Since he was a youngster using a broomstick as a bat and a bottle cap as a ball on the dusty streets of Vega Baja, Puerto Rico, Juan Gonzalez has been known as “Igor,” a nickname he earned with his childhood fascination with a professional wrestler named Igor the Magnificent.
But if you didn’t know that, and had observed Gonzalez during his first few years with the Texas Rangers, you might have thought Igor was the monster who seemed to reside within this temperamental slugger.
While Gonzalez was leading the American League in home runs with 43 in 1992 and 46 in 1993, he might have set a record for bats smashed into the batting cage. Yes, even subpar batting practice set this guy off.
A strikeout in a key situation sent teammates scurrying from a flying helmet. In the clubhouse, few got to know Gonzalez because he made little effort to be part of the team or expand his limited English.
A brooder, he was aloof, often retreating to the weight room after games. The joke in the Ranger press box was that Gonzalez would speak to reporters only after games in which he hit two home runs. Otherwise, he was unavailable.
Gonzalez looks back at those days as if they were lived by someone else.
“Before, when I came to the park, I was always ticked off,” said Gonzalez, who has an American League-leading 81 RBIs before tonight’s game against the Angels. “Now, I’m real happy. I’m having fun. If I don’t get a hit tonight? No problem. I’ll come back tomorrow.”
Gonzalez, 28, is one of the best hitters in the game, and his most-valuable-player season in 1996 (.314, 47 homers, 144 RBIs in 134 games) and an almost-as-spectacular 1997 (.296, 42 homers, 131 RBIs in 133 games) firmly established him among baseball’s elite.
At the beginning of the month he was on pace to shatter a record many considered unbreakable, Hack Wilson’s 190 RBIs in 1930, and when he steps to the plate with runners in scoring position, the long, lean Gonzalez--he is 6 feet 3 and 220 pounds--is about as frightening a sight there is this side of Mark McGwire.
But teammates, opponents, club officials and reporters are seeing a softer side of Gonzalez this season. He’s showing a smile that can illuminate the clubhouse, and a warm personality to match.
He relapsed in May, when he threw a tantrum because an official scorer ruled what Gonzalez thought was a hit an error, costing him two RBIs.
But those who follow the Rangers say that was the kind of outburst they have not seen in several years, and one for which the slugger eventually apologized.
“He has a real peace of mind,” said Luis Mayoral, the Rangers’ Latin American liaison and longtime Gonzalez confidant.
No wonder. He’s enjoying good health, thanks to a new training regimen that stresses flexibility instead of bulk. He has played in every game this season, whereas injuries cut deeply into his playing time the last three years. He has two more option years on a contract that will pay him $45.5 million.
Most of all, Gonzalez has found happiness in his four-year relationship with Puerto Rican singing sensation Olga Tanon, which has lasted longer than any of his three marriages. Gonzalez and Tanon have a 2-year-old daughter, Gabriela, and are engaged to be married. Juan’s 6-year-old son from a previous marriage lives in Arlington, Texas, with his mother.
“In years before, I had a lot of personal problems that bothered me,” Gonzalez said. “I’m human, and there was a lot of pressure. Right now, I have a great relationship, and the past is history. I’m real happy. When your life outside the lines is in control, you have great control in the game.”
His first few years in the big leagues, his life was like a wild pitch. Some people have problems because they take their work home with them. Gonzalez did the opposite. He took his problems at home to work.
He was married at 19, again at 21, then again at 24, and there were three divorces, two of them messy. His last marriage, to the sister of Atlanta Braves’ catcher Javy Lopez in 1994, was two months old when Gonzalez left.
“He had his ups and downs with women, which was inevitable because he didn’t really grow up until three years ago,” Mayoral said. “In Puerto Rico, home run hitters are like big movie stars, and that’s why people fall in love with Juan. But his mistakes, I think, were from a lack of education. He didn’t know what he needed to cope with fame and fortune.”
Gonzalez signed his first pro contract, which came with a $75,000 bonus, when he was 16, and he reached the big leagues when he was 19, in 1989.
At 22, he was the American League’s home run king, and when he returned to Puerto Rico that winter, a crowd of 5,000 met him at the San Juan airport. An additional 3,000 greeted him in his hometown.
Almost overnight, he had become a hero, and his charitable acts at home began earning him a reputation as another patron saint of Puerto Rican baseball, the next Roberto Clemente. That was head-spinning stuff.
“Fame and fortune are great when you’re young because you have so much energy, but you don’t have the experience,” Gonzalez said, pointing to his head. “I’m more mature now. When you have a lot of problems, you learn from them. I’ve put my life in order.”
Where there is order, there once was confusion. Besides his off-field problems, Gonzalez had trouble assimilating because of a language barrier he didn’t really begin to tackle until 1993-94, when he got serious about English lessons.
Gonzalez was shy and introverted--"His first few years, he’d panic when anyone from the media approached him,” Mayoral said--and that made him even more uncomfortable.
“When he came to the big leagues he was like a sophomore in college,” said Tom Grieve, Texas’ general manager from 1985-94 and now a Ranger broadcaster. “Because he was a great player, everyone expected him to be a great spokesman off the field. But that’s not the way it worked.”
Grieve acknowledged that Gonzalez had “an erratic” lifestyle, “but never because of alcohol or drugs,” he said. “Maybe he got married too young.”
Lucky for Gonzalez, there is no three-strikes law for romance. He met Tanon at a planning meeting for a campaign to help children infected with HIV, and they have been living together for almost four years.
“She’s behind me 100%,” Gonzalez said. “She knows just what to say to me when I’m down. She keeps me positive. I’m more comfortable with myself because I’m so comfortable with her.”
Comfort is a key for Gonzalez. Last year he began working with a new personal trainer, Noa Precinal, who treats Gonzalez more like a world-class track athlete than a baseball player.
Gonzalez lifts weights only once or twice a week now, and when he does, he does more repetitions with lighter weights. He exercises in the pool, uses large rubber bands for strength-and-resistance exercises, and he’s stretching a lot more.
“Absolutely, that’s why I’m having such a great year,” said Gonzalez, far less bulky than he was in 1996. “I feel great. I feel in control.”
Especially with runners in scoring position.
“He gets up with guys on base and it’s like a switch goes on,” Ranger infielder Luis Alicea said. “His body is so long and strong and he’s not just a pull hitter--he uses the whole field. Most big guys, you can pitch inside to. But not to him.”
One criticism of Gonzalez is he has a tendency to chase pitches off the plate or in the dirt. He has 61 strikeouts and only 15 walks this season, after striking out 107 times and walking 33 times in 1997.
“But we’re an aggressive team,” Texas batting instructor Rudy Jaramillo said. “If Juan tried to work more walks, he might be less aggressive. On the whole, I’d rather he be aggressive than walk more.”
Gonzalez figures that, unless the bases are loaded, you’re not going to drive in any runs with a walk. So he takes his hacks, and that attitude has helped bring another Hack back into memory this season. So few have even come close to Wilson’s 68-year-old record, that it’s barely mentioned.
“I had never even heard of Hack Wilson before this year,” said Gonzalez, whose 277 homers are 102 short of the Latin American homer record of 379, shared by Orlando Cepeda and Tony Perez.
“All I know is, he had a lot of RBIs, and I have a chance to break his record if I stay healthy. But it’s more important to win, to be in first place.”
Hack Wilson’s isn’t a household name in Puerto Rico, but Clemente’s is. Gonzalez has been compared to the former Pittsburgh Pirate star and Hall of Famer who was killed on Dec. 31, 1972, when his cargo plane carrying emergency relief supplies to earthquake-ravaged Nicaragua crashed.
“He is the first [Puerto Rican player] since Clemente to share his riches with his people,” said Mayoral, who also knew Clemente. “Like Roberto, Juan identifies with the people who struggle, the guy who works at the factory or drives the taxicab or picks up the garbage. He understands the people who value the essence of being alive.”
Gonzalez returns to Puerto Rico every winter, and although he spends his off-seasons with Tanon in her mansion near San Juan, he still has deep roots in Vega Baja, the town he grew up in and the one he eventually wants to run.
Gonzalez would like to run for mayor when he’s through playing baseball.
“And I have no doubt he’d win,” Alicea said. “He knows his politics.”
And he knows his people. Gonzalez has poured thousands of dollars into his hometown, providing money for everything from Little League teams to funerals. He has bought medicine for the needy, school uniforms for poor families and toys for children who have none. One winter he spoke at 52 schools.
“I’m not sure about the political part of being mayor, but I want to serve my people,” said Gonzalez, who believes he would have been a social worker had baseball not panned out. “In my town, the mayor forgot my neighborhood.”
That would be an area known as Alto de Cuba, a barrio that Gonzalez lived in until he was 12. It now is known for drug and alcohol abuse, prostitution, poverty, unemployment and crime. The National Guard has been summoned several times in recent years to restore order.
“I feel bad because I see all the problems, yet I’m from the same neighborhood and am in the big leagues,” said Gonzalez, whose father was a math teacher. “Why aren’t others having dreams or trying to better themselves? I will never forget my people, so I go back there and tell them they have a future, as long as they stay positive and stay in school.
“Nothing in life is easy, but nothing is impossible. You have to keep trying, never quit, never put your head down. I’m a good example. I’ve come a long way.”
Gonzalez remembers telling his mother, Iris, when he was 8 or 9 years old that she would be watching him on television some day.
“She said, ‘You’re crazy. Keep going to school,’ ” Gonzalez said. “Then in 1991, she finally saw me play on television. She cried.”
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RBI leaders this season, with ratio of RBIs to games played (Hack Wilson’s RBI ratio in 1930 was 1.23):
Player: RBI (Ratio)
Mark McGwire, St. Louis: 82 (1.17)
Juan Gonzalez, Texas: 81 (1.14)
Andres Galarraga, Atlanta: 67 (0.93)
Vinny Castilla, Colorado: 65 (0.89)
Sammy Sosa, Chicago Cubs: 64 (0.90)
Ken Griffey Jr., Seattle: 62 (0.86)