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Gonzalez finds his niche with Indians
By Drew Sharp
Detroit Free Press

WINTER HAVEN, Fla. -- You can't swing a corked bat through the Cleveland Indians' clubhouse without hitting an All-Star, and that suits the team's newest star just fine. It's not like the players have never seen a potential Hall of Famer, so Juan Gonzalez's words and actions aren't as heavily scrutinized.

"This is nice," said the former Tiger, smiling.

Juan's new world spins more to his liking, satisfying his perplexing personality. He's getting the star treatment he demands without the star responsibility others expect.

There won't be billboards plastered around Cleveland trumpeting his arrival as was the case in Detroit last spring.

He's fitting in, rather than standing out.

"Last year was history," Gonzalez said Monday. "It's a new season. Detroit was good to me. The organization treated me well. But I feel more comfortable with everything here. This is a team that's won championships. The ballpark here is better for a power hitter than what they had there."

Gonzalez appears neither bitter nor vindictive about his brief pit stop in Detroit, where he seemingly was blamed for everything that went awry last season. There are no regrets about rejecting an offer close to $150 million last February, although he suffered through his worst statistical season and settled for a one-year, $12-million contract with the Indians. Two million dollars of the contract is deferred.

"Juan became the focus there in Detroit because the team hadn't won anything there in quite some time," said Indians first baseman Jim Thome, who has considered Gonzalez a friend for several years. "All the attention stayed on him. But we've achieved some success here over the years, and that's what everyone concentrates on here. It's not about what the individual can do but what the team does."

But this is a player the Indians signed to reclaim the 120 or so RBIs they lost when Gonzalez's rightfield predecessor, Manny Ramirez, bolted for Boston's big bucks.

Criticize him for his sensitivities if you choose, but Gonzalez is who he is. It's no act. And if first appearances are any indication, he hasn't changed simply because he has changed uniforms.

Gonzalez is giving the Cleveland media what they want to hear, saying that the Indians have a great organization with great players who want to win. That's similar to the things he said to the Detroit media when he arrived in Lakeland last year.

But when Gonzalez interacts with his new teammates, it seems more sincere this time, and maybe that's because this time he could choose where he played. He went to Detroit in a trade from Texas but arrived in Cleveland as a free agent.

Everyone knew last season that if Gonzalez didn't stay in Detroit, he probably was headed for the Indians. Obviously, he loves the more power-friendly dimensions of Jacobs Field. He's a lifetime .344 hitter with 12 home runs and 36 RBIs in 30 games at The Jake.

He also has been close friends with Puerto Rican teammates Robbie Alomar and Wil Cordero for years. And Cleveland bullpen coach Luis Isaac has known Gonzalez since Gonzalez was 12 years old.

Those are connections he lacked with the Tigers, and Alomar assured him he could get 150 RBIs with the Indians.

"Oh, man, with the top three guys in our lineup," Gonzalez said, "I should have no problem getting the chance to drive in runs."

The Indians are getting the enthusiasm, but they're also getting the idiosyncracies that are uniquely Juan.

Gonzalez was leaning against the batting cage just two hours after he took the field for the first time in an Indians uniform last Thursday when a foul tip ricocheted off his right elbow.

Others would easily shake off the freakish accident, but Gonzalez immediately went to the training room and spent the next two days with an ice bag draped around the elbow.

And he will have his usual entourage following him this season.

Just as last year, when Gonzalez rented four adjoining apartments in the Riverfront Towers near Joe Louis Arena, he has asked the Indians to find him similar accommodations in Cleveland for himself, his personal trainer, his spiritual adviser and his primary confidant, Luis Mayoral, whom the Tigers hired last year as a liaison for their Latin operations. It's uncertain if Mayoral will assume a role with the Indians.

But Mayoral's most important job is to hold together the tenuous emotions that comprise Juan Gonzalez. It will be much easier with the talent surrounding him in Cleveland.

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