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The Fort Worth Star-Telegram

Gonzalez Enjoys Near-Mythic Status In His Native Land

By T.R. Sullivan

June 6, 2003
Copyright © 2003
The Fort Worth Star-Telegram. All rights reserved. 

Juan Gonzalez wowed fans with his power during a charity home run derby that fellow major-leaguer Carlos Delgado organized in Bayamon, Puerto Rico, in January.

Royalty returns to Puerto Rico this weekend in a special setting.

Juan Gonzalez, a two-time Most Valuable Player and national hero of Puerto Rico, is scheduled to play three games on his native island as the Rangers begin a series today against the Montreal Expos at Hiram Bithorn Stadium.

"Oh, my God, it's going to be big," said Baltimore Orioles outfielder Luis Matos, a native of Puerto Rico who grew up idolizing Gonzalez. "The place is going to be packed."

The Rangers are there because the Expos are playing 22 of their home games in Puerto Rico as a way to bolster their financially struggling franchise.

Puerto Rico has turned out a number of great baseball players: Roberto Alomar; Ruben Sierra, who will be with the Rangers this weekend; and Ivan Rodriguez, who is now with the Florida Marlins but was with the Rangers when they opened the season in Puerto Rico in 2001, receiving a tremendous reception.

But perhaps only Roberto Clemente, the Pittsburgh Pirates' Hall of Famer who died in 1972 in a plane crash, can surpass the hold that Gonzalez has on the baseball-mad population. "Roberto Clemente is still No. 1," Matos said. "But Juan and Robbie Alomar, they are in the top three."

As longtime Puerto Rican baseball journalist and historian Luis Mayoral said, "Juan is a home run hitter, and home run hitters are like movie stars in Puerto Rico."

Royalty. Movie star. National hero. All fit Gonzalez.

He is the one who was married to Puerto Rican singing sensation Olga Tanon. He is the one who is friends with the island governors and may enter politics when his baseball career is over. He is the one who spent 45 minutes at the White House with President Bush, urging him to stop naval bombing practice on the nearby island of Vieques.

When he won his first home run title in 1992, there were 5,000 people at the San Juan Airport to greet him when he returned home. He still lives in Puerto Rico in the off-season and remains a visible member of the community through his charity work.

He once set up a program to distribute free medicine at a pharmacy in his hometown of Vega Baja.

The reception he will get at Bithorn Stadium should be overwhelming.

"It will be emotional and really exciting to play a game there," Gonzalez said. "There are a lot of people there, family and friends, who have never had a chance to see me play in a big-league game. Everybody will be excited and happy."

Especially the 100 or so for whom Gonzalez is leaving tickets for each game.

But with the excitement and joy will also come pressure. Gonzalez knows that his fans are expecting big things from him during those three games.

"Absolutely ... but it's part of the profession," Gonzalez said. "It's part of the game. I'm going to go to the ballpark early and try torelax. This is going to be big, but I'm going to just try and do my best to help my team win."

Adding to the anticipation is the fact that Gonzalez needs seven runs batted in to pass Orlando Cepeda, another island icon, for the most ever by a Puerto Rican in the major leagues.

"If he did that down there, they would go crazy," said Rangers broadcaster and former pitcher Jose Guzman, also a native of Puerto Rico.

"I don't know if there will be pressure, but there will be expectations," Rangers manager Buck Showalter said. "He's done enough in his career where I don't think one poor performance will cause him to lose any luster on his star.

"Being over there for the Caribbean World Series, you see the stature those guys are held to in their country. It opens your eyes to the esteem they're held to in their own country."

Puerto Rican baseball fans have not seen Gonzalez play in person since the winter of 1996-97. That was his last year of winter ball, when his season came to an end after he tore ligaments in his thumb while diving for a ball in the outfield.

They still remember the glorious winter of 1994-95, when the major-league players were on strike and all the Latin players made up for it by playing winter ball.

The Puerto Rican team that won the Caribbean World Series that season is still referred to as the "Dream Team." It included Gonzalez, Sierra, Rodriguez, Alomar, Alomar's brother Sandy, Carlos Delgado, Carlos Baerga, Ricky Bones, Roberto Hernandez and Jaime Navarro.

They won the series over a powerful Dominican Republic team. But winter ball is one thing. A major-league game is another.

"For Puerto Rican fans, this will be different," Sierra said. "This is the big leagues. It will be much more exciting for them. It will be good ... better than good."

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