of Gonzalez' rocket shots.
In late July his 26 homers led the league. He also was in the top 10 in rbi and the top five in batting average.
On July 16, Gonzalez homered twice to beat the Detroit Tigers and in the process joined exclusive company. The second homer gave Gonzalez 100 for his career, tying him with Joe DiMaggio as the 11th youngest player in major league history to reach the milestone at 23 years and nine months.
It's a group that also includes Hall of Famers Hank Aaron, Ted Williams, Jimmie Foxx, Frank Robinson, and Mickey Mantle. Gonzalez is well aware of the fast company he's keeping.
And, he vows, this is only the beginning.
"I've always felt that something big was going to happen to me," Gonzalez says. "It's just a joy that I feel."
The road to superstardom hasn't always been smooth. Early in his career Gonzalez was portrayed as moody and stubborn. He threw helmets and bats when things weren't going his way. He was a pouter.
At the plate he tried to pull even outside pitches, contrary to the advice of coaches and others who know better. He cared little about improving his defense.
There was, however, no denying the potential behind the powerful swing propelled by those bulging arms and the sculpted 6-3, 210-pound frame.
In 1991, his first full season in the majors, he had 27 homers and 102 rbi. Last season he improved to 109 rbi to go with the 43 homers.
This year has brought even more improvement. One, of course, is a vastly higher batting average, some 70 points better than last year's .260. He has also become a much more proficient fielder, settling into left field after playing out of postiion in center for most of 1992.
These days Gonzalez speaks often of inner tranquility, of controlling his emotions. Those who've tried to pitch inside to Gonzalez have learned the danger of such tactics. Instead of a menacing stare and possible charge to the mound. Gonzalez' reaction to purpose pitches has been heightened concentration to make the offender pay with a blast toward the seats.
"The best way to retaliate is to hit one out of the park," manager Kevin Kennedy says.
Says Gonzalez: "When the pitcher throws at me, I have even more concentration. I'm locked in. I'm getting more and more control over my emotions than even last year. Fee really changed. It's discipline. That's the key, playing happy, with peace of mind."
Gradually, Gonzalez has learned to use the entire field, to hit according to situations, to take the outside pitch to right field and cut down on his swing with two strikes.
"It's just a matter of maturity," says hitting instructor Willie Upshaw. "It's spending a lot of time in the batting cage working on situations rather than just trying to hit the ball into the seats."
Two years ago Gonzalez' homers came almost exclusively on pitchers' mistakes. These days he punishes poor location, but he also rides good pitches into the bleachers.
"He can hit any pitch in any location out of my park in baseball,"general manager Tom Grieve says. "There's no special way to pitch him anymore."
"You could throw him breaking pitches early in his career, but he's proven he can hit those, too. Most home runs come off mistakes, but he's proven he can also hit pitchers' pitches."
Perhaps Gonzalez' greatest obstacle in his ascent to the top of his profession has been an invisible one: the English language.
As a rookie, Gonzalez would flee from any human wearing a press credential. He wasn't surly to reporters but he was certainly reclusive, retreating to the sanctuary of the weight room or the players-only lounge rather than submit to interviews in his halting English.
His inability to uttermore basic responses in an unfamiliar language not only deprived reporters of his observations. It made him less-than-marketable the corporate world, whose shoe and glove contracts can more than double a player's income.
During the past off-season, Gonzalez made his first concerted effort to sharpen his English. He worked twice a week with a high school teacher in his native Puerto Rico.
His command of the language is better, although he still prefers that Luis Mayoral, the Rangers' Director of Public Affairs and a confidant who shares a house with Gonzalez during the season, be present to occasionally serve as interpreter during lengthy interviews in English.
" On a scale of one to 10, last year he was a one." Mayoral says. "Now he's a 3.5 and ready to fly on his own. He's a very intelligent person. But his problems with the language were preventing the fans from realizing that. He knows now that there's a big (corporate) world out there and there's a lot ofmoney to be made."
Says Grieve: "I think it's important so the fans in the U.S. get to know him better, so he can relate better to them."
Fans in his native Puerto Rico already relate, almost to the point of idolatry.
When he flew home last October 5, the day after winning the home run crown in the Rangers' final game of the season, 5,000 supporters awaited at the San Juan airport. Another 5,000 gathered at the city square in his hometown of Vaga Baja. Still others lined the 23-mile route from the airport to his home, hoping for a glimpse of their hero.
Home is never far from his mind and heart, where he learned to hit bottlecaps and corks with a broomstick handle in the Alto de Cuba barrio. He visits the old neighborhood often during the winter, greeting old friends, signing autographs for worshipful children.
"I'm happy to be home," Gonzalez says. "Everybody likes me. It's my country. I really lave the kids."In Puerto Rico he's known simply as "Igor", the nickname he's carried since he was a 9-year-old fascinated by the professional wrestler "Igor the Magnificent."
"I watched wrestling all the time and I still like it," Gonzalez said. "One day when I was nine, I told another guy, 'I'm Igor.' And he said,'Okay, your name is Igor from now on.' And I've been Igor since then."
This past winter, Gonzalez decided to play winter ball at the suggestion of Orlando Cepeda, the only other native of Puerto Rico to hit 40 or more homers in a season. He joined Santurce for the final three weeks of the Winter League season, hitting .333 with seven homers and 14 rbi to n the league's MVP ward even though he played in only 21 games. He did so not for money or glory, but to allow his fans in Puerto Rico an opportunity to see him play."He hasn't forgotten his roots,"Mayoral says. "He wants to serve as a role model for the kids. Where he grew up, there's a lot of drugs and prostitution."
Gonzalez avoided such temptations growing up. His father, a math teacher, and mother, a housewife, made sure Gonzalez and his two sisters behaved properly and stayed away from negative influences. Gonzalez has moved his family out of the barrio. He pays utility bills for down-on-their-luck friends and plans on working to construct recreation facilities and a baseball diamond in his home town.
"If I wasn't playing baseball I'd be a social worker at home," says Gonzalez, who made 52 visits to Puerto Rican schools last off-season. "I like to talk to kids about staying in school, staying out of trouble, staying away from alcohol and drugs."
The late Roberto Clemente remains the standard against which other Puerto Rican stars are measured. Mention Clemente and Gonzalez' eyes brighten. He never saw Clemente play except on video, but he knows what is expected of the player who inherits Clemente's role as the island's favorite son. "Clemente is living in my heart," Gonzalez says. "He was an even better human being outside the field. It's very important to me. That's the kind of person I want to be like."