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 Ta�on, 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.