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Puerto Rico is swooning over Gonzalez. Roberto Clemente is still the baseball patron saint of the island, but it has been more than 20 years since his death. An entire generation needs a special hero to call its own—someone with whom to identify, to emulate, to follow in the box scores, to see and to touch. To kiss softly on the cheek.
This commonwealth of 3.5 million people doesn't lack for baseball heroes: Roberto and Sandy Alomar, Carlos Baerga, Edgar Martinez, Ruben Sierra and Ivan Rodriguez. But it is to Gonzalez that they have entrusted their hopes and hearts. "He's an idol," Ayala says. "It is not just that he's a great athlete. The people here have a fondness for him. The children all want to be Igor Gonzalez. If his popularity is not yet up to par with Clemente's, I tell you that Igor could go beyond it."
Gonzalez broke a tie with Mark McGwire of the Oakland Athletics and won the home run title by clouting number 43 on the final day of the 1992 season—two weeks before his 23rd birthday. When he arrived at the San Juan airport the following day, 5,000 people were there to welcome him. He was escorted the 23 miles home to Vega Baja by 15 police officers on motorcycles. More than 100,000 people lined the Baldorioty Expressway to watch the motorcade pass by. Another 3,000 were waiting for him in the main plaza of Vega Baja. "I remember that I cried," Gonzalez says.
Not since Orlando Cepeda in 1961 had a Puerto Rican led cither league in home runs. But his 43 jonrones only begin to explain why Gonzalez is so loved. The youth connect to him because he is so young, and the schoolgirls go giddy because he is so dashing, but what has most enchanted Puerto Ricans is that Gonzalez is driven happily and fiercely by a social conscience. How many other baseball stars live at home with their parents and aspire to be social workers?
He often pays the utility bills and prescription costs for the needy in Alto de Cuba. He throws an annual Christmas party on the streets of his barrio, a place forsaken by his government, he says, but never by him. He buys vitamins for the boys who lift weights with him at the tiny, steamy gym in that barrio.
Gonzalez played in the Puerto Rican league this winter—a rarity for such an established big leaguer—because of what he called a patriotic duty. The fans would give him a standing ovation for popping out to first base. He played only the final month, enough to hit seven home runs in 21 games, save the league at the gate and be named most valuable player.
"When my playing days are over, I will be focused on serving the people of Puerto Rico, not from a political platform but from a social platform," says Gonzalez, who hired a tutor in the off-season to work on his English but still prefers to be interviewed through an interpreter. "God gave me a good mind and the ability to succeed in baseball. I understand that I have to give back for what God has given me.
"I always knew—I always had this feeling—that something big was going to happen to me. God gives me certain flashes. It's hard to describe. It's something natural. It's like a joy that I feel."
The home run champion of the major leagues is hugging a little girl on the stoop of her house on S�nchez L�pez street. His appearance has caused the usual stir, with people running from their houses to see him. But a drug dealer, standing two doors down from Gonzalez, does not care. He is a boy, too young to shave but old enough to keep a thick brick of bills—100s on top—in the pocket of his shorts. He wears sunglasses, a University of Colorado cap and a Minnesota Twin T-shirt. Like a shopkeeper, he stands in the doorway of one of the many abandoned, crumbling houses. A man approaches, and the boy reaches into a hole in the house's facade, where there was once a utility box. He pulls out a small packet. The man turns over his money, takes the packet and rushes away. The boy, smiling, folds the money into his wad of cash.
This is the street where Gonzalez grew up, part of an area known as Alto de Cuba. It is one of the worst barrios on the island, teeming with drugs, prostitution, poverty and a distrust of outsiders. "It makes me feel bad and sad at the same time," Gonzalez says. "The youth is losing its future to drugs. But I also blame government authorities for not caring for the people of the barrio. There is not a baseball field or a basketball court for them. There is a saying in Spanish: 'We criticize but do not help.' That's what happens there."