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Gonzalez a Reminder of Better Days
By Gil LeBreton

Juan GonzalezSARASOTA, Fla. - It's like an old song being played again on a warm summer's afternoon.

The pitcher pitches. The long body at the plate coils.

The left leg lifts. And with a familiar, distinct thwack, the baseball soars like a missile toward the distant outfield wall.

In some ways, it's as if Juan Gonzalez never left. He has his old number, his old spring-training locker. His sinewy physique looks much the same. The jersey on his broad chest reads "Rangers," the way it always was supposed to.

Whatever happened two seasons ago, Gonzalez says, "It's history now." That was then, and this is now. And this - this Rangers uniform, this Rangers dugout - feels so much like home.

"Absolutely, absolutely," Gonzalez says. "I am very excited to be back in Texas."

The smile says that he truly means it. He has a great smile, broad and expressive. But Rangers fans have never gotten to see it as much as they should have.

It was as if Gonzalez felt that being the team's best player, the two-time American League MVP, was serious business. Add to that his inherent shyness, and it was easy to see why Gonzalez once was so misunderstood.

Suddenly, one November 1999 afternoon, he was gone, and the Rangers set out to plot a new future without him.

And do we have to remind anyone that without Juan Gonzalez in right field, the Rangers finished last twice and a combined 63 1/2 games out of first place?

"It's history," Juan says, politely.

Nine bodies changed uniforms in that 1999 trade between the Rangers and Detroit. Of the nine, Gonzalez probably handled his new surroundings the worst.

"I had a tough year in Detroit," he said Wednesday, after the Rangers played the Cincinnati Reds. "I never had my health there. I never had any protection in the lineup.

"Anyway, that's over. I am excited to be home."

To the man who first rescued him, general manager John Hart, it was easy to see that Gonzalez in Detroit was a Jaguar in a Ford and Chevy town.

"No. 1, he got traded from home," Hart said. "Secondly, he was in a situation where he had some nagging injuries. And No. 3, he was in a ballpark and with a club that just didn't fit him."

As GM of the Indians, Hart was able to lure Gonzalez to Cleveland last year for a relative pauper's purse, $10 million.

"We thought that he would be a perfect fit for our club in Cleveland, and, as it turned out, we were right," Hart said. "He had a fabulous year."

Away from the cavernous left field in Comerica Park, Gonzalez hit 35 home runs, drove in 140 runs and batted .325 last season. Next to Jason Giambi, he became the most attractive free-agent hitter on the market.

Did the pitching-poor Rangers need him? The two last-place finishes without him should speak for themselves.

Publicly, as he set about assembling the Rangers, Hart didn't make much of the notion of acquiring another bat.

"We had a lot of balls in the air," Hart said. "We tried some deals. We signed some free agents. We didn't sign others. We kept plugging hard all through the winter.

"And the situation with Juan just presented itself."

There had been dispatches in New York, insisting that Gonzalez was about to become the Mets' new right fielder.

"They offered the same money," Gonzalez said. "But the thing is, I've played in the American League for 12 years. I know the pitchers here. That would have been a tough adjustment."

Once upon a time, the Rangers surprised Gonzalez with a trade because they thought he might demand a multiyear contract worth $16 million or more per year.

Hart signed him in January for $24 million over two years.

"The most important thing," Gonzalez said Wednesday, "is God. Then your health and your family.

"Money is not everything in life. I understand that."

This time he is not the franchise cornerstone, nor its poster boy. There's a $252 million shortstop to fill those shoes.

"Juan is not media savvy," Hart said. "When we got him in Cleveland, we said very clearly that we were not going to make him a front and center guy, that we were going to just let him go out and play.

"We're going to try to do the same thing here. There are other guys here. And there are a lot of good players here."

The smile on Gonzalez's face suggests that he already relishes his new role.

"We have the best lineup in baseball," he said. "I'm excited to be a part of it."

The sweet swing - the coil of his muscular body, the leg kick, the line drives - has not changed. But Juan Gonzalez said that he has.

"I gained the experience," he said. "I think I've matured a lot.

"I have a lot of peace of mind."

The welcome-home standing ovation will come in two weeks.


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