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Philling us in on Juan
By Terry Pluto
Akron Beacon Journal

Listen to Detroit Tigers manager Phil Garner talk about Juan Gonzalez . .

No, make that gush about Gonzalez . .

You have to remind yourself, "Wait a minute, didn't

Gonzalez lay one big dinosaur egg in Detroit? Wasn't he hurt -- a lot? And didn't he whine about the ballpark -- a lot?"

Before dealing with all of that, Garner told a story.

It was last March, Gonzalez's first spring game with Detroit. The Tigers were facing a college team. Gonzalez was on second base, there was a single.

"He scored on a close play at the plate -- he slid real hard," Garner said.

The Tigers manager didn't think much of it. And Gonzalez didn't say anything. Garner noticed that Gonzalez occasionally didn't run well, but he was a veteran and this was spring training.

Right before Opening Day, Garner saw Gonzalez's leg, and there was a huge bruise in the hamstring area. Turns out that Gonzalez injured himself on that slide against the college team but didn't tell anyone.

"This guy is not a jake," Garner said. "Sometimes, you see him not run out a ball. You figure he's not hustling, then you find out that he's hurting. "

Garner paused.

"I'm telling you, Juan Gonzalez is a good guy," he said. "I read some of the things about him, and that's not the Juan Gonzalez that I know."

Understand that Gonzalez had the worst season of his 11-year career in Detroit for Garner. Then realize that Gonzalez came to the Tigers with even more hype, more expectations, than are now on his back with the Tribe.

Detroit was moving into a new ballpark. It made a huge trade for Gonzalez, a two-time MVP who was supposed to join with high-priced free agent Dean Palmer to bring the Tigers into contention in the American League's Central Division.

Remember how the Indians signed veterans Eddie Murray and Dennis Martinez when they took up residence in Jacobs Field, and how those guys gave the team legitimacy?

That was supposed to be Gonzalez's roll.

Instead, everything went wrong.

From 1996-99, he never failed to drive in fewer than 128 runs. He had 67 RBI for the Tigers.

From 1996-99, he never hit fewer than 39 homers. He had 22 for the Tigers.

He was a career .289 hitter with runners in scoring position. He batted .240 in those situations for Detroit.

Early in the season, he turned down a $140 million offer from the Tigers, and the fans turned against him. They knew Gonzalez was just putting in a year until he could go elsewhere, and that he wasn't exactly thrilled to be in Detroit, which finished with a disappointing 79-83 record.

"But Juan never pulled a (Gary) Sheffield and cause a big hullabaloo about his contract," said Garner. "He did not become a distraction with the team."

He just didn't hit.

As you listen to Garner, remember that he has no reason to defend Gonzalez. He no longer manages him, and Gonzalez's failure in Detroit just made Garner's job harder.

In one voice, Garner does concede, "Juan does some things that are hard to understand," but then, he believes that was due most to a breakdown of communication, Gonzalez's unease with English.

"I think the trade shocked him," Garner said. "He had spent his whole life with Texas."

When Gonzalez heard rumors he was being dealt to Detroit, he said he didn't want to play there. He knew the new park was death to power hitters because of its deep fences, and that was the last place that he wanted to spend his final year before free agency.

But he was traded there, anyway, as Texas feared it couldn't afford to sign him and didn't want to waltz away to a free-agent pot of gold with nothing in return.

"It was like Juan never really got untracked with us," Garner said. "He had injuries. His swing was messed up. He found that all eyes were on him, every game, every at bat."

There was something else.

"Juan is a very shy guy, especially when he comes to speaking English," Garner said. "He's not out-going. He doesn't communicate well. Being in new surroundings didn't help that at all."

The native of Puerto Rico went into a shell with the Tigers.

Later, Garner's voice turns quiet, reverent when he talks about Gonzalez at the bat.

"I've never seen anyone hit the ball harder," he said. "I've thrown batting practice to him, and he hits a line drive back at up the middle -- and it whizzes past you and ends up over the center-field wall."

Garner said his old Pirates teammate, Willie Stargell, might have been stronger.

"But no one hits the ball like Juan," he said.

So what happened in Detroit? It seems like someone with that much talent would have a great year, almost in spite of himself.

"A lot of things bothered him," Garner said. "His swing was messed up. He just couldn't get untracked, especially at home."

Gonzalez batted .267 with eight homers in Detroit, .307 with 14 homers on the road.

Those with the Tigers will confide to you that mistakes were made, that Detroit allowed Gonzalez to have his three-man entourage in the clubhouse, and that bothered some players.

Garner denies this.

"When I asked those guys to leave the clubhouse, they did," he said. "It was never a problem."

Then, Garner said something surprising.

"Some people like to throw stones at superstars, and they talk about the entourage," he said. "They should walk a mile in a superstar's shoes. The first day, it's great. Everyone wants your autograph, everyone wants to talk to you. The second day, it's still pretty good. But by the end of the week, you feel like everyone is pulling at you.

"I mean, you'll get 50-100 letters a day from people who want your help, people with dying kids. You sign 1,000 autographs, but finally, you leave. You miss signing for a little kid, and his mother is irate. An entourage can serve as a buffer, it can help you respect your privacy."

With the Indians, Gonzalez seems to be reborn. It's as if he remembers how he was the AL's MVP in 1996 and 1998.

"He has been outstanding," Tribe assistant general manager Mark Shapiro said. "He's done everything we've asked."

That includes keeping his entourage out of the clubhouse.

"Juan has been no problem with that or anything else,"

Tribe manager Charlie Manuel said. "And I'm telling you, he can hit."

Gonzalez is batting .349 with five homers and 11 RBI in 43 at-bats this spring.

"But what has really surprised me is how he plays right field and runs the bases," Manuel said. "He's better than I thought."

"I could have told the Indians that," said Garner. "He's a good all-around player."

But sensitive.

Gonzalez will have to deal with 10 games in Detroit this season, where he'll be booed. In a exhibition game at the Tigers' spring base in Lakeland, the fans were razing Gonzalez. He dropped a fly ball, hit into a double play and struck out.

"I just wish things would have turned out different for Juan (in Detroit)," Garner said.

Gonzalez has said that the ballpark and the trade bothered him, that Cleveland is a "fresh start" in a place where he "loves to hit."

In the midst of his miserable season, he still crushed Tribe pitching for a .360 batting average with five homers and 11 RBI in 12 games. He has hit more home runs at Jacobs Field than any other visiting player.

"I think Juan will have a big year for Cleveland," Garner said. "But I thought he'd do that with us, too. The difference is he has a better supporting cast in that lineup with (Kenny) Lofton, Omar (Vizquel) and Robbie (Alomar) batting a head of him."

Gonzalez had an inflammation to his left ankle and back troubles last season, in addition to the hamstring that he strained in spring training. He missed 47 games.

But he's 31, on a one-year contract and seemingly motivated to return to his MVP former.

"I'll you this," Garner said. "He's a hitter, and when a hitter is healthy, he hits."

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