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 soul."
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 hustler."
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."