TO UNDERSTAND TEXAS’ MOST UNDERRATED sports hero, go east-southeast two thousand miles or so to Puerto Rico and ask for Igor. Everybody knows Igor, a.k.a. Juan Gonzales (he embraced the nickname as a child after watching a pro wrestler of the same name on television). For one thing, he’s the husband of Olga Tañón, a popular merengue singer whose image is inescapable on billboards, in newspaper ads, and on TV. But more important, he’s el batador de batadores, the most talented baseball player to emerge from the U.S. commonwealth since Roberto Clemente. In 1998 the Texas Rangers slugger was voted the American League’s Most Valuable Player for the second time in three years, the first Latin American ever to win multiple MVP awards. He led the A.L. with 157 runs batted in and for much of last summer was on pace to break Hack Wilson’s record of 190 RBI, the one offensive statistic regarded as unassailable now that Roger Maris’ home run mark no longer stands. He’s only the fifth player in major league history to hit 50 doubles and 40 homers in the same season. If the next few years are anywhere near as productive as the past eight, he’s a lock to follow former teammate Nolan Ryan into the Hall of Fame.
And yet, for all his accomplishments, Gonzalez is not well known in Texas and practically ignored by the media—certainly when compared with the best players in other pro sports. Why does the 29-year-old with the x-ray eyes and powerful stroke reside in the shadows cast by, say, Troy Aikman and David Robinson? I hopped a plane to find out.
I arrived in San Juan on a Friday in late January, and the next morning I began my tour of Igor’s world. My guide was Luis Mayoral, a native Puerto Rican hired seven years ago as the Rangers’ Latin American liaison, meaning he was to mentor, among others, Gonzalez and all-star catcher Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez, onetime Little League rivals who grew up just down the road. A genial 53-year-old with a smooth bald head and a thick mustache, Mayoral lived with Gonzalez during the baseball season from 1993 until 1996, drawing on his experiences as a sportswriter and broadcaster (he also calls Rangers games in Spanish on the radio) to explain life in the major leagues. “What I’ve been able to communicate is that baseball is a short career,” he told me. “What you put into a career is what you get back. I showed Juan how to write a check, how to open a savings account. If he plans well, he won’t have to work a day in his life after he gets out of the game.”
As we drove around in Mayoral’s compact rental car, it quickly became clear to me that if you don’t count the lush green hills, the palm trees, and the banana plants, Puerto Rico is not that different from Arlington. The island’s streets are lined with car lots, malls, and the familiar logos of McDonald’s, Wal-Mart, Burger King, Texaco, Wendy’s, and a few forgotten classics like Gulf and Esso. In Bayamón, the affluent town just southwest of San Juan, Mayoral pointed in the direction of Mansion del Norte, the gated community where Gonzalez and Tañón live with their three-year-old daughter, Gabriela (Gonzalez has a six-year-old son from a previous marriage; he lives in Arlington). We stopped in at Premier Fitness, the gym where Gonzalez works out for two hours each day, but he’d left early.
On the way to Vega Baja, Gonzalez’s hometown, Mayoral rattled off his good deeds: handing out checks to fellow Puerto Ricans following Hurricane Georges last fall, donating $50,000 for the construction of the Juan Gonzalez/Texas Rangers Youth Ballpark in southwest Dallas, raising money for the Waco Boys and Girls Club, passing the hat among his teammates to raise $50,000 for the survivors of the Oklahoma City bombing. For some sports stars, philanthropic acts are mostly about public relations, but Mayoral insists Gonzalez is sincere: “It’s in Juan’s nature. If not for baseball, he was going to be a social worker.”
He would have had plenty to work with. Vega Baja, 23 miles west of San Juan, is a blue-collar factory town of 63,000 that never really recovered from the demise of the sugarcane industry in the mid-sixties (its official motto was “La Ciudad del Melao Melao”: The City That’s Sugarcane Sweet). All that’s left are the crumbling walls of shuttered mills, rusted smokestacks in the middle of fallow fields, and an unfortunate legacy of high unemployment, a high crime rate, and rampant drug and alcohol abuse. The town’s main economic engine these days is baseball, in the sense that Gonzalez and Rodriguez make $16.5 million a year between them and spend much of that money back home. Lesser but still generous contributions come from home grown minor leaguers like Ricky Otero and Carlos Pagan.
Gonzalez’s upbringing was middle class by local standards. “He always had shoes, shirts, and pants, and he always ate,” Mayoral says. His father, Juan Senior (called “Chon” by his friends and relatives), has been teaching high school math for the past thirty years. His mother, Iris (“Lelé”), is a housewife who used to work on and off in the General Electric factory when the family needed extra money. Their work ethic and their emphasis on education are evident in their offspring. Their eldest daughter, Wanda, graduated from the University of Puerto Rico and works for the Puerto Rico Power Authority. Their youngest daughter, Blanca, graduated from the University of South Carolina.
Not long after we pulled into a newer, more affluent neighborhood of Vega Baja, Gonzalez finally materialized. We caught up with him outside the Tu Casa seafood restaurant, his cell phone and his wallet in hand. When he saw Mayoral, there was an explosion of chatter and a motioning of hands so expressive that I knew more or less what was being said, even though the speed-demon Spanish blew right by me. Then came