- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 22, 2000

LAKELAND, Fla.
The way Juan Gonzalez's supporters tell it, the tall, muscular slugger simply is misunderstood.
Take, for instance, an incident in the picturesque village of Cooperstown, N.Y. about 1,500 miles from his home in Vega Baja, Puerto Rico, and location of the Baseball Hall of Fame where Gonzalez's reputation as a malcontent reached its peak in August.
His team, the Texas Rangers, played the Kansas City Royals in the annual Hall of Fame exhibition game. The players were given old-style jerseys to wear, and Gonzalez's uniform didn't fit him properly. At least that's the story that reached the media. Juan Gonzalez refused to play because his uniform didn't fit, and he was ridiculed nationally for it.
Gonzalez, however, provided another explanation.
"In Cooperstown, my left wrist was hurt the day before in Tampa," he said. "Everyone knew I wasn't going to play in that game. Why put on my uniform for nothing?"
Yet the place where Gonzalez received so much scorn remains special to him. He wants to be there someday on a plaque inside of the hall.
"One of my big goals is the Hall of Fame," Gonzalez said. "I want to work hard to be in the Hall of Fame. If you work hard inside the lines and put up the numbers, it doesn't matter about anything else. You are a Hall of Famer."
Barring some unforeseen circumstances, the 30-year-old Gonzalez would appear to be a lock. In nine seasons, he has 340 home runs and 1,075 RBI. He reached 1,000 RBI faster than any current player. In a losing effort in the 1996 playoffs against the New York Yankees, Gonzalez put on a show equal to any postseason performance in history, hitting five home runs and driving in nine runs in four games. A two-time MVP, Gonzalez is coming off a year in which he hit .326 with 39 home runs and 128 RBI despite a series of off-the-field controversies.
Gonzalez belongs to the powerful class of '90s sluggers Mark McGwire, Ken Griffey Jr., Sammy Sosa and Albert Belle that has dominated major league baseball in a manner reminiscent of the days of Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle, Hank Aaron and Willie McCovey.
And when he's enshrined, the Tigers Gonzalez's new team hope he enters the Hall wearing a Detroit hat. In a bold move for both teams, the Rangers the team Gonzalez had been with since he signed as a undrafted free agent in 1986 traded Gonzalez and two others to the Tigers for five players, including left-hander Justin Thompson and outfield prospect Gabe Kapler. The Tigers, who open new Comerica Park this season, wanted to send a message to the fans about their commitment to winning after a number of low-budget losing teams.
The Rangers, meanwhile, wanted to change the makeup of their team after three playoff appearances in the last four years ended in disappointing losses. For one, they didn't think they could afford to re-sign Gonzalez, who will be a free agent after this season. But perhaps more importantly, the relationship between Gonzalez and Texas appeared beyond repair after several blowups last year, including the sluggers' refusal to be considered for selection in the All-Star Game and the flap over his uniform at the Hall of Fame Game.
Luis Mayoral, a former Latin baseball broadcaster who has been a friend and confidant of Gonzalez for nine years, said culture clash between Gonzalez and the Rangers turned into a war.
"They expected so much of him," said Mayoral, a former Rangers employee who works for the Tigers as their Latin American liaison. "They expected him to be Cal Ripken, and they really didn't know how to go about teaching him. I went there, and they expected me to be the solution. Then they wanted to make me part of the problem.
"It's a social problem in baseball," Mayoral said. "They take young guys like Juan, bring them to the United States, and baseball really has no formal cultural training program. They wanted Juan at 21 and 22, with no cultural training whatsoever and little knowledge of the English language, to step into that scenario like Cal Ripken or David Cone, and that is simply impossible. So as time went on, they put a stamp on him in Texas as an attitude problem. That's the easy way out. They don't take any responsibility. The problem was not Juan. The problem was with the system.
"Juan was a victim of it many times in Texas, so sometimes to get away from it, Juan would simply say, 'I won't do this or I won't do that. I'm paid for what I do between the white lines,' " Mayoral said.
The Rangers have a substantial number of Latin American players in their organization, including star catcher Ivan Rodriguez and former Orioles first baseman Rafael Palmeiro, in his second stint with Texas. Palmeiro said he hasn't seen any evidence of mistreatment of Latin American players in the Rangers organization and called the falling out a communication conflict between his friend and the Rangers.
"Sometimes Juan would be misunderstood," he said.
Gonzalez, though, said he wasn't treated fairly, that the team did not cover for him when he had problems. Teams usually try to "protect" their players, particularly their stars, from negative press. Gonzalez contended the Rangers "spin" always made him look bad.
"In Texas, they put a lot of pressure on the Latin player," Gonzalez said. "I have great memories with the Rangers division titles and great friends. It's a great place to play baseball. But the problem there was upstairs in the front office. They didn't take care of me. I was born there and played there for all those years, and the organization never helped me."
Last season's All-Star controversy began when Gonzalez finished fifth among outfielders in the All-Star balloting by the fans. That reportedly upset Gonzalez, and he said he would not participate in the game as a reserve. He was criticized in the press for his decision, but Mayoral said before the All-Star Game that Gonzalez's 3-year-old daughter, Gabriela, was sick and hospitalized in San Diego. Gonzalez said he had the right to decline to play.
"The All-Star Game was my decision," he said. "It was my opinion of the system. [The Rangers] never protected me like they do for players on other teams."
Rangers general manager Doug Melvin disputed Gonzalez's claim and wondered whether someone told him to say those things.
"I don't know if that is Juan talking or someone else," Melvin said. "We do a lot in the minor leagues and have individual programs for our Latin players. We help them everyday try to learn the English language as soon as possible. There are things we do to help Latin players. I don't think we have to defend ourselves for this."
Gonzalez's chaotic domestic life further damaged his reputation. Though he remains popular in Puerto Rico for his charity and community work "Juan is revered in Puerto Rico now much more than [Roberto] Clemente was before his death," Mayoral said his four divorces have made his life tabloid fodder.
"He just hasn't had the luck to find the right woman for him," Mayoral said. "He is 0-for-4."
That's why the change of teams could be a boon to Gonzalez.
"I am very happy and comfortable [with Detroit]," Gonzalez said as he sat outside the clubhouse of the Tigers' spring training facility. And he looked it Saturday afternoon after hitting two long home runs off Baltimore Orioles pitching, including one that traveled about 440 feet over the center-field wall.
"It is a surprise for me, to come here to a new family, a new team and for it to be so good," he said. "This is a great organization. They have great people here."
But so far here has been Lakeland, not Detroit. Gonzalez remains cautious about living in Detroit and has not issued any guarantees he will be there after this season. After all, he came from Puerto Rico to Texas, where he still was surrounded by Latin American influences and communities. Detroit will be different.
"I still have to adjust in Detroit," Gonzalez said. "The fans have to get to know me. My family has to come there and see if they are happy. And I have to see the future of the team. I see a lot of young players here, but to have a championship team, you have to have more talent. We have to see how things go during the season."
Of course, it's more complicated than that. Gonzalez, who will earn $7.5 million in the final year of his contract, might have signed a long-term deal with Detroit if it wasn't for Ken Griffey Jr.
Griffey agreed to a seven-year, $116 million contract upon being traded to the Cincinnati Reds $30 million less than what the Seattle Mariners offered Griffey and certainly less than he would have earned as a free agent after the season.
At the same time, the Tigers offered Gonzalez a seven-year, $140 million contract the largest in baseball history. Gonzalez did not move on the offer. As soon as the Griffey signed his deal, the Tigers pulled the contract off the table. They would not pay Gonzalez $24 million more than the biggest star in baseball at least not without more negotiating.
"Our agreement is that neither side will comment publicly on negotiations," Detroit general manager Randy Smith said. "We are confident he will finish his career in Detroit, though. We wouldn't have brought him here if we didn't feel that way."
Said new Tigers manager Phil Garner: "I don't think it will be a distraction for him or us. The track record for guys in the final year of their contracts is that they usually play very well. We expect he will, too."
Garner also said Gonzalez's reputation does not concern him.
"I think some of the things that have come out about Juan in the past have been misunderstood," he said. "I'm sure there have been some things that may have been questionable, but I believe his motives have been misunderstood. He has done everything we have asked of him. He seems to be happy, and his skills on the baseball field speak for themselves. The numbers he has put up in the past decade have been phenomenal."
Phenomenal indeed. He had 157 RBI in 154 games in 1998 and 144 RBI in 134 games in 1996. Over the past four seasons, he has 173 home runs and 560 RBI in 565 games. At the age of 30, his worst years off the field may be behind him and his best years on the field may be in front of him, even in the spacious new surroundings of Comerica Park.
"It doesn't matter," the 6-foot-3, 220-pound Gonzalez said with a smile when he asked if he the new ballpark would cut down on his numbers. "When I hit the ball hard, no ballpark can hold me."

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