Courting Disaster The Detroit Tigers traded a carload of young players for two-time MVP Juan Gonzalez, hoping to seduce him into a long-term relationship. So far it has been a very rocky affair

May 28, 2000

One of the finer features of the home clubhouse in Comerica
Park, the Detroit Tigers' new stadium, is a huge TV in the
center of the team's clubhouse. The unit faces the right side of
the room, and it inspired envy among a few of the Tigers with
lockers on the left side when they checked out their new digs on
the eve of their April 11 home opener. One of those players
quickly calmed the others by noting that the left-side residents
had an expensive addition of their own who would undoubtedly
help them attain oversized-appliance parity: outfielder Juan
Gonzalez. "Is Juan on our side?" said one of the left-side guys.
"Then we'll have a TV of our own tomorrow."

Meanwhile, in a left-side corner locker, hard by the training
room, the man known as Juan Gone for his prodigious home run
power sat with his support system: his spiritual adviser, his
trainer, his career adviser (hired by Detroit as its newly
created Latin American liaison) and a friend of unknown employ.
Having traded six players for the chance to persuade Gonzalez to
stick around long enough to end the longest run of ineptitude in
the 100-year major league history of the franchise, the Tigers
have staged one of the most blatant courtships in sports history
not involving an IOC member. "They will give him anything he
wants," says a member of the Detroit front office.

The Tigers will move walls for Gonzalez, which is what they told
him they will do with the one in leftfield at Comerica Park,
where the power alley is 398 feet from home plate. "It's too
big," Gonzalez says. "I've already hit a lot of balls that would
be easy home runs in lots of other parks. They told me the
fences are coming in next year."

He must not be interested in a big-screen TV because another one
has yet to appear in the clubhouse. But the Tigers are perfectly
willing to make Gonzalez the highest-paid player in the game by
a margin of more than 25% over what the Dodgers are paying
righthander Kevin Brown, who is getting $15 million per year.
Detroit offered Gonzalez $151.5 million over eight years shortly
after the Nov. 2 trade with Texas, according to a source
familiar with the proposal.

Alas, this romance hasn't blossomed any better than Gonzalez's
four marriages, all of which ended in divorce. Gonzalez (.252,
eight home runs, 16 RBIs at week's end) has little protection
in a Tiger lineup that, through Sunday, had the third-worst
record in the major leagues (14-26). Comerica Park, meanwhile,
had yielded only seven homers to leftfield in 16 games, and the
fans who did come to the one-third-empty ballpark booed Gonzalez
for his slow start.

Gonzalez doesn't want the Tigers' money--not now, anyway. He
told SI last week that he will not engage in contract
discussions until after the season, when he is eligible for free
agency. "Right now it's quiet, and I want it to stay that way,"
Gonzalez says. "I just want to play baseball and put up my
numbers. After the season is the time for talking."

When asked what he wants most from the team he next signs with,
Gonzalez says, "A chance of winning every year." The Tigers can
give him enough cash to buy a small-market franchise, but as
they struggle through their seventh consecutive losing season,
they can't promise a World Series appearance anytime soon.

General manager Randy Smith gambled on Nov. 2 that Gonzalez was
the marquee player who would be the foundation of the
franchise's revival and help sell tickets that go for as much as
$75 at the Copa. Smith traded pitchers Justin Thompson and
Francisco Cordero, outfielder Gabe Kapler, infielder Frank
Catalanotto, catcher Bill Haselman and minor league pitcher Alan
Webb for Gonzalez and two spare parts, catcher Greg Zaun and
pitcher Danny Patterson. Texas G.M. Doug Melvin remarked to
Smith at the time, "This could be another Frank Robinson trade."
Following his off-season trade from the Cincinnati Reds to the
Baltimore Orioles for three players, Robinson won the Triple
Crown and the American League MVP award in 1966, jump-starting a
run of glory by the Orioles.

Instead, Gonzalez might become for the Tigers what Mike Piazza
was for the Florida Marlins in 1998, a commodity to be flipped
for quick profit. Smith can hope that Gonzalez comes to believe
that better days are just around the next vacant-lot corner in
Detroit, or he can shop Gonzalez before the July 31 trading
deadline. There are those in the Tigers organization, however,
who wonder why the deal was made in the first place. Peter
Bragan Jr., general manager of their Double A affiliate in
Jacksonville recently told the Detroit Free Press, "Did those
boys up there have a brain spasm or something? They told us as
far back as two years ago that their plan with the new stadium
was to build the team around higher-caliber pitchers because
they pushed the fences back.... Then they acquire a righthanded
slugger in Gonzalez. That seems kind of strange."

Juan Gone, or Juan, gone? "He's gone," says one Tigers veteran.
"Look, he already turned down all that money. Now he hates the
park, and he's getting booed at home. Why would anybody think
he's staying?"

If you were to cast someone to play Rangers manager Johnny Oates
in a movie, you'd choose an actor such as Wilford Brimley,
someone with a grandfatherly manner and a twinkle in his eye.
Oates is not easily moved to anger, much less shouting. But he
blew a gasket in 1996--"Go home! I don't need you! Just go
home!"--after Gonzalez, while on the bench nursing a leg injury,
refused to stand in the on-deck circle as a decoy pinch hitter.
"Today I believe he thought I wanted him to hit, and he couldn't
swing the bat," Oates says. "He's not a bad guy. He is sensitive
and moody. Any little thing could set him off and ruin his day,
and you weren't going to get anything out of him that day. But
he's not a bad guy."

"There were many times in the early years," says Sandy Johnson,
the Rangers' former scouting director, "when I would have to go
up to him in the clubhouse before a game and say, 'Juan, come
on, we need you to play today.' But he's not a bad guy. He's a
great guy."

"Juan will not play if he's not 100 percent," says Melvin. "He
has so much pride, he doesn't want to go out there if it means
he can't run full speed to first base. Because that means the
fans might boo him. He is a prideful person. He's not a bad guy."

That tag--he's not a bad guy--gets thrown at Gonzalez more than
breaking balls a foot off the plate. He grew up in a
drug-infested barrio in Puerto Rico, the same streets that
claimed the life of an older half-brother, Puma, a heroin
addict, in 1994. One brother dies of an overdose, another never
so much as puts a cigarette to his lips and becomes such a
Puerto Rican icon that shopkeepers build shrines to him behind
their counters. "When you walk with him in Alto de Cuba," Smith
says of Gonzalez's barrio, "it is like walking with a god."

Gonzalez reached the big leagues at 19 and won a home run title
at 22. He spoke almost no English, so in 1992 the Rangers hired
Luis Mayoral, a respected Latin American journalist and baseball
executive, as a kind of guidance counselor for Gonzalez and his
Puerto Rican teammates, catcher Ivan Rodriguez and outfielder
Ruben Sierra. Gonzalez's English has improved, but he still is
uncomfortable conducting interviews. Mayoral, hired by Detroit
in a similar capacity, still provides assistance. "Juan's very
shy," Melvin says. "He doesn't allow people to get close to him."

While Gonzalez's relationships with women, especially ex-wife
number 4, merengue star Olga Tanon, were great fodder for the
Puerto Rican media, he long enjoyed a quiet, albeit distant
relationship with the press in the U.S. He was known almost
exclusively as a hitting machine who by the end of the 1998
season had won two home run titles, one RBI title and two MVP
awards and had reached 300 home runs at a younger age than all
but five players in history. His anonymity was blown last year
by two bizarre episodes.

First, Gonzalez announced just before the All-Star Game that if
the fans did not elect him to the starting lineup, he would
refuse an invitation to be added to the roster (as a result he
was not invited). A few weeks later Gonzalez refused to dress
for the Hall of Fame exhibition game because the uniform pants
the Rangers brought for him were too large. Suddenly labeled the
archetypal prima donna athlete, he was booed constantly on the
road for the rest of the season.

Gonzalez offers no contrition for either event. Of the All-Star
voting, he says, "The system is wrong. Any player who plays
every day, works hard and puts up numbers like I do should be
starting the All-Star Game. Players and managers should vote for
the starting players."

About the exhibition in Cooperstown, Gonzalez says, "I couldn't
play because my right wrist was sore. The pants they gave me
were size 40. I wear 34. They were clown pants."

Mayoral says the Rangers made Gonzalez look bad in both
instances and accuses public relations director John Blake of
"media manipulation." Gonzalez concurs, saying that Blake
sometimes spoke disrespectfully to him and that the Rangers in
general did little to assist Latin players. Blake denies any
animosity toward Gonzalez and points out that Gonzalez and
Rodriguez have won three of the past four American League MVP
awards, which are voted on by the media.

Rodriguez refutes Gonzalez's claim that the Rangers mistreat
Latins. The catcher adds, "I think those comments are not coming
from Juan. I know Juan. He is not the type to say that himself.
I don't want to mention any names, but ideas like that come from
people close to him, not Juan."

Says Oates, "I learned that you have to deal with Juan
one-on-one. When I did that, I never had a problem. The problems
occur when other people get involved."

Neither Oates nor Melvin defends Gonzalez's actions of last
year. Melvin says he suggested to Gonzalez that he retract his
statements about the All-Star appearance and issue an apology.
"He told me, 'No, I feel fine with what I said,'" Melvin says.

Smith wasn't bothered by either incident. The Tigers G.M. had
been badgering Melvin about a trade for Gonzalez since last
June. Melvin kept telling Smith he didn't have the nerve to
trade Gonzalez with the team still in a pennant race. The
Rangers eventually lost to the Yankees in the Division Series.
At the World Series, Melvin bumped into Gonzalez's agent, Jim
Bronner. Knowing that Gonzalez's contract ran out after the 2000
season, Melvin asked, "Would Juan consider a deal similar to
what Larry Walker [six years, $75 million] took from the
Rockies?"

"I don't think we can do that," Bronner said.

Melvin wasn't interested in paying Gonzalez any more than that,
not when he knew Gonzalez wasn't the kind of player who made a
difference at the gate or who could win games with his glove or
baserunning. So the next day Melvin called Smith, and the deal
was done in less than a week.

Melvin says Gonzalez was stunned. The outfielder had a limited
no-trade clause in his contract that required him to submit a
list of teams to which he would accept a trade. He had filled
the list with teams he figured would never swing a deal for a
player earning $7.5 million in the last year of his
contract--teams such as the Florida Marlins, the Kansas City
Royals and the Tigers.

When the Tigers made their $151.5 million offer to Gonzalez,
they also invited him to Detroit for an introductory news
conference. Who knows, Smith thought, maybe he'll even sign the
contract when he steps off the plane. Except Gonzalez didn't show.

Tigers manager Phil Garner, who often throws batting practice,
swears that he has heard a Gonzalez line drive displacing air as
it screamed past him. "He hits the ball so hard it creates a
vacuum effect, like an Indy race car as it passes you," Garner
says. "Nobody hits it harder."

In his seven full big league seasons (not including the
strike-shortened 1994 and '95 seasons), Gonzalez has averaged 41
home runs and 127 RBIs while batting .298. "I don't care if he's
high-maintenance," says Detroit third baseman Dean Palmer, who
played with Gonzalez in Texas. "When you produce like he does,
it doesn't matter. I'm sick of hearing him take crap. The bottom
line is the guy drives in 140 runs year in and year out and
works as hard as any player in baseball. That's what counts."

Says Smith, "If you invest the money on a star player, you want
a guy who's as dedicated to the game as this guy. He doesn't
want much. He wants to play, work out, go home, and do it again
tomorrow."

He also wants to play for a winning team in a hitter's park.
Heading into a nine-game homestand on Tuesday, Gonzalez had hit
one home run in 52 at bats at the Copa and seven in 83 at bats
on the road, including four last week in five games in Cleveland
and Boston. The Tigers' No. 5 hitters--Bobby Higginson has been
used most often there behind Gonzalez--have contributed only
four home runs and 13 RBIs. Detroit is such a bad offensive team
that it could not score more than two runs in 21 of its first 40
games. Almost nobody's hitting, but Gonzalez has borne the brunt
of the fans' frustration. "Why?" he says. "There are 24 other
guys. I am only one. I try so hard between the lines."

This isn't the love affair Smith envisioned. Gonzalez even
missed the inaugural game at Comerica Park (and five others)
because of a tight hamstring. After the opener Gonzalez and his
entourage dined at a family restaurant in a blighted
neighborhood near Tiger Stadium. Here, at ease, surrounded by
plates of steak, rice and beans, vinyl tablecloths, paper
napkins and friends, he said he had found peace. He explained
that one day last summer at his Arlington, Texas, home his body
suddenly grew hot and tingly, and he felt the presence of God.
"My heart was empty and now it is full," he said. "Everything is
under control. Everything has changed. I feel great. I am happy.
I pray for my enemies. I don't worry about the future."

After dinner Gonzalez and his friends piled into his white
Mercedes and headed for his downtown apartment. He drove the car
through empty streets wet from a cold rain, past the silhouettes
of abandoned and crumbling buildings. In such spots the utter
darkness of Detroit is as complete and foreboding as Europe
during the war.

The future Gonzalez said he didn't worry about now seems as
murky as the air that night. Six months of courtship, and the
Tigers still don't know if he will stay.

In a more hopeful moment, before Gonzalez had experienced the
vastness of Comerica Park and the ineptitude of his new team,
the Tigers printed pocket-sized informational brochures about
the shiny new ballpark, with a smiling Gonzalez on the cover.
The tag line below the photograph resonates with unintended
irony: YOU'LL LOVE PLAYING HERE.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY TOM DIPACE COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER

Deliverance

At week's end Juan Gonzalez had averaged one RBI for every 4.55
at bats over the course of his career. That ranks ninth alltime
among hitters with at least 1,000 RBIs. Seven of the top 10 are
in the Hall of Fame, while another, Mark McGwire, is a shoo-in.
Off to a slow start this season, Gonzalez was driving in a run
every 8.44 at bats through Sunday.

PLAYER AB RBIs AB PER RBI

Babe Ruth 8,399 2,212 3.80
Lou Gehrig 8,001 1,995 4.01
Hank Greenberg 5,193 1,276 4.07
Ted Williams 7,706 1,839 4.19
Jimmie Foxx 8,134 1,922 4.23
Mark McGwire 5,754 1,319 4.36
Joe DiMaggio 6,821 1,537 4.44
Hack Wilson 4,760 1,062 4.48
Juan Gonzalez 4,966 1,091 4.55
Albert Belle 5,452 1,160 4.70

To sign Gonzalez, the Tigers have staged one of the most blatant
courtships in sports not involving an IOC member.

"He's gone," says one Tiger. "He turned down all that money, he
hates the park, and he's getting booed."

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)