Juan Gonzalez eyes return to Majors
Coming back from injuries, slugger sets sights on 500 homers
CAROLINA, P.R. -- For eight seconds about every other inning, the boisterous crowd at Estadio Municipal Roberto Clemente Walker Stadium gets silent. The horns cease and the chants for their beloved Puerto Rico squad calm to a hum as the tranquil sound of Samuel Hernandez's "Levanto Mis Manos" fill the stands.
This is the song, a Christian melody about raising your hands in glory, that serenades Puerto Rico's Juan Gonzalez every time he strolls to the plate during the 2007 Caribbean Series. During his heyday in Texas, Gonzalez often used Darth Vader's Imperial Death March as his melody of choice, but that was a different Gonzalez.
This one is older. He's wiser. He's also healthy and has his eyes set on 500 career home runs.
Gonzalez has 434 career home runs and has driven in 1,404 runs in his 17-year career with Texas, Detroit, Kansas City and Cleveland.
"I still can play and I couldn't before because I was hurt," said Gonzalez, who will be 38 in September. "I can't do anything about that anymore because that is history. I have a goal and that is I want to hit 500 home runs and maybe then I will retire. Maybe. We'll see what God has planned for me."
Gonzalez said at least four Major League teams are interested in signing him for the 2007 season, and he is looking forward to reporting to a club for Spring Training in a few weeks. According to published reports in Puerto Rico, the Angels, Tigers and Orioles have all expressed interest in signing the former two-time American League Most Valuable Player.
"I think he can still perform in the big leagues and I know he can still get a lot of RBIs," said Puerto Rico teammate and Red Sox infielder Alex Cora. "I think now he is a different Juan Gonzalez in the sense where he is not driving the ball out of the park, but this is not a real easy league to hit in. The strike zone is a little bit bigger. I think if he gets a shot, he can be very productive."
In 33 games for the Puerto Rico baseball league champion Carolina Gigantes, Gonzalez hit .281 with 18 RBIs and four home runs. In 12 playoff games, he hit .369 with three home runs and five RBIs.
Reserved and confident, Gonzalez flashes his muscular forearms when asked if his power has declined and is now a singles-only hitter. He can still hit the long ball a long way, he says.
"They don't really challenge me here, but I understand," Gonzalez said. "It's not the same quality as the Major Leagues. There are a lot of Rookie League, [Class A] and Double-A pitchers here. To face Major League pitchers is different, and I know I can still do it."
That is to be determined, but he sure looks like it. A lean Gonzalez estimates he weighs about 230 pounds and said he works out every day. He can still throw, he says, but is most proud of the fact that he is healthy and no longer feeling any pain in his legs.
"I'm great, thanks to God," Gonzalez said. "I'm playing here and working hard. We won the league and I did my job. I am waiting on the [Major League] clubs and see what will happen."
Originally signed by the Rangers, Gonzalez played 11 consecutive seasons with Texas from 1989-99, winning two AL MVP Awards during that stretch, before being traded to Detroit for the 2000 season. In 2001, he hit 35 home runs with 140 RBIs with Cleveland, but has not been the same since because of a series of back and leg injuries.
He hit .282 with eight home runs and 35 RBIs in the first of two injury-plagued seasons during his second stint with the Rangers starting in 2002, and he played in only 33 games for Kansas City in 2004 because of a hamstring problem. He attempted a comeback the next year, signing with Cleveland in 2005 for $600,000, but he injured himself in his first at-bat of the season and did not play another Major League game.
He still hasn't. Gonzalez spent last season playing for the Long Island Ducks in the independent Atlantic League. "Everyday players have a hard enough time hitting, but imagine being a guy who does that for a living and then has to stop for two years because of injuries," Cora said. "That's not an easy thing to do."
Gonzalez recognizes the challenge ahead of him, but says he is not worried. He believes as long as he can get around the bases, he can help a Major League team because he can hit and play some outfield.
"I'm basically a normal guy," he said. "And I see myself like everybody else. I have things I want to do in my life just like everybody else does."
Next on the list is making it back to the big leagues and joining the 500-home run club.
Jesse Sanchez is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.