Texas Rangers Hall of Fame – Juan Gonzalez
My freshman year in college I had to read the Greek tragedy Oedipus Rex. It was my first exposure to the concept of the tragic hero: someone who achieves great things but brings about his own downfall through acts of foolishness that offend the gods. If the Texas Rangers have a tragic hero, for me it’s Juan Gonzalez.
Going strictly by performance Gonzalez, the team’s only two-time MVP, ought to rank with Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez and Nolan Ryan as all-time fan favorites in Dallas-Fort Worth. He holds the Rangers’ career records for home runs, runs batted in and extra-base hits while ranking in the top five in five other batting categories. Until the Josh Hamilton Show arrived in 2008, Gonzalez was the the town’s most brilliant slugger. Where Hamilton’s home-runs were usually majestic, towering fly balls, Gonzalez’ were scorching line drives with the trajectory of howitzer shells. It’s too bad we don’t have exit velocities from that era.
For four consecutive years (1995-1998) Gonzalez averaged over an RBI per game. He earned three All-Star Game appearances, six Silver Slugger awards and those two American League Most Valuable Player awards. In 1996, he helped take the Rangers to their first ever postseason appearance.
But Igor, as he has been known ever since he developed a childhood fascination for TV wrestler Igor the Magnificent, had a hard time with the spotlight. He made several foolish decisions both public and private, was criticized (often unfairly) by the media and fans, and is now alienated from his former team.
When he first came to the big leagues Gonzalez was a shy, quiet guy who didn’t have confidence in his English. He shunned the fans, hating to give media interviews. In fact, Rangers announcer Eric Nadel said Gonzalez “used language as a barrier.”
This was the first brick in the wall he’d build between himself and the world outside the clubhouse. His teammates found him friendly and affable. For outsiders, it was a different experience. This perceived aloofness, plus an unwillingness to play when hurt, dogged him throughout his career.
Gonzalez came from Alto de Cuba, a poor, rough neighborhood in Puerto Rico. His parents did their best, but in El Alto daily life was a challenge. Gonzalez’ former manager Johnny Oates, who visited the island to show support for his player, said “We might be making choices between going to the movies or going to the skating rink. But look at the choices the kids there were faced with growing up: do you want to do drugs or get beaten up?”
As a boy, his hero was fellow Puerto Rican and Pirates right fielder Roberto Clemente, so naturally Gonzalez wanted to play baseball. He started with a version of the game that involved hitting tape wrapped bottle caps with a broomstick. When he graduated to the Puerto Rico youth league he played against Rodriguez, his future teammate.
In May of 1986, as a tall, skinny 16-year-old Gonzalez signed with Texas. Within a month, he was playing for the Gulf Coast League Sarasota Rangers. He got a cup of coffee with the big club in 1989, coming up to stay in 1991. He knocked 27 homers and drove in 102 runs that season, and in 1992 he clubbed 43 homers to earn his first Silver Slugger.
The next year was magical. In 1993, he batted .310 with a .368 on-base percentage and drove in 113 runs while leading the league with 47 home runs and a slugging percentage of .632. He made the All-Star team, finishing fourth in the MVP voting. Baseball Reference credits him with a career best bWAR of 6.5 that season.
Then cracks began to appear. In 1994 and 1995, he missed huge chunks of playing time due to injuries, including a herniated disc, and his numbers suffered. In his 17 major-league seasons, if he got 500 plate appearances, he drove in 100+ runs.
In 1996 he returned to form with 592 PA, 47 homers, 144 RBI, and a slash line of.314/.368/.643/1.011. He won another league MVP, another Silver Slugger, and led the Rangers to their first postseason appearance ever. Texas lost that best of five Division Series to the Yankees 3 games to 1, despite Gonzalez’ transcendent performance. He batted .438 with a .526 slugging percentage and an OPS of 1.375, with 5 HR and 9 RBI in those four games.
“This was a very emotional series for myself,” Gonzalez told The New York Times. “I’m hitting a lot, five home runs in four games … We lost. We lost.”
In 1997, another injury. He wasn’t activated until May because of a torn thumb ligament but still logged 42 homers and 131 RBI.
Back to full health in 1998 he clubbed 45 homers and led the league with 50 doubles and 157 RBI, 101 of them before the All-Star break. He won a second MVP and another All-Star berth.
Check these 1998 AL rankings:
1st – Doubles, RBI
2nd – SLG, extra-base hits
3rd – Sac flies
4th – Home runs, OPS, total bases
6th – Hits, intentional walks
10th – Batting average
But the Rangers, winners in the West again, had to play the Yankees in the ALDS again. They got swept again. Unlike last time, Gonzalez went 1-for-12. He scored a run in Game 2, when he doubled and came home on a Rodriguez single. That was the only run the Rangers scored in the entire series.
1999 was another fine season. He hit 39 homers with 128 RBI, receiving a few scattered MVP votes. He and Rodriguez took the Rangers to their third division title in four years and, gulp,another ALDS against the Yankees. Same results: swept, scored one run in the three games on a homer by Gonzalez.
But in the middle of that season Gonzalez made a decision that had national repercussions, and not in a good way. Leading up to the All-Star Game, he stood fourth among AL outfielders in the fan voting and told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, “I’d love to go if the fans pick me, but if the fans don’t pick me, I’m not going to go. It’s a popularity game. You don’t see real justice in the All-Star voting. That’s all right, three days off will be good. My concerns are for my team and the game – and my numbers.”
To his surprise, Gonzalez, who was simply being honest, was vilified by the media across the nation. The meanest example was probably George Diaz of the Orlando Sentinel who referred to him in print as petulant, a whiner, a little boy, and “Juan Stupid Pinhead.”
As if that uproar wasn’t enough, after the season Texas (the only place Gonzalez ever wanted to play, according to Randy Galloway) traded him to the Tigers. Gonzalez was to be a free agent after the next season, so GM Doug Melvin decided the Rangers probably couldn’t afford to keep him and didn’t want to lose him without compensation.
Gonzalez was stung. He told Detroit writers during spring training, “I guarantee you, the Rangers will not win this year. If the players there don’t like it, I’m sorry. Tell them I’m sorry.” He was right by the way; the Rangers finished last in the West at 71-91.
Then he added a shot at the front office: “The people working there in Texas don’t have good relations with other cultures, people from different countries, in my opinion. They don’t respect the Latin players there.”
Gonzalez played out his walk year in Detroit, earning his third All-Star Game berth, then turned down an 8-year, $140-million offer from the Tigers to become a free agent. It was another questionable decision; his market did not develop and he had to sign a pillow contract with the Indians for 2001. He had a typical season in Cleveland: 35 homers, 140 RBI, Silver Slugger, All-Star appearance, fifth in the MVP voting.
He returned to the Rangers in 2002 on a 2-year, $24 million deal. But it wasn’t the same as before, or even close. Over those two years, plagued by injuries, he played the equivalent of one full season: 152 games, 32 home runs and 151 RBI.
Meanwhile, his personal life had grown tempestuous.
He went through four marriages in five years, each more turbulent than the last. The first one lasted 3 months, the second not much longer. The third one was kept a secret, even from his parents. His fourth wife Olga Tanon, a popular entertainer, introduced him in the audience at one of her concerts, calling him “my fiancé.” He was still married to wife No. 3 at the time. On a road trip to Kansas City, he spent his nights in the visitor’s clubhouse rather than return to the team hotel where the family of wife No. 3 was waiting to confront him. He and wife No. 4 separated after Gonzalez admitted in court that he had fathered a child from an affair with another woman.
As a result of the publicity around his domestic life, Gonzalez’ long record of civic generosity in Puerto Rico: visiting hospitals, jails and poor neighborhoods, hosting an annual Christmas street party, and holding fund-raisers for children while adding his own donations was forgotten almost overnight. He was even booed and taunted in public. The hubbub eventually died down, but he’s not as wildly popular on the island as he once was. His mother told the Dallas Morning News, “Juan never had a chance to be like a normal young man. He has always been famous, and that has been hard on him.”
His career also continued a downward slide. He signed with the Royals in 2004, but his ailing back curtailed his contributions and they released him in October. He signed for 2005 with the Indians, but tore his hamstring totally off the bone while running out a grounder in his only at bat of the season. It was also his last at bat in the majors.
But it was not his last brush with controversy. In 2007, after the Mitchell Report on steroids in baseball was made public, Rangers owner Tom Hicks said, “Juan Gonzalez, for $24 million – after he came off steroids, probably – we just gave that money away.”
Hicks later clarified that he had no proof Gonzalez did PEDs, but the damage was done. Gonzalez had never been fined or suspended, never tested positive, or was ever directly accused of steroid use, except in former teammate Jose Canseco’s book. Gonzalez told The Associated Press, “I’m clean. I’ve never tested positive. I don’t have a problem. I will continue with my head up … I never used it.”
His long-time friend, confidant, and translator Luis Mayoral, said Hicks’ comments stung. “My opinion, and only my opinion,” Mayoral told Barry Horn of the Dallas Morning News, “Juan was long gone from the Rangers (after that). He has never told me this, he never would tell anybody – he felt his character was assassinated.”
Maybe it was. Although he had what some consider a Baseball Hall of Fame worthy career, that hint of steroids, and his reticence with the media who control the voting, resulted in his falling off the Cooperstown ballot after just two years.
So, my opinion: This introverted young man, raised in a neighborhood dominated by poverty, drug dealers and prostitutes, had no clue how to cope with fame and wealth. He never had good advisers, instead surrounding himself with an entourage of sycophants. He was a star on the field for Texas, but made poor choices and failed to learn from them. He apparently remains bitter that his money and fame did not result in happiness or the respect he thinks he should have earned, especially from the Rangers.
His break from the Rangers has been silent and bitter. In 2013, the team wanted to induct him into its Hall of Fame. He wouldn’t even answer the phone. Through his friend Mayoral, he sent this message to the media: “I closed the Texas Rangers chapter in my life a long time ago. I wish them the best.”
In 2015 he relented regarding the induction but shunned the ceremony, saying he was mourning the death of his mother. He sent his son, Juan Jr., to accept it for him. It seems clear, for now, that Gonzalez is not interested in rekindling a relationship with the team. That’s a shame and a loss for everyone. I loved watching him play, hearing that sound when his bat met the ball. I hope to see him come back to The Temple one of these days, for a warm reunion with the team and the fans.
He still lives in Puerto Rico, remaining involved in baseball there. In 2015, he was inducted into the Caribbean Baseball Hall of Fame.
That year’s class also included Gonzalez’ boyhood hero, Roberto Clemente.