By T. R. Sullivan
Fort Worth Star Telegram
PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. - Reliever Dan Murray, throwing batting practice for the Rangers, fired a pitch, and Alex Rodriguez hit a weak chopper through the right side of the infield.
He turned to catcher Bill Haselman and said with a weak smile, "That's pretty good if there's a runner on second."
As Rodriguez turned back and got ready for the next pitch, manager Jerry Narron strolled around the batting cage and put his hand on the muscular shoulder of the hitter waiting to go next.
"It's good to see you," Narron said quietly with a smile, basking in the soft Florida sunlight and reflecting the attitude of many in the Rangers' camp.
"You, too," Juan Gonzalez beamed, holding two thick bats in his hand and, for the first time in 28 months, wearing a uniform that said "Rangers" on the front.
"It is exciting to see him," Rodriguez said on Gonzalez's first day in camp. "I'd much rather face him than be playing shortstop against him. Shortstop was getting pretty dangerous. It's thrilling to finally see him here."
Rodriguez finished his turn, and Gonzalez stepped to the plate, the same order Narron expects them to bat every game in the regular season. Gonzalez took a few pitches. Then Murray threw a fastball on the outside corner of the plate. Gonzalez stepped into it, flexed his muscles, brought the bat around in a savage blur and ...
He hit a soft line drive over second base.
"I'm ready," he said, laughing.
Narron was ready, too, remembering how the Rangers were before Gonzalez was traded to the Detroit Tigers after the 1999 season.
"It's unbelievable that he's back," Narron said. "At the time, I understood the trade completely. There were a lot of financial reasons and everything.
"But he was missed."
Gonzalez and Rodriguez were almost inseparable during Monday's workout. They stretched together, hit together and tossed the medicine ball back and forth at the end of the day.
During regular batting practice off Triple-A manager Bobby Jones, both crushed several balls toward the mangrove woods beyond the outfield fences.
A couple of hundred people gathered around the back fields of the Rangers' spring-training complex to watch Gonzalez and Rodriguez hit.
"It feels good to come back here again and see old friends," Gonzalez said.
"I know this game. It's a business game. The last two years I played in Detroit and Cleveland, then the Rangers gave me the opportunity to come back here. ...
"It feels the same. There are some new guys, but my old friends Pudge and Raffy are here, my teammates before. It basically feels the same."
Rafael Palmeiro, who had 47 home runs and 123 runs batted in last year, and Ivan Rodriguez, a 10-time All-Star, weren't in the same batting group as Alex Rodriguez and Gonzalez, but they were close by on most other occasions. Those four were the last in line during base-running drills, laughing and joking together while waiting their turn.
Palmeiro, who has lobbied hard the past two years to get Gonzalez back, said: "When he's happy, he makes everybody around here laugh. He keeps everybody loose.
"I'm just glad he's on my team again. He's the kind of player you keep on a team. He's a force. When he left, we lost big-time. He'll make a big difference."
Gonzalez did before when he was with the Rangers. They won three division titles in four years before he was traded to Detroit on Nov. 2, 1999 for Haselman, pitchers Justin Thompson, Francisco Cordero and Alan Webb, and outfielders Gabe Kapler and Frank Catalanotto.
The Rangers have finished in last place two years in a row since.
"We got some good players in return," Palmeiro said.
"But no matter what you get in return, when you have a player like that who's won MVP Awards, and is a big threat, I'd do everything I can to keep him around. He's got everything it takes to be a superstar in this game. That's what he is."
Gonzalez, who was the MVP in 1996 and 1998, was the main guy with the Rangers. When the Rangers won, he was a huge reason why. When they lost, it was often because he was in a slump or on the disabled list.
There were many other superb players - including Palmeiro, Rodriguez, Rusty Greer, Will Clark and Dean Palmer - but Gonzalez always seemed to be the focal point on those teams.
Now that focus has shifted to Alex Rodriguez. Owner Tom Hicks said as much when he said last week that the Rangers are building a team around their All-Star shortstop.
With Gonzalez, general manager John Hart said: "All you do is ask him to show up and hit and drive in runs. If he does that, he's great."
That might help Gonzalez, a splendid individualist who has never sought a leadership role and rarely thrusts himself willingly or eagerly into the center of public attention.
"Possibly," Narron said. "We've got a lot of guys who should be able to take the pressure off each other. Nobody should have to feel they have to carry the load or feel the team will win based on their performance."
Said Gonzalez: "When you have a strong lineup - Pudge, Alex, Raffy, Carl Everett - there are more chances for everybody to get better pitches, more chances to drive in runs and hit home runs. The pitchers need to throw strikes.
"It's going to be exciting. This is one of the best feelings I've had, coming back to Texas. I had a great year in Cleveland. This year is going to be even better."
That feeling pervaded the Rangers' camp on a sunny February afternoon when the prodigal son finally returned.