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Juan Gonzalez still bites his cuticles, still listens to '60s salsa. He still favors talking Cowboys, Mavs and politics (not necessarily in that order). But know this, too: Juan Gonzalez still has "GONZO" written on his shower slippers and penned onto the-waistband of his underwear.

Of all the things that are apparent about Juan Gonzalez, it's the nickname that seems an ill fit on his 6-foot-3 frame that carries 15 to 18 fewer pounds than it did last season.

Just as Arlington has reinvented itself from suburban flyover between Dallas and Fort Worth to seventh-largest city in Texas, Gonzalez has reinvented himself. He will tell you he is happier, healthier, reenergized, more patient. His friends say they never have seen him more at peace.

He is playing a new position for the Rangers, right field, and his coaches and teammates say he is playing it well (which wasn't always the case in Gonzalez's tenure in left). He will this month become a father for the second time. He speaks better English, and, as a result, is more willing to talk about himself. And when he does, he talks, indeed, like a new man: "This year is the year. ... The last two years, I had a lot of injuries, a lot of personal problems. This year, I have a better attitude. I am physically and mentally working hard every day. This is the real thing for me."

This less than a year removed from seeing his personal life turned upside down and spread out for public viewing and a 1995 season in which he rang up Mark McGwire-like numbers: a home run every 13 at-bats and 54 missed games out of 144 because of injuries most notably a herniated disk in his lower back and a bone spur in his upper neck.

But he says the turbulence is gone. There is nothing gonzo about him. His life is in perfect order.

April and May are months when talk of rejuvenation and new-found resolve blooms like spring s bluebonnets that carpet the roadsides along I-30 near the Ballpark in Arlington. Yet a month into this season. it appears this is, truly, a different Juan Gonzalez and a different Rangers team.

The offense is as formidable as ever, and general manager Doug Melvin and manager Johnny Oates have pieced together a solid defense, two words rarely if ever used in conjunction when talking about this team. Since a franchise-record 7-0 start, the pitching has been serviceable, though the rotation has shown an inability to go past the sixth inning, thus forcing Melvin and Oates to consider a 12-man staff. That would short the bench one backup who could come in handy in those 100-degree days in July and August.

In one of their first tests of the young season, the Rangers split two games against the Mariners last week. But there are many more games to be played, and division leads and resolve can wither quickly in the blast-furnace days of a Texas summer.

Gonzalez, however, says he will not be worn down by anything. He has come too far to be detoured again. "In this game, you have positive games, and you have negative games. You have bad games, and you have good games," says Gonzalez, who went 3-for-8 with no RBIs in the Mariners series. "You just got to keep your head up."

That hasn't always been easy.

Gonzalez turned 26 in October but already has been married three times and is expected to wed Puerto Rican merengue star Olga Tanon, who is pregnant with his second child, a girl. His brother died of a drug overdose in April 1994. His third marriage, to Puerto Rican volleyball star Elaine Lopez, dissolved that year soon after they were secretly married. (So incensed was Lopez's family that some of her relatives sought him out in Kansas City during a Rangers, trip two years ago. Gonzalez, some say, had to sleep in the visitors" clubhouse to avoid a confrontation.)

Perhaps as a result, Gonzalez, expected to become baseball's next superstar after back-to-back 40-homer seasons in 1992 and '93, became a much less productive player.

After he signed a seven-year, $45.45 million contract, his batting average dropped from .310 in 1993 to .275 in 1994. And though he hit 27 home runs last season, Gonzalez had two lengthy stays on the disabled list and played in pain from the day he felt a twinge in his lower back April 16 after batting practice before a spring training game.

As the season wore on, things grew so bad that outfield coach Ed Napoleon wouldn't hit balls to Gonzalez out of fear tha the would stretch out and do something to his balky back. Teammate and friend Ivan Rodriguez says Gonzalez, who can be painfully shy at times, grew even more reserved out of frustration. Oates was able to play him in left field only five times, and when Oates talks of Gonzalez's '95 season, it isn't difficult to read between the lines that his attitude suffered along with his back and neck: "There are none of us who like to go to work when we're not feeling well."

Juan Gonzalez will ten you that he looks at life in a different way today because he has shared a glimpse of death. During a trip last November to his native Puerto Rico, he spent several days with a group of priests on a retreat in the middle of the island.

Included was a meeting with a young man who was HIV-positive. The man's name escapes Gonzalez on this day, but he says he came away from the meeting feeling "touched": "When you have everything in life like me, you need something strong inside your heart. Like God. It's everything. It's the real thing."

Upon Gonzalez's return to Dallas three weeks later, Luis Mayoral, the team's Latin American liaison and a longtime friend, noticed something different about Gonzalez's mambo, his rhythm.

"I think," Gonzalez told Mayoral, "I have found peace of mind."

"Juan has a lot of pride--a lot of pride," Mayoral says. "Being young got him into a lot of circumstances--love, romance. But Juan is the type of guy who is willing to learn from his mistakes."

Gonzalez did not undergo surgery for his back problems, but he was told to strengthen his back through therapy. He spent the winter working on his stomach muscles and his hips--as well as his back. His weight fell from 235 to about 220. He worked out with a medicine ball. He watched tapes of himself in action. He read books and listened to cassettes about baseball.

"When you have negative experiences," he says, "you can have positive experiences, too."

Then Gonzalez sent his teammates and Oates a strong--and some say most surprising--message by reporting early to spring training. The impact carries over today. "He's concentrating on doing his job," Rodriguez says. "He's doing the little things. He's using the whole field. Juan is healthy."

Since opening day, Gonzalez, appearing more lithe and flexible, has come early to the park and stayed late to work on his fielding and hitting. He has done everything the coach has asked him to do--and has smiled through it all.

Says Rangers hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo who managed Gonzalez at Sarasota in 1986, his first professional season: "I think that's why he feels so good about himself; he's done a little bit extra. And I think he's happy with his outside life. That makes it easier to come to the park day in and day out."

He also is playing a new position, which factors into this mind game, as well. Oates has Gonzalez playing right field, which is smaller and therefore closer to the stands at the Ballpark in Arlington. That, Oates says, will give Gonzalez a chance to bond with the fans, much as, say, Gary Matthews did with Cubs fans at Wrigley Field a decade ago.

Gonzalez has taken to the position enthusiastically, not to mention nearly flawlessly. Oates says Gonzalez always has been enthusiastic, hut others suggest that Gonzalez seems to be more focused on baseball than he ever has been.

Moreover, Gonzalez says he is having fun. He has loved playing baseball his whole life he says, but sometimes the injuries and hype made the game seem like a chore. Through his setbacks and from the setback of one particular Puerto Rican less fortunate, Gonzalez now knows what a chore really is.

As he dresses for another game at the Ballpark in Arlington, a reinvented Juan Gonzalez reflects. There is no cuticle-biting, no salsa music. For the moment, the talk is net of Cowboys or Mavs or politics, but of Juan Gonzalez and the work at hand. "This is a job, or like a jute," he says, "but it's fun because you're playing. So you should have fun."

He Sounds as if he really means it.


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