ANAHEIM — Somewhere around the middle of the season, Juan Gonzalez started swinging for this day and the fences. This is the day he could become one of the youngest players to lead the major leagues in home runs.
At 22, he has a home run for every year of his life--and another 20 to spare.
Until Mark McGwire hit his 42nd home run of the season Saturday afternoon in Oakland, Gonzalez of the Texas Rangers was alone in first place.
"He tied me?" Gonzalez said Saturday before the Rangers played the Angels in their next-to-last game of the season. "Well, I'll swing the bat tonight. I'm looking for No. 43."
Truth be told, he's been swinging for the long ball quite a while. Since the All-Star break, he has 23 home runs and only 27 singles.
"He's going to the plate with the idea of hitting it over the fence. You can't blame a guy, this time of year," said Orlando Gomez, a Ranger coach who first saw Gonzalez at 13 or 14, playing in Puerto Rico. "He's going for it. He really wants to finish ahead."
If he does, Gonzalez said, flashing the shy smile that reminds people how young he is, there will be a big party in the town of Vega Baja, P.R., where Gonzalez and Ranger catcher Ivan Rodriguez grew up.
Gonzalez was 16 when he signed his first professional contract and packed his bags for Sarasota, Fla., and the minor leagues. The outfielder was 6 feet 3, 175 pounds then.
"You could see the talent," Gomez said. "He was skinny and tall, but he was that type of skinny that you could see he was going to build up and get strong. You could see it especially in his hands, big hands."
Now, though still slender, Gonzalez weighs 217, his upper arms bulked by three solid winters of weightlifting and good eating. "Rice and beans and chicken. Latin food," Gonzalez said.
He played five years in the minors before his first full season in the majors last year. In 1991 for the Rangers, he hit 27 home runs and drove in 102 while batting .264. By driving in 106 this season, he has become only one of five active players who have driven in 100 runs in each of their first two seasons. The company is good--Jose Canseco, Wally Joyner, Don Mattingly, Frank Thomas.
He also has done it at an extraordinarily young age, when most players are still prospects. He's only the eighth player in major league history to manage two 100-RBI seasons before his 23rd birthday. That company is even better--Ty Cobb, Jimmie Foxx, Hal Trosky, Mel Ott, Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams and Eddie Mathews.
Still, it is the home runs that people notice most.
"It never passed my mind to hit 40 home runs," Gonzalez said. "I wanted 30."
If he does manage to win the home run title, he'll be the sixth youngest to do it. Sam Crawford won it at 21 in 1901, but it took only 16 home runs. Mathews, Cobb, Johnny Bench and DiMaggio were all 22, but months younger than Gonzalez, who will turn 23 on Oct. 16.
"It's exciting," Gonzalez said. "I'm 22 years old. I'm happy I have a good chance."
His chances were enhanced by McGwire's rib-cage injury, which forced him to miss 20 games from Aug. 22 to Sept. 13.
"I had more chances because the guy was on the DL," Gonzales said. "He's a great power hitter."
With McGwire out, Gonzalez hit his 40th home run on Sept. 11, passing McGwire at 39. McGwire came back and tied him on Sept. 18.
Gonzalez, struggling at the plate, was stuck on 40 for a long time, and McGwire pulled ahead to 41 on Sept. 26. But Wednesday and Thursday, Gonzalez hit Nos. 41 and 42 on back-to-back nights against Oakland.
Now the two are deadlocked on the final day of the season.
Gonzalez has paid a price for his 42. His average, .267 at the All-Star break, has dipped as low as .245, and stands now at .257.
"He's chased a lot of bad pitches," Gomez said. "A lot of times he's gone up there trying to hit every ball out of the ballpark. I've talked to him about it."
Gonzalez has listened, and he says next year his average will improve.
"It is sometimes frustrating," he said. "I go five games or six games, 0-for-20 something, 0-for-30 something. Every player, every young player, has frustration (during) some part of the season. This year, I'm more comfortable, more confident at the plate. When I stop swinging at bad pitches, I'll get more (a better) average."
Gomez also has counseled Gonzalez to tame his temper--the broken bats and thrown helmets have dwindled as the season went on.
"We had a long conversation about having bad games and having good games, you have to learn that's going to happen," Gomez said.
The good games--and the good stretches--have been extraordinary. He had three homers in a game June 7 against Minnesota. He had three two-homer games in a span of five days in late July. In another stretch, he homered in four consecutive games.
It is good, but it is just a start. Canseco, his teammate since the Aug. 31 trade with Oakland, hit 42 homers in 1988 at 24.
"Hitting 40-plus homers is a great achievement at his age," Canseco said. "He's got more to learn about the game, but this will definitely help his confidence. But there'll be some tough times. As a player you have to know that you'll have ups and downs. To be successful in this game, you have to learn how to fail."
You have to learn how to succeed, too. If McGwire doesn't homer today, Gonzalez could be the major league home run champion by hitting just one more.
One more would be good, Gonzalez said.
"But two is more better."