- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
- TAMPA BAY buccaneersENEMY lines WHAT A RIVAL COACH SAYSJune 28, 2012
- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
The streets are so narrow that you can watch television in one house and listen to the sound from a set across the street. Rust blankets the few cars in working order. One man parks his car and takes his keys, only to have the engine continue to wheeze and groan and sputter like some mechanical asthmatic as he walks away. A passerby, without breaking stride, slaps the car on the hood. The engine stops. And then a gleaming-white new luxury car with darkened windows goes humming down the street and around a corner.
"One of the big drug dealers," says Gonzalez's wife, Jackie. "This is a bad place. The police won't come in here. They tell Juan not to come here so often, that it looks like he's supporting the dealers. People tell him they need food. They're hungry. He may give them $10, whatever. You know it's not always going for food. But that's what they say."
Ivan Rodriguez, Gonzalez's Texas teammate, grew up in another section of Vega Baja. He does not visit Alto de Cuba. "It's too dangerous there," he says. "People know me, but I'd rather not go there. It's bad. If you go there and the people don't know you, they might shoot at you. If you're driving a car that looks like a police car, they will shoot at you."
There are yellow triangular road signs on the edge of the barrio that say CALLE SIN SALIDA. Literally: Street without exit. Is it an advisory for motorists, or a cruel and constant reminder of the fate of those who dwell within?
And yet there is unmistakable spirit amid the squalor, an underlying gentleness despite the obvious hardship. The streets are remarkably clean. The men who sit on street corners drinking beer all day arrange their empties as neatly as bowling pins. The beggars who patrol Highway 2 with squeegees and an open palm politely ask motorists if they would like the windshield cleaned.
Visitors to Vega Baja (pop. 58,124) are welcomed by a sign over Highway 2 that reads La Ciudad de Melao Melao. It was once known for its sugarcane, especially the melao melao, or the sweet, thick syrup that runs when the plant is cut. Cane is no longer an industry in Vega Baja, but melao melao has come to define the disposition of the townspeople, including the ones in the Alto de Cuba barrio. The sweetest of the sweet. "Juan's personality," says Pell�n (El Chino) Rodriguez, "is melao melao."
"Yes," agrees Gonzalez, "because I am always laughing and happy."
El Chino runs El Buen Amigo (The Good Friend) bodega. He remembers how Gonzalez would buy candy or soda at his shop, play baseball barefoot in the street with a broomstick for a bat and a chapita (bottlecap) for a ball, run in the streets at 5 a.m. in nothing but his underwear and cover his fists with the small paper candy bags from El Chino's shop and use them as boxing gloves. "The day he hit his 43rd home run, it felt like it was me," El Chino says. "He is a friend to all. Juan is loved. He is serving humanity."
El Chino's store, like many shops in Alto dc Cuba, includes a shrine to Gonzalez. His is a handwritten sign behind the candy counter. It includes two pictures of Gonzalez, two playing cards—the king of spades and king of clubs—and this tribute: "The poor people of the sector of Alto de Cuba welcome the king of home runs. God and the Virgin help him for being a good son and a friend to all."
When Juan was 13, his father, also named Juan, a high school mathematics teacher, was able to move the Gonzalez family across Highway 2 into a safer community. One night about two years later, there was a knock on the door, and the elder Juan found his son standing there in his baseball uniform with his coach.