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Longing to come back
By Mike Berardino

Juan Gonzalez may report to Cardinals spring training each morning in relative obscurity, but back home in Puerto Rico they are monitoring this comeback with great interest.

It isn't just the two American League Most Valuable Player awards he won a decade ago or the millions of dollars he has earned and burned while surviving three divorces.

It isn't just the fact he once turned down $140 million from the Tigers and has so far failed to reach $40 million in subsequent earnings.

It isn't just the fact he considers President Bush a personal friend, dating to W's days running the Texas Rangers, or that Gonzalez spent time this winter at the White House lobbying Bush on behalf of his island territory.

Nor is it about the stir Gonzalez caused in December when he visited wounded Puerto Rican soldiers at Walter Reed Hospital and marveled at the way so many of them wanted to go back to Iraq to fight again.

It is all of those things that still make Gonzalez relevant in Puerto Rico in a way he no longer is here.

"They're praying for him right now," says Mets backup catcher Ramon Castro, whose uncle, Tuto Nieves, is the godfather of one of Gonzalez's sons. "I hope he makes it back. He can do it. If he stays healthy, he'll be fine."

That's been the trouble for Gonzalez these past few years. He's never been able to stay on the field, some part of his body or another always betraying him at the worst possible time.

His last major league at-bat came with the Indians in 2005. That was his only at-bat of the season, a simple grounder resulting in a pulled calf muscle that lingered all year.

Since then Gonzalez, 38, has knocked around. He spent 2006 playing for the Long Island Ducks of the independent Atlantic League, the 12-hour bus rides reminding him of his younger days in the Rangers' farm system.

He played winter ball in his home country. Last spring he was in Red Sox camp, but he got hurt again and was released.

For most baseball millionaires, that would have been enough. They would have taken it to the house and settled into an early retirement of golf outings and card shows.

Yet here is "Juan Gone," once thought to be long gone, battling for a bench spot on a modest minor-league contract.

Which sort of begs the question: What is he doing here?

"I'm here," he says, "because when you have goals in your mind, you try to come back to finish your goals."

He needs 66 home runs for 500. He needs 12 more doubles for 400. He needs 64 hits for 2,000.

"Those are goals," he says with a broad smile. "The money is not big for me. It's the goals. When you have goals in your mind and inside your heart, you try again and see what happens."

No doubt Gonzalez was motivated by the sight of his former Rangers running mate, Sammy Sosa, coming back to get that 600th home run last season. Trying again, no matter the circumstances, is always admirable.

As for what happens, Gonzalez was an extreme long shot even before Cardinals manager Tony La Russa started musing in public about possibly signing Barry Bonds. But you can find Juan Gone early each morning, his body still in tremendous shape, doing drills on a back field with kids half his age.

"He could be very helpful to us if he's got his game together, and I've been told that he does, so we'll see," La Russa says. "It's not about his two MVPs. He needs to show us where his game is. It's about what he is in 2008."

Before signing Gonzalez, the Cardinals weighed recommendations from Albert Pujols, Yadier Molina and third-base coach Jose Oquendo. They also talked with ESPN analyst Eduardo Perez, an ex-Cardinal and son of Marlins special assistant Tony Perez, who worked out with Gonzalez this winter.

It's unclear whether he can still hit, but say this for Gonzalez: The man still looks great in a baseball uniform.

"I feel like a rookie invited to big-league camp," he says. "This is a big challenge for me. But when you stay positive and keep your head up, nothing is impossible."

Back home in Puerto Rico, they are praying for a happy ending.

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