A muscle-bound right-handed slugger, Juan Gonzalez developed into one of the most prolific RBI men to anchor a lineup since World War Two. A full-time player at the age of 21 and a two-time MVP before his 30th birthday, Gonzalez explained his propensity for bringing runners home merely by saying, “I concentrate more when I see men on base.”
Gonzalez batted cleanup behind future Yankee centerfielder Bernie Williams on his youth league team in Puerto Rico, where both competed against Gonzalez’ future teammate Ivan Rodriguez. In May 1986 the 16-year-old Gonzalez signed with the Texas Rangers as a free agent. He reached the major leagues in September of 1989, just over a month shy of his twentieth birthday. Over the course of two late season callups in 1989 and 1990, Gonzalez hit only five home runs and drove in nineteen runs in 150 at-bats.
When Texas gave their prize prospect a chance to be an everyday player in 1991, Gonzalez made the most of the opportunity, cranking 27 home runs and driving in 102. He followed that up with a league-leading 43 home runs the next season, despite an atrocious 143-to-35 strikeout-to-walk ratio. The free-swinging Gonzalez seldom let a hittable pitch pass unchallenged.
The following season Gonzalez broke through to true superstardom. Leading the league with 46 homers while driving in 118 runs, he raised his batting average 50 points to a .310 mark. Unfortunately, the young slugger paid a price for his burgeoning power. As Juan became more muscled, back problems hindered his flexibility and speed. After slumping to .275 with diminished power numbers in 1994, Gonzalez lost more than 50 games in 1995 to a herniated disk and a bone spur in his neck. Still, in just 90 games he belted 27 home runs and drove in 82.
In 1996 a leaner and more flexible Gonzalez reminded the baseball world of his awesome talent. Although a torn quadriceps muscle landed him on the disabled list in May, Juan won the AL MVP award on the strength of a .314 average, 47 home runs, and an astonishing 144 RBIs in just 134 games. In addition, he led the Rangers to their first AL West title. While the Rangers fell in four games to the Yankees in the Division Series, Gonzalez produced epic numbers in a losing cause, batting .438 with five home runs and nine RBIs. Gonzalez tied Jeffrey Leonard’s 1987 NLCS record by homering in four straight post-season games and joined Reggie Jackson and Ken Griffey Jr. as the only players to hit five home runs in a single post-season series.
After the triumphs of 1996, 1997 began on a sour note. Torn ligaments in his left thumb kept the slugger out of the season’s first 24 games. When he returned, he promptly picked up where he had left off, slamming 42 home runs and piling up 131 RBIs in 133 games. But the Rangers slipped below .500 to a third place finish.
In 1998, a scorching first half on a high-scoring Texas team produced historic numbers for Gonzalez. With 101 RBIs at the All-Star break he became the second player in history (following Hank Greenberg in 1935) to reach the century mark at baseball’s mid-summer classic. The gargantuan total inspired speculation that he could break Hack Wilson’s major league record of 191. Although unable to maintain that torrid pace, Gonzalez still finished with 157 RBIs, the most in the American League since 1949. Backed by a .318 average, 45 home runs and another AL West Crown for the Rangers, Gonzalez easily won his second AL MVP.
Unfortunately for Texas, a return to the playoffs included another matchup with the Yankees, who dispatched them in three straight first-round games en route to a World Championship. Part of a teamwide offensive collapse, Gonzalez managed just one hit in twelve at bats during the ALDS.
Gonzalez hit .326 in 1999 while topping 30 homers and 100 RBIs for the fourth consecutive year. But preoccupied with marital difficulties and his daughter’s recurrent ear infections, which were bad enough to require surgery after the season, Gonzalez was exceptionally moody. In July, he made headlines when he refused to participate in the All-Star Game unless he was voted in as a starter. (He wasn’t, and AL skipper Joe Torre dropped him from the team.) Two weeks later, he dropped out of the exhibition Hall of Fame Game, complaining his uniform pants were too big.
After the season, the slugger was traded to Detroit as the centerpiece of a blockbuster nine-player deal, becoming the first two-time MVP to be traded since Dale Murphy was sent from Atlanta to Philadelphia in 1990. Gambling that they would be able to extend his contract past the 2000 season, the Tigers reportedly offered Gonzalez an eight-year, $140 million contract soon after the deal was struck.
Gonzalez refused, which turned out to be the bigger gamble. He began the season badly, hobbled by foot pain and unable to adjust to the spacious dimensions of Detroit’s new Comerica Park, where the left-center field fence stood nearly 400 feet from home plate. By mid-season he had announced that the Tigers would have to bring the fences in if they wanted to re-sign him as a free agent.
Detroit shopped Gonzalez before the trading deadline, but a deal that would have sent him to the Yankees for outfielder Ricky Ledee and two minor leaguers was scuttled when the outfielder made it clear that he didn’t want to play in New York. After missing the last weeks of the 2000 season, he was granted free agency on November 1, and signed with the Cleveland Indians as a free agent on January 9, 2001.
Gonzalez saw another amazing season in 2001, hitting over .330 and passing both the 100-RBI and 30-homer markers while leading the Indians past the upstart Twins to the AL Central title. (AGL/JGR)