Juan Gonzalez

This article was written by Edwin Fernandez Cruz

Juan González played in the American League during an era of power hitters like Cal Ripken Jr., Albert Belle, Cecil Fielder, Ken Griffey Jr., Frank Thomas, and Rafael Palmeiro. Among them, Igor, as he was nicknamed in his native Puerto Rico, excelled, with the high point of his 17-year career in 1998, when he was was the Most Valuable Player in the American League.

Juan A. González-Vázquez was born into a working-class family on October 20, 1969, in Arecibo, about 50 miles west of San Juan. His father, Juan González-Claudio, better known as Chon, was a schoolteacher and his mother, Iris Vázquez-Salgado (Doña Lelé), was a housewife.  They both grew up in Vega Baja, a town halfway between Arecibo and San Juan. Juan also grew up in Vega Baja. From a young age, he liked baseball, but also played basketball and volleyball and was a fan of wrestling. Dave Winfield and Roberto Clemente were among his idols. Both played right field, the position where González most often played in the big leagues.

González almost became a Yankee.  Yankees scout Roberto Rivera attended a game to observe González. Bernie Williams, playing right field, chased after a ball with such energy, threw it in so quickly, and so impressed Rivera that he ended up signing Williams for the Yankees instead of González.1

Juan had barely turned 16 and was taller than the other prospects of his time. Big-league scouts had already noticed his power and his strong arm. Several teams were interested, the finalists coming down to Toronto and Texas. Rangers scout Luis Rosa signed González on May 30, 1986. At the time, Puerto Rican players did not have to go through the major-league amateur draft. González signed for $140,000, said to be the most any team had offered a Puerto Rican player.2

Asked about his nickname, Igor, González said he always liked wrestling and his favorite wrestler performed under the name Mighty Igor. González started calling himself Igor the Great, and his friends and family began to call him Igor.3

As González grew up, drugs and crime rendered Altos de Cuba, the barrio where his family lived, not a desirable place, and so his parents moved when Juan was 12. His parents always instilled moral values in him. He grew up always believing what his parents said: “If you do honest work, you’ll live a good life."4 For Juan, playing baseball was something honest.

The Rangers sent González to their Gulf Coast League (Rookie) team in Sarasota. His teammates included Sammy Sosa, a Dominican slugging prospect. González batted .240, with no home runs and 36 RBIs. Omar Minaya, then the Rangers’ scout for Latin America, wrote of González: "Juan has a great physique, who must develop it properly. His two most impressive qualities are the way the ball jumps from his bat and his ability to drive in runs. He must play in a league where he can hit home runs.”5

In 1987, playing for Gastonia of the Class-A South Atlantic League, González hit his first professional home run. He finished the season with 14 home runs and 74 RBIs. He was chosen for the league all-star team. The following year, 1988, he played with Port Charlotte in the high Class-A Florida State League. On April 20, he injured cartilage in his left knee and was sidelined for about eight weeks. He hit .256, with 8 homers in 77 games.

In 1989, playing for the Tulsa Drillers in the Double-A Texas League, González had a breakout year, connecting for 21 homers and batting .293. Again he was named an all-star. And he was called up to the big leagues.

On September 1, the 19-year-old González debuted with the Rangers. Playing against the Kansas City Royals, he went 0-for-2. On September 4, he collected his first big-league hit, off Minnesota Twins lefty Shane Rawley. His first homer came on September 18, at the expense of right-hander Scott Bankhead of the Seattle Mariners. He played in 24 games, batting.150 with the one home run and seven RBIs. Speaking of his first month with Texas, he said, "I was very happy. I would not say I was nervous, but I was desperate to prove what I could do on the field. I was very proud of Puerto Rico, the Barrio Altos de Cuba, Vega Baja, as well as my parents and sisters.”6

The following year, 1990, González started the season with Triple-A Oklahoma City (Pacific Coast League). He had a big year, with 29 homers and 101 RBIs in 128 games. In September, he was recalled to the Rangers, and this time he was in the majors to stay. He played in 25 games and hit four home runs.

González also played in parts of eight seasons in the Professional Baseball League in Puerto Rico. He wore the flannels of the Ponce Lions (1986-1989), Caguas Criollos (1989-1990, 1994-1995), Santurce Crabbers (1992-1994), San Juan Senators (1996-1997), and Carolina Giants (2006-2007). Although his participation was limited in Puerto Rico, there were some important moments. In his first three seasons with Ponce, he played in only 16 games. In 1989-1990 he moved to Caguas, where he played his first full season.In 1991-92 he did not play baseball in Puerto Rico. He returned in 1992-1993, with the Santurce Crabbers, and was voted the Most Valuable Player of the tournament. He played for the Crabbers again in 1993-94.

In 1994-1995, González played with the Caguas Criollos in the regular season, but for the Caribbean Series, the Puerto Rican champion San Juan Senators took him on as a replacement. The Series was held in San Juan and proved to be one of the most memorable in Series history. Because of the 1994 strike in the major leagues, many Puerto Rican players took part, several of them with San Juan, which was dubbed the Puerto Rican Dream Team. The squad was unbeaten in six games and inflicted on their archrivals, the Dominican Republic, one of their most humiliating defeats, 16-0. In that game the starting pitcher for the Dominicans was future Hall of Famer Pedro Martínez. The Puerto Rican squad had, besides González, Roberto Alomar, Bernie Williams, Carlos Delgado, Edgar Martínez, Rubén Sierra, Carmelo Martínez, Carlos Baerga, and Rey Sánchez. This team has been compared to teams like the 1954-55 Santurce Crabbers, who had in their roster Willie Mays, Roberto Clemente, Luis Olmo, Bob Thurman, and Don Zimmer, among others, and with the Mayagüez Indios of 1949, who had players like Luke Easter, Artie Wilson, Wilmer Fields, Carlos Bernier, and Billy Byrd.

González’s first full big-league year was 1991. Playing in 142 games, he hit 27 home runs and drove in 102 runs. He likely would have won the Rookie of the Year award, but he’d had too many at-bats in his first two seasons to qualify. 

In 1992 González had a big year for the Rangers. He was the American League home-run leader, with 43, drove in 109 runs, and won his first Silver Bat. On June 7 he had a three-homer game. His offense captured the attention of Rangers fans who watched him battle Oakland’s Mark McGwire for the home- run crown right to the final day of the season, October 4. The two were tied with 42 home runs. McGwire was homerless, while González went 3-for-4, with a home run and three RBIs. He became the first Puerto Rican player to win the American League home run title and the second to win it in the major-leagues.7

Bobby Valentine was González’s manager in his first years with Texas, but was replaced in midseason 1992 by Toby Harrah, who once referred to González as a troublemaker.8 Kevin Kennedy took over as manager in 1993 and 1994. Valentine had helped González fit into the big leagues. Kennedy had worked in Puerto Rico and become acquainted with Latino players.

In 1992 González’s first son, Juan Igor (Jay), was born to González and his second wife, Jackie. (He and his first wife, Jackeline Ortiz, were divorced.)

In 1993, the season before González hit free agency, he was earning $525,000. Texas GM Tom Grieve offered him a $14 million, four-year contract. But González sat tight, believing he could get a more lucrative deal.9 He came through with a season, batting.310 with a league-leading 46 homers and 118 RBIs. His .632 slugging percentage also led the American League. For the first of three times, he was named to the AL All-Star team. He was 0-for-1 in the All-Star Game, but won the Home Run Derby the day before, out-homering Ken Griffey Jr., Cecil Fielder, Dave Justice, and Barry Bonds.

Before the 1994 season, González signed a seven-year, $45 million contract with the Rangers. It became a difficult year. In April he was affected by the death of his half-brother, Juan Alberto. The Rangers began play in the new Ballpark in Arlington, which had a much larger outfield and hurt his home-run production.  In 107 games before the player’s strike ended the season in August, he batted.275 with 19 homers and 85 RBIs. This was the only year in which he played more than 80 games and did not hit at least 20 home runs. He was injured several times during the season.

In 1994 González married for the third time. His bride was Elaine López, sister of former catcher Javy Lopez and a member of the Puerto Rico volleyball team.

In 1995 González endured pain in his legs and back, until a personal trainer, Ángel Presinal-Doñé, helped ease his ailments. He played in 90 games, 83 of them as the designated hitter, and batted.295 with 27 homers.

González had the first of his two MVP seasons in 1996 and helped lead the Texas Rangers to the postseason for the first time. Despite losing 28 games to injury, he played in 134 games and batted .314 with 47 home runs and 144 RBIs. (Albert Belle led the league with 147 RBIs.) He was again an All-Star. In Puerto Rico, he was declared the Professional Athlete of the Year. In addition, he won his third Silver Slugger Award. In July he was named the American League Player of the Month, when he hit .407 with 15 home runs and 38 RBIs. In the American League Division Series González was 7-for-16 with five homers and nine RBIs, but the Rangers were ousted by the Yankees, three games to one.

In 1996 González married Olga Tañón, a merengue singer, his fourth marriage. Their daughter, Gabriela Marie, was born in 1998. After they were divorced two years later, Gabriela was diagnosed as suffering from Sebastian syndrome, a very rare blood disorder. In addition to Juan Igor and Gabriela, González fathered another son, Igor, from his relationship with Liza Ferrer.

In January of 1997, while playing with San Juan in Puerto Rico winter ball, González suffered a fracture in the ligament of his left thumb. Surgery kept him from joining the Rangers until May 2. Still, he was able to play in 133 games, batting.296 with 42 home runs and 131 RBIs. It was the fourth year that he had hit 40 or more home runs and his fifth with more than 100 RBIs. He was declared the American League player of the month in September (.337, 10 home runs, 26 RBIs). He was also the Player of the Year for the Rangers. The Fort Worth Hispanic Chamber of Commerce named him its Man of the Year and the Texas Rangers nominated him for the Roberto Clemente Award for his humanitarian work.

Fully healthy in 1998, González played in 154 games, 116 of them in right field. He batted.318, with a career-high 50 doubles, 45 homers, and a league-leading 157 RBIs. At the All-Star break González had 101 RBIs; the only other player to achieve this was Hank Greenberg (103 in 1935). González was again an All-Star. On September 19 he hit his 300th home run, setting an AL record for the fewest games it took to accomplish the feat. He won the MVP Award for the second time, the first Latin American player to win it twice. He received his fifth Silver Slugger Award. The Sporting News, Baseball Weekly, and USA Today also named him the MVP, and he was named to the All-Star team of both The Sporting News and Associated Press. The Rangers reached the postseason again; this time they were eliminated by the Yankees in three games. González was 1-for-12.

That year González donated $50,000 toward the construction of a children's baseball park in Dallas. (The Rangers matched the contribution.) The ballpark bears his name. He also helped the victims of Hurricane George in Puerto Rico. His $25,000 donation was matched by the Rangers and catcher Ivan Rodríguez. Fans and media voted him the winner of the Hank Aaron Award, given to the season’s best hitter.

The 1999 seasons was also productive for González. On July 3, in a game against the Seattle Mariners, he tied a record with three sacrifice flies. On September 24, against Oakland, he hit three homers for the third time in his career. As for the All-Star Game, he said that “if the fans did not choose him [in their vote], he was not going to participate.”10 Not selected by fans, he refused to attend the game, which brought on criticism by the press, though several fellow players praised him. The Rangers entered the postseason for the third time but failed again when the Yankees defeated them in three games. González went 2-for-11. He hit a home run in the second game, which was the only run Texas scored in the series.

After the season the Rangers traded González to the Detroit Tigers with two other players for six Tigers. Detroit’s new Comerica Park had dimensions not very friendly for batters like González. The Tigers offered González an eight-year contract worth $151.5 million, which would make him the highest-paid player ever. He declined to sign the contract, saying, "That park is too big for my batting style."11 He added, "It is better to play at ease and be happy than to have all that money. … Money does not assure you of happiness."12

González was not happy with the Rangers for trading him, but said he was treated well in Detroit and promised to do his best to try to win. Sammy Sosa, in Arizona, while training with the Chicago Cubs said, "You have to know how to treat Juan. He really is a person of great sensitivity and if you know how to treat him as a person, he is the greatest."13

González was hampered by injuries in 2000 and was limited to 115 games. On April 14 he hit Comerica Park’s first home run. His year-end numbers were a .289 batting average with 22 home runs and 67 RBIs. (In 2002, the Tigers announced they would shorten the left- and center-field distances at the ballpark. Tigers teammate Robert Fick said, "If this had happened before, Juan González would (still) be in Detroit."14

One bright moment for González in 2000 came in an interleague game in Pittsburgh, where he played right field. He said, “To play in right field of Three Rivers Stadium, where the national hero Roberto Clemente played, made me very happy.”15

After the 2000 season, González was a free agent for the first time. On January 9, 2001, he signed with the Cleveland Indians for one year and $10 million. He had a fine season, batting .325, his second-best career average, hitting 35 homers and driving in 140 runs, the eighth time he had at least 100 RBIs and the seventh time he hit more than 30 home runs. On June 22, with his 380th homer, he passed Orlando Cepeda as the home-run leader among Puerto Rican players. On July 10 he played in his third All-Star Game. (He was named to the team by fan vote.) The Indians lost the Division Series to Seattle in five games. González batted.348 with two homers and five RBIs. He won another Silver Slugger Award and had the highest batting average in the American League (.392) while playing as a designated hitter. He was only 31 years old, and looked to be on the road to Cooperstown.

On January 8, 2002, incoming Rangers general manager John Hart, who had come from Cleveland, signed González for $24 million for two years. Fate played another trick. On April 4 he was injured in the fourth game of the season, tearing a ligament in his right thumb. He played in only 70 games, batting .282, with 8 home runs, and 35 RBIs. (One of his homers, hit in a game against Anaheim on June 5, was number 400.) González was limited again in 2003, playing in 82 games, but batted .294 with 24 home runs and 70 RBIs.

Injuries continued to plague González. A free agent again after the 2003 season, he signed with the Kansas City Royals for 2004, but played in only 33 games. After the season he signed with the Indians for 2005 but had only one at-bat. At the age of 35, his career was over. He retired with a .295 lifetime batting average, with 434 home runs, 388 doubles, 1,061 runs scored, 1,404 RBIs and a career .561 slugging percentage.

Despite his height of 6-feet-3 inches and a listed weight of 220 pounds, González was an excellent fielder. Over the course of his career he played all three outfield positions. His .983 career fielding percentage compares favorably with other great right fielders such as Hank Aaron, Frank Robinson, and Dave Winfield. His manager in Cleveland, Charlie Manuel, once said, "I've always known that Juan is an excellent player. But the thing that surprised me most about him is his work in the outfield. He covers a lot of ground, has strong hands and a strong and precise arm."16

González played in 2006 with the Long Island Ducks of the Atlantic Independent League, batting .323 in 36 games. That year he returned to play in Puerto Rico with the Carolina Giants. He batted .369 in the playoffs as the Giants won the championship. In the Caribbean Series he batted.385 and was selected to the all-star team as a DH.

González’s charitable work drew the applause of President George W. Bush, once an owner of the Rangers. Bush said, "I admire in Juan, more than his abilities as a player, the genuine interest he has in helping youth and the less fortunate."17 González was invited twice to the White House when Bush was president.

In retirement González settled in Puerto Rico and helped coach and finance teams and tournaments in Puerto Rico and Texas. In Puerto Rico, he participated actively with the AA baseball team of Vega Baja. He played briefly with an amateur team in the El Maní neighborhood of Mayagüez.

In 2011, eligible for election to the Hall of Fame for the first time, Gonzalez was named on 5.2 percent of the ballots. In 2012 he failed to reach the requisite 5.0 to remain on the Baseball Writers Association of America ballot. If he is eventually elected, it will have to be by the veterans committee.

In the 2017 World Baseball Classic, González was a coach for the Puerto Rico team.

González was inducted to the Latino Baseball Hall of Fame in 2013 and to the Puerto Rican Sports Hall of Fame in 2012.

Sources

In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, the author also consulted Baseball-Reference.com and Baseball-Almanac.com.

Notes

1  Remarks at Williams' 2012 induction into the Latino Baseball Hall of Fame, as noted by the author, a board member of the Hall.  

2  Luis Rodríguez Mayoral, Juan González, Igor de las Américas (Fort Worth, Texas: Sprint Press, Inc./Jim Hicks, 2003), 15.

3 Evan Grant, Juan Gone! (New York: Sports Publishing, Inc., 1999), 8.

4 Grant, 7.

5 Ibid., 14.

6 Rodríguez Mayoral, 22.

7 In 1961, Orlando Cepeda won the National League title.

8 Rodríguez Mayoral, 33.

9 Rodríguez Mayoral, 32.

10 Rodríguez Mayoral, 78-79.

11 Rodríguez Mayoral, 86.

12 Rodríguez Mayoral, 87.

13 Rodríguez Mayoral, 88.

14 Rodríguez Mayoral, 90.

15 Rodríguez Mayoral, 89.

16 Rodríguez Mayoral, 102.

17 Rodríguez Mayoral, 114.