Carrying a Big Stick
Soft-spoken Juan Gonzalez, healthy and happy again, is off to a loud start in Cleveland
Seated in a silent Jacobs Field clubhouse before a game last week, Indians shortstop Omar Vizquel conceded that he misses the sounds. "Manny used to play his weird music and some salsa," Vizquel said, "but now we don't have guys in here that do that. We have no DJ this year."
Manny, of course, is slugger Manny Ramirez, who left Cleveland as a free agent to join the Red Sox in December. The Indians replaced Ramirez three weeks later with another free-agent masher, Juan Gonzalez, and now—beyond the decibel level on the clubhouse stereo—it's hard to tell that Manny is gone. Gonzalez, hitting in the cleanup spot vacated by Ramirez, has ensured that the Indians' lineup continues to make music even without their front man of the past seven seasons. As of Sunday, Gonzalez ranked first in the American League in slugging percentage (.753); tied for fourth, behind Ramirez, in home runs (eight); third in batting average (.387); and second, behind Ramirez, in RBIs (26).
Such production shouldn't be a surprise from Gonzalez, who came into this season with 362 home runs, 1,142 RBIs and two MVP awards after 10 full major league seasons—and who had batted .344 with 12 homers and 36 RBIs in 30 games as a visiting player at Jacobs Field—but it represents a significant comeback for him. The Indians couldn't be sure which Juan they were getting when they signed him to a one-year deal for the bargain price of $10 million. Would it be the RBI machine who has driven in the third-most runs among active players since 1991? Or would it be the player who sulked through an injury-plagued 2000 season with the Tigers, playing only 115 games and finishing with 22 homers and 67 RBIs?
Gonzalez gave a hint on Opening Day, when he hit two home runs and helped throw out a pair of runners from rightfield. He reaffirmed that he's back last Thursday, when he smacked a pitch a foot off the plate with one hand for a 384-foot, game-winning homer against the Angels, and again last Saturday when he gunned down runners on back-to-back plays against the Rangers for his league-leading fourth and fifth outfield assists of the year. "Everybody talks about how great Manny is," says Vizquel. "This guy is way up there too."
That fact was nearly forgotten last season, easily the worst of Gonzalez's career, and during the off-season, when Gonzalez remained available in the free-agent market until after the shelves had been cleared of other big names. In an attempt to ensure that his subpar performance would be an aberration, Gonzalez spent the off-season adhering to a program of stretching, aerobics and weight work aimed at strengthening his back. (His 2000 season was cut short by a herniated disk.) In the process he shaved 10 pounds off his 6'3", 220-pound frame. "I feel much more comfortable, and my bat speed is better," he says. "I feel much more flexible, especially in the outfield."
The Indians have been impressed with Gonzalez's skills in rightfield and on the bases. Those aspects of his game might even make him an upgrade over Ramirez, who, for all his offensive output, can be a liability when he doesn't have a bat in his hands. "Juan's offense overshadows his defense," says Cleveland second baseman Roberto Alomar, a close friend of Gonzalez's. "He knows how to position himself, and he has a good arm."
"I always looked at him as a great hitter," says Indians manager Charlie Manuel, "but he's a complete player. He doesn't say much; you'll just see him smile once in a while."
That smile, like Gonzalez's offense, was something that was scarcely seen in 2000. "I feel happy," he says now. "That's a big difference from last year."
Strikes Up, Hitting Down