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He Keeps Glory in Perspective : Rangers' Juan Gonzalez Tries to Turn Fame Into Means of Helping Youth

May 23, 1993|DANNY ROBBINS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ARLINGTON, Tex. — On the final day of the 1992 baseball season, Juan Gonzalez of the Texas Rangers homered against the Angels' Bert Blyleven and overtook Oakland's Mark McGwire for the major league home run title.

That accomplished, Gonzalez moved on to a much tougher challenge:

His off-season English classes.

Working twice a week with a high school teacher in his native Puerto Rico, he improved his command of the language significantly.

"On a scale of one to 10, you'd have to say last year he was at one," said Luis Mayoral, the Rangers' assistant director of public relations and a friend and confidant of Gonzalez and other Latin American players. "Now, he's around 3.5."

At 23, Gonzalez has established himself as one of baseball's premier power hitters, his 43 home runs last season making him the youngest player to win the major league home run title since Johnny Bench in 1970.

Since 1991, his first full season in the major leagues, Gonzalez has hit 84 homers and driven in 239 runs. He is batting .346 with 14 homers and 28 runs batted in this season.

Such numbers call to mind a young Reggie Jackson or Mickey Mantle, a player who, in the words of Willie Upshaw, Ranger hitting coach, "is going to be one of the best players in this game for a long time."

The numbers have also thrust a shy young man, not long removed from smacking bottle caps with a broom handle on Puerto Rican streets, into an uncomfortable place in the public eye.

The predicament is one that all Latin American players face and few truly conquer. But Gonzalez is certainly trying.

"What happens is, many (Latin American players) close themselves in, retreat into their own society," said Luis Rosa, who, as a Ranger scout, signed Gonzalez in 1986. "They know they have fame in Latin America, in their own language. They don't realize that true fame comes in both societies. They don't develop themselves in both societies.

"Juan is different. He is one who has understood the importance of both worlds."

Vega Baja, Puerto Rico, Gonzalez's home town, is a community of 58,000 about 25 miles west of San Juan. The son of a high school mathematics teacher, Gonzalez still lives there during the off-season in a second-floor addition built onto his parents' house.

So popular is Gonzalez on the island that his flight home after the 1992 season was met by a crowd of 5,000 at the San Juan airport.

That scene and others like it have prompted Puerto Ricans to speak of Gonzalez with a reverence previously associated only with Orlando Cepeda, the only other Puerto Rican to have hit 40 or more home runs in a season, or the late Roberto Clemente.

"Juan is the young hero that the people (of Puerto Rico) have been looking for since Clemente and Cepeda," said Rosa, now director of Latin American scouting operations for the San Francisco Giants. "He has never lost the kid in him, which has made the people feel close to him."

Known to Puerto Ricans simply as "Igor," a nickname he earned because of a childhood fascination with a professional wrestler named Igor the Magnificent, Gonzalez made 52 visits to Puerto Rican schools during the last off-season.

He further endeared himself to his fellow Puerto Ricans when he played for Santurce in the Puerto Rican winter league during the final three weeks of the league's regular season--an idea suggested to Gonzalez by Cepeda.

"No other Puerto Rican ballplayer today plays winter ball," said Cepeda, who works in the Giants' community-development program. "I told Juan that it was very important to go to Puerto Rico and play, at least three or four weeks, and try to get involved with the community, help the youth, because the youth in Puerto Rico is very, very sad.

"So he listened to me. He went to Puerto Rico. He did it. Right now, he's the biggest thing in Puerto Rico, and he's a great kid, beautiful kid. He's very smart. He works very hard. He's a credit to the Puerto Rican people."

That fact would have been little more than a rumor for ordinary baseball fans, however, had Gonzalez not submitted to a lengthy profile in Sports Illustrated this year. Entitled "Puerto Rico's New Patron Saint," the article, part of the magazine's preseason baseball package, represented an important turning point for Gonzalez.

Even Ranger management learned things about him from the piece.

"That was a side of Juan I'd never seen," said George W. Bush, the Rangers' managing general partner.

Said General Manager Tom Grieve: "We never saw that side because it had never been available to us. One of the unfortunate things Latin players face when they first get (into pro baseball) is the fact that they can't communicate through our language. Those of us who don't speak Spanish very well don't get to know them, which leads to stereotyping.

"Juan is bright. He's well-read. He's educated. He's sensitive. He's the same as a lot of players who speak English. The public just never knew it."

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