Our Juan and Only

In Arlington, Texas Rangers slugger Juan Gonzalez is merely a two-time Most Valuable Player. In his native Puerto Rico, he’s a national hero. ¡Viva Igor!

April 1999By Comments

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 laughter, handshakes, friendly shouts, backslaps all around. This was Gonzalez’s turf. After exchanging greetings with owner Alberto Meléndez, the management, and half a dozen waiters, he was shuttled off to a private room, and we followed. It was star power all the way; heads turned as we passed.

My first thought was that he’s more handsome than he looks in photographs: the close-cropped sweep of jet-black hair, the smoldering brown eyes, the thick mustache and traces of a goatee on his chin. He’s much hipper too. On that day he was coolly decked out in a gray Reebok tee and baggy madras warm-ups. Out of uniform, his physique isn’t as intimidating as you might think. At six-foot-five and 220 pounds, he’s long, lean, and lithe—the antithesis of a bruiser on steroids.

For more than a hour we sat and talked about baseball, Puerto Rico, and nearly everything else. We conversed mostly in English—his English was far easier to understand than my Spanish—with Mayoral jumping in now and then to elaborate and clarify. Here’s what I learned:

He’s in the best shape of his career. “Before, all I was doing was pumping heavy weights,” Gonzalez told me. “It was a stupid situation. Now I have a personal trainer. Instead of pumping, I’m doing light weights, abdominal stretching, working with the rubber bands, throwing a medicine ball, walking in water in a swimming pool. That makes my body more elastic and gives me great flexibility. I’m not all bulked up like a wrestler.”

He knows baseball. “Everybody talked about the home run race, but for sluggers like me, RBI are more difficult. You need more concentration when you go to home plate and see men on base. You have a smaller zone to hit the ball where you want. Everything’s inside my head. I believe what Yogi Berra said: The game’s ninety percent mental.”

He’s no party boy. “I stay away from distractions. I never go out. When I retire, I’ll go out. For now I’ll stay inside the lines. When I’m inside the lines, the rest of the world doesn’t exist.”

But he’s no machine, either. “People look at baseball players like robots. We have families. We have pressures. But that’s outside the lines. Inside the lines you need to relax, be positive.”

He’s greedy when it comes to superlatives. “I’ve won the homer title twice and the RBI title twice. Why not both in the same season? I know I’m human, but so are the other guys in the league who are hitting as well as me.”

He recognizes the problems that wealth brings. “I know I have a lot of money. When people come up and say they have an idea, I tell them they should go to the bank.”

Unlike Roger Clemens, he doesn’t want to play for the Yankees. “I like New York, but on weekends only. There are too many pressures there: owners, players, fans, press. There are a lot of bad vibrations in that city. I’d like to stay in Arlington for my entire career.”

And there will be life after that. He dropped a few hints as he described his monastic approach to his job. “Juan Gonzalez doesn’t talk politics,” he said at one point—referring to himself, as many pols do, in the third person. Mayoral interjected that Gonzalez may not talk politics, but he follows it.

Okay, then. What about George W. Bush? “I think he is going to be president,” Gonzalez said.

And Juan Gonzalez? The mayor of Vega Baja someday? “Maybe,” he said. “It depends if I have the support of my family and of my city. My party, Partido Nuevo Progresista, the New Progressive Party, wants statehood. This is a small island with too many people and no jobs. We need closer relations with the United States. Right now, everybody pays the same taxes or more than if we were already a state, but only sixty percent of the population has a formal education and maybe forty percent speaks both languages.”

For now, being el lider of the Texas Rangers is enough. For the rest of our time together, he signed autographs and posters proffered by Mayoral with a flourish. On our way out he worked the restaurant again, talking with anyone who walked up, shaking hands, offering words of advice to several young boys who crowded around him, coaxing a smile from a young lady sitting at the bar. He posed for several snapshots with a man named Santos López, who presented him with a brown parchment copy of a poem, “Homage to Juan ‘Igor’ Gonzalez.”

We piled into Mayoral’s car again. Gonzalez folded himself into the back seat, and began to shout greetings to familiar faces. “Good people live here,” he said as we drove past a housing project. We passed his parents’ neat two-story home in a newer part of Vega Baja, but nobody was there, so we headed downtown to Gonzalez’s old stomping grounds.

“This is Alto de Cuba,” Gonzalez said. In the U.S., the indelicate word for Alto de Cuba would be “slum”: mostly two-story tenements, with not an inch of open space between them, occupied by people on the edge of poverty, on narrow streets wide enough for only one vehicle. Men with tattoos hung out on the sidewalks and talked, all the time observed closely by uniformed policemen. “That’s my uncle,” Gonzalez said, nodding toward an older man in a white undershirt who was clutching a can of Budweiser.

At the main plaza, Mayoral turned up another street. He paused in front of number C-17 Calle Sánchez López, a two-story domicile no more than twenty feet wide with a front porch set against the curb. “This is where I lived,” Gonzalez said.

When we stopped again farther up the block, Gonzalez jumped out, bid us good-bye with a “Thank you, man,” and walked across the street. He had decided to spend some time with his cousin, the son of the man with the beer in his hand.

As I watched him bound away, I thought: He looks different. Igor the future Hall of Famer could just as likely be Gobernador Gonzalez. If I didn’t know better, I’d say he’s already running.

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