The Power of Juan After a miserable season in Detroit, Juan Gonzalez has gone gaga over Cleveland, where he has hit it big for the division-leading Indians

Sept. 03, 2001
Sept. 03, 2001

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Sept. 3, 2001

NFL Preview 2001

The Power of Juan After a miserable season in Detroit, Juan Gonzalez has gone gaga over Cleveland, where he has hit it big for the division-leading Indians

Clevelanders, be on your best behavior. You're being watched.
He's up there, hovering among the clouds, waiting to descend and
perform his next miracle. You go about your days, eating
unhealthy foods, drinking alcohol, smoking cigarettes. All the
while, his eyes are upon you. Observing. Contemplating.

This is an article from the Sept. 3, 2001 issue Original Layout

It's not as if he doesn't have other ways to pass the time. Often
he sits in front of the television. (Yes, even he tunes into
SportsCenter.) Several times a day he closes his eyes for a quick
nap. Sometimes he prays. For health. For peace. "For faith," he
says. "It is all about faith." Mostly, though, he watches.

For Cleveland Indians rightfielder Juan Gonzalez, there's joy in
observation. Unless he's participating in the business of
baseball--playing games, taking batting practice, signing
autographs--he scopes the world from afar, from above. Pacing
barefoot along the terrace of his five-room downtown Cleveland
penthouse, 21 floors up, he can take in everything (the lake, the
people, the modest skyline) without having to give anything back.
He has Josue, his valet, to handle the mail and dry cleaning and
other annoying minutiae. He has Jose, a nondenominational pastor,
to serve as in-house spiritual adviser. He has Angel, his
conditioning coach, to provide private workouts in the gym across
the hall from his apartment. He has Luis, his mentor, to handle
interview requests. All four men have their own apartments in
Gonzalez's building. Save for baseball or fire, Gonzalez has
little reason to leave.

One-on-one, Gonzalez is all the adjectives you've not heard used
with his name in the recent past: Friendly. Bright. Easygoing.
Happy. He's wearing a white T-shirt and black shorts, his
standard away-from-the-stadium attire. The stubble on his chin is
two days old. In uniform he looks his age, which is 31. En casa
he looks 20, maybe 21. Salsa music blares from a huge flat-screen
TV. In the kitchen Gonzalez's mother, Iris Vazquez, picks gray
grains from a bowl of uncooked white rice. Chicken and sauce
bubble on a burner. The aroma is Puerto Rico. "I love Cleveland,"
says Gonzalez, leaning over his terrace railing. "It is a great

In the world of mere mortals--those folks who don't make $10
million per year to play a game--love of a city usually rests on a
number of factors, among them a familiarity with the landscape
and the neighborhoods, a passion for the local cuisine, a few
friends outside of work. On all these accounts Gonzalez's love
for Cleveland fails miserably. He has yet to take in any of the
city's big attractions (the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and
Museum, the Great Lakes Science Center) and doesn't plan to. When
his mother, who is visiting for the week, is back home in Vega
Baja, P.R., Gonzalez relies exclusively on the clubhouse spread
and El Taino, a small, Latin-flavored restaurant. Although he
lives less than a mile from Jacobs Field, he has yet to walk to
work. He barely recognizes fellow residents of his building.
Street names are a blur.

So how can a man who doesn't know a city love that city? "Here's
what I mean," says Gonzalez, mixing Spanish and broken yet
effective English. "Early this season, what was Jim Thome
hitting: .082, maybe .083? He was trying hard, but he was
struggling. But every time he came up, every time his name was
announced, the fans cheered. It's beautiful. They know we are
baseball players with much money. They also know we are humans
who get tired and hurt." At this, Gonzalez pauses. He stretches
his arms like a bird--a 6'3", 220-pound raptor--ready to take
flight off his terrace. "The fans of Cleveland," he says, "know
we aren't perfect."

At first glance Gonzalez is perfect. The perfect baseball player
in the perfect situation. He's the handsome, muscular cleanup
hitter for a team that through Sunday was averaging 5.6 runs per
game, second only to the Seattle Mariners (5.8) in the American
League, and leading its division by 4 1/2 games. His
statistics--he was second in the league in batting average, at
.344; eighth in homers, with 30; and first in RBIs, with
115--put him on the shortlist to win his third MVP award. (He
won in 1996 and '98 with the Texas Rangers.) Batting in front of
him are Kenny Lofton, Omar Vizquel and Roberto Alomar, three of
the best table setters of the past five seasons. Batting behind
him are Thome, Ellis Burks and Marty Cordova, who had combined
for 81 home runs and 227 RBIs. Perfect.

"Juan's ideal environment is one in which he can share the
responsibility with other players," says Juan Samuel, the Tigers'
first base coach and Gonzalez's friend from his season with
Detroit. "Juan is shy. He doesn't want to be the Number 1 guy.
Cleveland is just right for him."

Translation: It's not Detroit. Last season, after spending the
first 11 years of his career as a star with the Rangers (five
seasons with 40-plus homers), Gonzalez ran into the
career-crushing monster that is Comerica Park, the Tigers' new
stadium, with its vast outfield and its wall in left center 395
feet from home plate. After the Rangers realized that Gonzalez,
who was going into the final year of his contract, wanted a
long-term deal for more than what they thought he was worth, they
traded him to the Tigers on Nov. 2, 1999. Detroit general manager
Randy Smith knew he was acquiring a franchise player. He just
didn't know the franchise was 170 miles away, in Cleveland.

Gonzalez despised Comerica from the get-go. On Opening Day he
stood along the third base line for player introductions bundled
in a jacket, a ski hat and mittens. His ninth start at the park
was on April 30, 2000, against the Chicago White Sox. In the
bottom of the ninth inning, with two outs, the bases loaded and
the score tied 3-3, Gonzalez hit a blast to left center--deep,
deep, deep--and into the glove of Jeff Abbott. "Anywhere else,
that would have been a grand slam," says Detroit manager Phil
Garner. "That moment really whacked Juan in the gut. From that
point on, I believe, he was resigned to the fact that he was a
home run hitter who wouldn't hit home runs here."

Before last season, Smith offered Gonzalez a startling
eight-year, $151.5 million contract that would have made him by
far the highest-paid player in baseball. Although he gave serious
consideration to signing, Gonzalez had doubts about the Tigers. A
righthanded hitter, he asked Smith if Detroit would consider
moving in the leftfield fence. "We told him it was possible,"
says Smith, "but we would not do it for one individual. It would
have to be for the good of the franchise."

Gonzalez didn't love that response, nor was he thrilled by what
Smith says was a particularly cold and windy Motor City April.
Because of a herniated disk in his lower back and lingering
inflammation in his left ankle, Gonzalez was limited to 115 games
in 2000, his lowest total in five seasons. When he did play, he
was a shell of his former self. Several Tigers quietly questioned
Gonzalez's desire. He was physically battered and mentally
stressed. Each day he would see the deep outfield walls and moan.
He was booed. His numbers for the season (.289, 22 homers, 67
RBIs) were, in his words, "embarrassing to myself."

"As sure a Hall of Famer as Gonzalez is, last year showed how
mental this game can be," says Minnesota Twins reliever Todd
Jones, a Gonzalez teammate in Detroit. "Gonzo was a tormented

The Tigers, who had given Texas six players for Gonzalez, tried
throughout the season to persuade him to sign with them. "I still
believe [Comerica] is the perfect park for Juan," says Smith.
"When I think of Juan, I think of RBIs before home runs. In this
park he could've been an RBI machine, and he'd probably have hit
35 to 40 homers, too."

As he watches the Tigers play the Kansas City Royals from his
Comerica box on an August evening, Smith sighs. For this game the
heart of Detroit's lineup is Bobby Higginson, Tony Clark, Wendell
Magee and Shane Halter. Combined numbers through Sunday: 39 home
runs, 192 RBIs. "Sometimes I think about what we could've done
with Juan in the lineup," Smith says, "but what's done is done.
He's not here."

Instead, Gonzalez is here, sitting at a table in the Indians'
spacious home clubhouse and watching the evening news with two of
his closest friends, teammates Alomar and Wil Cordero. When last
season ended, Cleveland general manager John Hart knew the
Indians would most likely lose star rightfielder Manny Ramirez, a
free agent. (Ramirez signed with the Boston Red Sox for a deal
worth $160 million over eight years.) Hart asked Luis Isaac,
Cleveland's bullpen coach and a Puerto Rican, to sound out
Gonzalez, to gauge his interest. "It was clear he liked the idea
of coming to Cleveland," says Isaac, who reached Gonzalez by
phone. "To me, he was the only man who could replace Manny."

Luckily for Hart, other teams, put off by Gonzalez's bleak 2000
season, didn't go after him hard. Gonzalez and his agent at the
time, Scott Boras, visited the home of Rangers owner Tom Hicks to
discuss returning to Texas, but Hicks had just committed $252
million to free-agent shortstop Alex Rodriguez. There was always
Detroit. In the end the Indians all but stole Gonzalez, signing
him to a one-year, $10 million contract. "This is a business, and
I have to think about money," says Gonzalez, "but what was most
important was the team. Cleveland wins a lot, and they have good
friends of mine. It was a great situation."

When a major league player develops a poor reputation, it can
stick like pine tar. From his Motown nightmare, as well as some
transgressions in Texas (Gonzalez will never escape the stigma of
refusing to play in the 1999 All-Star Game after fans didn't vote
him to start), he arrived in Cleveland with a bad rep. That
lasted, oh, one day. "I'd heard that he was arrogant and
selfish," says Indians third baseman Russell Branyan. "I've seen
zero of it." Adds manager Charlie Manuel, "I'm most surprised by
how hard he plays. He backs up the bases from the outfield, he
runs hard, and he knows where to play all the hitters. He's a

Such was the case at Jacobs Field on Aug. 16 against the Twins.
With the Indians leading 1-0 in the fourth inning and Minnesota's
Corey Koskie on first base, Twins designated hitter David Ortiz
smoked a line drive into the rightfield corner. Gonzalez pounced
on the ball. As soon as Ortiz rounded first, Gonzalez fired a
bullet to second base, nailing Ortiz by three feet.

Gonzalez has turned Ramirez into a distant memory, although he
says he never felt any pressure to do so. In the Jacobs Field
concourses, there are no Ramirez T-shirts to be seen, but plenty
of Gonzalez T-shirts. While the two men have put up similar
numbers this season (chart, preceding page), many Indians feel
that the better player is the one in their outfield. "He has
completely replaced Manny," says Manuel. "It may be an offensive
standoff, but Juan is the better all-around player. I think
that's pretty clear."

Gonzalez's future, however, is somewhat murky. Cleveland
assistant general manager Mark Shapiro, who will take over for
Hart at season's end, says he wants Gonzalez to return in 2002,
but the Indians' payroll is $90 million, and ownership wants that
figure reduced next year. Gonzalez will be a prize catch this
coming winter, almost certain to become a member of the $15
million-plus-per-season club. "This is the best year I have had
in my career," says Gonzalez. "The most happy. The most exciting.
The best fans. I am healthy. I am strong. There are many factors
to where I play next year. Business is one, but so is fun."

Twenty-one floors below, the midday rush is on. People zigging.
People zagging. Gonzalez, above it all, is smiling. "This," he
says, "has been fun."

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY BOB ROSATO On the ball Gonzalez's MVP-caliber stats include a .344 average, an American League-leading 115 RBIs and 30 homers, including the one he's hitting here.COLOR PHOTO: SUE OGROCKI/REUTERS Prize catch The Indians want Gonzalez to return next year, but payroll constraints in Cleveland may put him back on the market.COLOR PHOTO: ROB TRINGALI JR./SPORTSCHROME (GONZALEZ, LEFT)COLOR PHOTO: JOHN IACONO (RAMIREZ)COLOR PHOTO: RONALD C. MODRA Home fun In the "most happy" year of his career, Gonzalez gets postdinger due from teammate Ellis Burks's son, Christopher.

When the Indians lost Manny Ramirez (above) to the Red Sox as a
free agent, Juan Gonzalez was their modestly priced consolation
prize. Gonzalez, however, has not only kept pace with Ramirez
statistically this season but also has shown more consistency
while helping to put Cleveland atop the American League Central.
Meanwhile, the Red Sox have slipped to second in the East. Here's
how each MVP candidate has fared this season (plus how he has
performed before and since the All-Star break).

Juan Gonzalez 436 (308/128) .344 (.347/.336) 30 (23/7)
Manny Ramirez 452 (328/124) .310 (.335/.242) 38 (26/12)

[Juan Gonzalez] 115 (83/32) .562 (.576/.533)
[Manny Ramirez] 109 (84/25) .550 (.586/.476)

"I'm most surprised by how hard he plays," says Manuel. "He's a