T.R.’s Memoirs: Rangers great Juan Gonzalez is coming home. Finally
(AP Photo/Roberto Borea)
Editor’s note: T.R. Sullivan covered the Rangers for 32 years, longer than anybody in franchise history, before retiring after the 2020 season. In this story, Sullivan reminisces about Rangers legend Juan Gonzalez.
The Rangers will honor Juan Gonzalez before Friday’s game against the Mariners, and he is scheduled to throw out the ceremonial first pitch.
Gonzalez will be escorted by former Rangers pitchers Jose Guzman and Edwin Correa. Former general manager Tom Grieve will present Gonzalez with his Rangers Hall of Fame jacket.
The Rangers are expected to have a large crowd — possibly a sellout — at Globe Life Field because they are playing the Mariners in what is, obviously, a crucial showdown in the American League West. The Rangers, Mariners and the Astros in the thick of a real-life pennant race for either a division title or a wild-card spot.
Hopefully the exuberant crowd — despite invariably being late arriving for any meaningful pregame ceremonies the Rangers put on — will give Gonzalez the reception he deserves as a player who once meant so much to this franchise.
Hopefully this ceremony also represents a thawing of the cool — actually, frozen — relationship that has existed between the Rangers and Gonzalez for the past 20 years.
This night is a long time coming. There are some — me included — who thought it would never happen.
There are also some — me included — who wishfully thought it would happen. There are some who close our eyes and see …
Gonzalez walking to the mound and the stadium erupting with a prolonged standing ovation for a two-time American League MVP who is still the Rangers’ all-time leader in home runs and RBIs.
Even if it doesn’t happen exactly as a script from The Natural or some other Hollywood fable, this still should be a momentous, almost biblical night for the Rangers.
Prodigal son returns
Gonzalez is Rangers royalty of another era, a time begone, a struggling franchise striving to establish an identity in a new ballpark, a team loaded with talent trying to reach postseason for the first time in franchise history.
He was the best player on a team that longtime fans — wow, has it been 27 years — remember brought magic to the Ballpark in Arlington during the original summer of the Hunt for Red October in 1996.
Will Clark and Dean Palmer, Rusty Greer and Mark McLemore, Darryl Hamilton and Kevin Elster …
Kevin Elster. Who can forget a non-roster spring invite utility player hitting 24 home runs and driving in 99 runs?
Pitchers Ken Hill and John Burkett. Bobby Witt, Darren Oliver and Roger Pavlik from the Rangers farm system. Jeff Russell out of the bullpen.
Ivan Rodriguez at catcher. Pudge who is now in the Hall of Fame — the one in Cooperstown.
Juan is not there and likely will never be. But there was a time when the smart money for Cooperstown induction was on Gonzalez. At one time it seemed inevitable.
Those putting their money on Juan witnessed the 1996 American League Division Series against the Yankees as Gonzalez hit five home runs in four games. Back then they were calling him Senor Octubre, a play on Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson, who was once known as Mr. October.
Those of us who were in Puerto Rico on June 6-8, 2003, remember him playing like Willie Mays, hitting the ball out of the park and making terrific defensive plays in the outfield. The Rangers were facing Montreal in interleague play. The Expos were playing some of their games in Puerto Rico that year because of their attendance troubles in Montreal, and this was Gonzalez’s first chance to play in front of his home fans.
He was a man possessed that weekend.
When Gonzalez was locked in at the plate, there was nobody better with a bat in his hand in the history of the Rangers.
Gonzalez stood there spread out, bat held high, staring down at the opposing pitcher with a determined calmness about him. The bat was lethal, and so was his zeal for driving in runs.
Anybody who thinks RBI totals are mainly a function of players getting on base in front of you never watched Gonzalez night after night when he was at his best.
“Juan, to me, was one of the best RBI guys I’ve ever seen,” outfielder Rusty Greer said. “He took pride in driving in runs, whether it was a home run, double, single. He just wanted to drive in runs. He hung his hat on being able to do that. He was always able to come up with the big knock. It really drove him.”
The joke around the Rangers was Gonzalez could drive in three runs with nobody else on base. Or he could drive you home even if you weren’t in the game.
“He would tell me all the time, Mac, just get on first base,” second baseman Mark McLemore said. “Not second base. First base. Most guys want you on second base so they could drive you in with a single. Not Juan. He wanted you on first base. He could drive you in with a ball in the gap or hit the ball over the fence.”
A trip to Puerto Rico
Here’s a great story. Pay attention.
After the 2001 season, new Rangers general manager John Hart acquired controversial reliever John Rocker from the Indians. If you don’t remember Rocker, count yourself lucky.
Rocker was a highly volatile personality who had created a shit storm a few years earlier with his comments about the city of New York in Sports Illustrated. Now, in January of 2002, he was with the Rangers and playing winter ball in Puerto Rico. For Bayamon.
I was working for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Evan Grant was with the Dallas Morning News. The two of us and Rangers broadcaster Eric Nadel went to Puerto Rico that weekend with the purpose of talking to Rocker.
A secondary plan was to interview Gonzalez, who lived in Puerto Rico in the offseason. You see, after a year in Detroit and another in Cleveland, Gonzalez had re-signed with the Rangers. But there had been no press conference. Gonzalez had not yet talked to the media after the two-year deal had been announced.
We had no idea where he was in Puerto Rico when we got there. But, while we were in Bayamon on a Friday afternoon, Nadel was tipped off Gonzalez would be signing autographs the next day at a mall in San Juan. They just weren’t sure where in Plazas Las Americas, the largest mall in the Caribbean.
We showed up on Saturday, and the person at the main information booth had no idea. Told us to check at the other end of the mall.
We headed down there. Somebody told us it might be at a cellphone store. They do that sometimes, we were told.
Wandered upstairs and found one. T-Mobile? Radio Shack? Can’t remember. It was 12:30. It was a small store tucked away from the main hallways. There were no signs announcing Gonzalez would be signing autographs.
The store manager set us straight.
“Juan will be signing at 1,” he told us.
How come there was no advertising of the event?
Because, the man told us, if they had announced ahead of time that Gonzalez would be signing autographs, the store would have been mobbed.
Word of mouth was more than sufficient. Before long, the line stretched well out into the mall.
The next Dale Murphy
The Rangers signed Gonzalez as a free agent on May 30, 1986. He was 16. The Rangers had hired Sandy Johnson some six months earlier to be their scouting director, luring him from the Padres with the promise of having complete control over scouting and player development.
Johnson had a reputation for being particularly successful in Latin America — Roberto and Sandy Alomar were among his signees in Puerto Rico — and the financially strapped Rangers were looking for an edge anywhere they could find it.
Johnson was just that. By the time the Rangers showed up for spring training in 1989, they had put together the greatest farm system in the history of the game.
Yes. The greatest.
Mike Petriello figured it out many years later. If you add up the combined career WAR of the players in a farm system, the 1989 Rangers system is No. 1.
Ivan Rodriguez, Sammy Sosa, Kevin Brown, Kenny Rogers, Robb Nen, Darren Oliver, Roger Pavlik, Mike Stanley, Dean Palmer. They were the crown jewels of a long list of players who came out of the Rangers ‘system from around 1989.
Juan Gonzalez was No. 1. He was going to be the next Dale Murphy,
That was the “comp” back then for a 6-foot-4 center fielder, a tremendous athlete who could hit with power. To be compared to Murphy, one of the best players of the 1980s, was a tremendous compliment, and don’t kid yourself.
Forget about it.
Even Pudge didn’t compare.
Juan was the best prospect to ever come out of the Rangers’ farm system.
His first full season was 1991.Gonzalez was 21 and hit .264 with 29 home runs and 102 RBIs. The next year he led the league with 43 home runs. Did it again in 1993 when he hit .310 with 46 home runs and 118 RBIs. His .632 slugging percentage also led the league.
Gonzalez was quiet, withdrawn, but with a potentially explosive temperament. His English was not good. He was friendly with the media, but not particularly accommodating.
Finally, around that time, I was able to chat with him one on one.
“Look,” I said. “I am going to be here as long as you are here. I promise you, I will never make you sound bad in the newspaper. I will treat you with respect if you treat me with respect. Deal?”
He said yes, and we shook hands.
From that point to the end, Gonzalez and I had a great relationship.
Not many did, but you had to work at it.
After the 1993 season, the Rangers signed Gonzalez to a seven-year, $45.45 million contract. The deal was announced on Feb. 4, 1994, and, at the time, it was the biggest contract ever given out by the Rangers.
Four days later, the Rangers prepared to honor Gonzalez at their annual midwinter banquet. Hall of Famers Reggie Jackson and Tony Perez were brought in for the occasion to present Gonzalez with awards.
Gonzalez was expected to fly in from Puerto Rico on the day of the banquet but missed his flight. And the banquet. He issued an apology.
The 1994 season was played under the threat of the looming players strike. It hung over every team, especially the Rangers. Pitcher Kevin Brown and first baseman Will Clark were especially militant when it came to labor issues. They were ready for war with the owners. So were others.
Gonzalez was not. The labor issues held little interest to him. He was there to play baseball. But he had a lackluster season, and the Rangers were 52-62 when the strike began Aug. 12. The season was eventually canceled. When it was finally over, Grieve was fired as general manager and replaced by Doug Melvin. Manager Kevin Kennedy was also dismissed and replaced by Johnny Oates, who had just been let go by the Orioles.
The mercurial outfielder was now playing for a conservative, no-nonsense manager who prided himself on being the ultimate professional.
They were a perfect match.
In the history of the Rangers, there are three player-manager relationships that stand out above all others.
Johnny Oates– Juan Gonzalez.
Valentine because he was instrumental in getting Ryan to sign with the Rangers and then staying for five seasons.
For Gonzalez and Hamilton, it was different.
In Oates and Washington, the two Rangers superstars found a manager who understood them, how to deal with their complicated personalities and get the most out of their explosive talents. Gonzalez flourished under Oates just as Hamilton would do years later under Washington.
One of the most important decisions Oates made came before the 1996 season, when he decided to anchor Gonzalez in right field and leave Rusty Greer in left. After spending the first five seasons being moved from one outfield spot to another, Gonzalez finally settled down in right field.
He responded with his best season, hitting .314 with 47 home runs, 144 RBIs and a .643 slugging percentage. Gonzalez was especially outstanding during the hot summer months. From June 2 to the end of August, Gonzalez played in 80 games and hit .344 with 35 home runs and 93 RBIs over what amounts to half a season.
The Rangers ended up winning the first division title in franchise history, and Gonzalez was named the AL MVP. He did it again in 1998, when he hit .318 with 45 home runs and a club-record 157 RBIs.
One afternoon in Cooperstown
The Rangers won the division again that season and were on their way in 1999 when they showed up in Cooperstown on July 26 for the Hall of Fame Game. It was an annual exhibition game against the Royals the day after Ryan and George Brett had been inducted into the Hall of Fame.
The Rangers had an eight-game lead in the division and were enjoying a day off from the rigors of the pennant race. Everybody was in a relaxed, jovial mood except Gonzalez.
First of all, Gonzalez had a bad right wrist. He had missed Saturday’s game in Tampa Bay before going 0 for 4 on Sunday. There was absolutely no way he was going to play in a meaningless exhibition game in a small village in upstate New York.
Exhibition? The Rangers were even wearing old-time uniforms from the 1930s to add to the gaiety and festivities
One problem. There were no locker rooms at ancient Doubleday Field in downtown Cooperstown. The teams had to get dressed at the local recreation center a few miles away and bus to the field.
Unbeknownst to Oates, Gonzalez did not get dressed. His “throwback” uniform was way too big.
“It made me look like a clown,” Gonzalez told me later.
He decided not to dress out for the game. Nobody told Oates.
The manager was watching his team take batting practice at Doubleday Field when owner Tom Hicks casually walked up to him. Hicks, basking in the glow of Ryan’s induction and his team being in first place, just wanted to chat with Oates.
Hicks mentioned that Gonzalez was in street clothes and innocently said, “I guess his wrist is still bothering him?”
Oates was flustered to see his best player out of uniform without knowing why.
It was later announced Gonzalez wasn’t playing because his uniform didn’t fit. It got big chuckles in the media.
It didn’t matter that Gonzalez missed the Rangers’ next four games because of the wrist.
Man of mystery
Oates remained Gonzalez’s biggest supporter. Oates also admitted Gonzalez carried a mysterious aura around him, almost like royalty,
“He’a a tough guy to get to know,” Oates said. “Juan is a very intelligent guy. But he’s very private and very proud, and he doesn’t want to say something that will be interpreted the wrong way.”
“Juan is a very shy person at heart,” former Rangers president Tom Schieffer said. “Sometimes people can’t see that. They see someone in the public spotlight performing in front of 50,000 people and they can’t imagine him being shy. But Juan is that kind of guy.”
But the incident in Cooperstown did reinforce one thing about Gonzalez.
He had tremendous pride. Everything had to be just right. Especially his health. After another great season in 1999, Gonzalez was traded to the Tigers, and injuries started catching up to him — calf, thumb, hamstring, wrist. The Rangers brought him back in 2002-03 on a two-year deal but got just 152 games out of him.
But he hit .288 with 32 home runs and 105 RBIs in those 152 games. The bat was still there even if age and pride were catching up to him. He left after two seasons, and injuries continued to dog him in 2004-05 with the Royals and Indians. He was 35 when he played in his final game for Cleveland in 2005. A comeback with the Cardinals in 2006 also fizzled in spring training.
Gonzalez, rather than retiring with a well-deserved sendoff, quietly just faded away. When he became eligible for the Hall of Fame, Gonzalez received 5.2 percent of the votes in 2010 and 4.0 in 2011. That was not enough, and he dropped off the ballot.
I voted for him both years.
For years, the Rangers resisted putting him in their own Hall of Fame. The main reason was they didn’t think he would show up for the induction ceremonies. He was offered induction in 2013 but declined, sending word that, “I closed the Texas Rangers chapter of my life a long time ago.”
Finally, in 2015, the team decided to put him in the Rangers Hall of Fame no matter how he felt about it and hope for the best. At first, there was some hope Gonzalez would show up. But at the last minute, he backed out, citing a family illness in Puerto Rico, and his son J.J. accepted on his behalf.
That was eight years ago.
Now Gonzalez is coming back to Arlington. Hopefully to a standing ovation.