Juan Gonzalez was one of the American League’s most feared and consistent hitters in the 1990’s and early 2000’s.
Manning the outfield for the Texas Rangers from 1990 through 1999, Gonzalez amassed two MVP Awards, two all-star selections, and five Silver Slugger Awards.
As the century turned, Gonzalez would continue his offensive wrath into the 2000’s with other teams, including the Detroit Tigers, where he was selected again to the all-star team and won another Silver Slugger in 2001.
As an integral part of baseball’s offensive surge in the 1990’s, Gonzalez remains an important part of baseball history as one of the game’s premier sluggers during the height of the steroid era.
Regardless of era, Gonzalez remains an icon of 1990’s Major League Baseball.
Born October 20, 1969 in Puerto Rico to Juan Gonzalez-Claudio (nicknamed Chon) and Iris Vazquez-Salgado, Juan Gonzalez grew up in a working class neighborhood west of San Juan.
His father worked as a teacher and his mother stayed home.
Gonzalez was nicknamed “Igor”, a nickname he received for being a fan of “Igor the Magnificent”, a professional wrestler.
The neighborhood he grew up in Puerto Rico was rough and filled with drugs and crime, resulting in the family moving and working to keep Gonzalez from falling victim to the town.
Gonzalez became a baseball fan at a young age and idolized fellow Puerto Rican great Roberto Clemente and outfielder Dave Winfield.
He began to practice baseball with bottlecaps, corks, and broomstick handles as baseballs and baseball bats.
He also enjoyed playing volleyball and basketball in his youth.
Baseball, however, was his true passion and what he dedicated his athletic ability to.
As a part of Puerto Rico’s youth baseball league, Gonzalez played with future major leaguers Bernie Williams and future Rangers teammate Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez.
Gonzalez was just 16 when he began to be noticed by professional scouts.
He was bigger and taller than other prospects his age and had a noticeably strong arm in the outfield and immense power potential.
During a game attended by Yankees scout Roberto Rivera, teammate Bernie Williams impressed Rivera with his strong outfield play and overshadowed Gonzalez, leading the Yankees to sign Williams instead.
The Toronto Blue Jays and Texas Rangers were also impressed by Gonzalez, however, and he was eventually offered a $140,000 contract by the Rangers in 1986.
In the 1980’s, Puerto Rican players did not have to be selected through the amateur draft and could sign directly to interested clubs.
Gonzalez’ contract from the Rangers was at the time the most money ever offered to a Puerto Rican player.
After signing, Gonzalez set out to become a sort of role model for young Puerto Rican kids, much like his idol Roberto Clemente, encouraging them to stay away from the drugs and crime that had surrounded him in his youth.
Johnny Oates, one of Gonzalez’ managers, once said of Gonzalez:
“I don’t think you can appreciate how far he’s come until you’ve been there” he said. “I think it says so much about him that he was able to rise above the peer pressure in Vega Baja. He had enough intelligence to say ‘I don’t want to do that.”
Minor League Career
The Rangers assigned Gonzalez to their Gulf Coast League farm team in Sarasota, Florida for the 1986 season.
He was teammates with Sammy Sosa, who would also dominate the 1990’s offensively like Gonzalez.
Gonzalez hit just .240 in Sarasota with no home runs.
The next year Gonzalez played in the South Atlantic League and was selected to the all-star team, hit 14 home runs, and drove in 74.
The next season, however, proved to be a setback for Gonzalez.
This time playing in Port Charlotte in the Florida State League, Gonzalez injured his knee and missed eight weeks of games.
1989 is when Gonzalez grew into his strength and hitting potential.
He totaled 21 home runs, batted .293, and made another all-star team playing for the Tulsa Drillers.
He began moving up prospect rankings and ended the season as the number four ranked prospect in the league.
It was also in 1989 when Gonzalez got his first taste of big league action, though brief.
He joined the Rangers as a September call-up but did not play well.
He hit his first major league home run on September 18 against the Seattle Mariners, becoming the youngest Ranger to hit a home run.
Gonzalez was just 19.
He finished his major league stint with that lone home run and batting .150 in limited playing time.
Of his brief time in the major leagues in 1989, Gonzalez said:
“I was very happy. I would not say I was nervous, but I was desperate to prove what I could do on the field. I was very proud of Puerto Rico, the Barrio Altos de Cuba, Vega Baja, as well as my parents and sisters.”
Gonzalez began the 1990 season with the Oklahoma City 89ers of the Pacific Coast League.
His power showed improvement as he notched 29 home runs, produced 101 RBI, and totaled 252 bases, all leading the league.
He was named the league’s Most Valuable Player and made the all-star team on top of moving up the prospect rankings to number one.
Late in 1990, Gonzalez’ career in the minor leagues would officially end for good as he was called up by the Rangers for the second time.
He fared much better his second time around and would be a permanent member of the big league team going forward.
Major League Career
At just 21 years of age, Gonzalez took the Rangers and American League by storm in his first full season in 1991.
Splitting his time between center field and left field after the Rangers’ trade of fellow outfielder Sammy Sosa to the Chicago White Sox, Gonzalez smacked 27 home runs and drove in 102 runs in his rookie campaign.
Gonzalez was even better in his second season, where he battled Oakland Athletics star Mark McGwire to lead the entire American League in home runs (43) and won his first Silver Slugger Award.
Gonzalez became the first Puerto Rican to lead the American League in home runs.
The Rangers offered Gonzalez a four-year $14 million contract following his impressive 1992 season, but Gonzalez refused, believing his talent and offensive production would equal a better offer.
Gonzalez bet on himself paid off, as the 1993 season saw Gonzalez lead the league once again in home runs with 46 and slugging percentage at .632.
Juan Gonzalez, Julio Franco, and Pudge Rodriguez Batting Practice 1993 Texas Rangers @ Cleveland. #texasrangers #MLB #pudge #HittingTwitter #Hittinggurus #milb #baseball #swingaway #battingpractice #hitting pic.twitter.com/AG1DhXEcb3
— Lansky (@lansky_baseball) May 8, 2020
He batted .310 and totaled 118 RBI.
For his efforts, he was selected to his first all-star team and won the Home Run Derby over other formidable sluggers, including Ken Griffey Jr. and Barry Bonds.
Juan Gonzalez is 51 today. All I can say is when he wore the Rangers uniform, he performed like a Hall of Famer. A true icon in Rangers history. pic.twitter.com/ToyOAdkPFQ
— TR Sullivan (@Sullivan_Ranger) October 20, 2020
Gonzalez signed a seven-year contract worth $45 million to stay with the Rangers.
The 1994 season marked a period of change and disruption for Gonzalez.
His brother Juan Alberto passed away early in the season, the Rangers moved into a new, spacious stadium that hampered his home run hitting abilities, and the latter half of the season, along with the postseason and World Series were cancelled due to a player’s strike.
Gonzalez ran into injury throughout the course of the season in addition to these obstacles, and hit just 19 home runs.
The 1995 season also proved disappointing for Gonzalez.
He battled leg and back pain the entire season and played in just 90 games, the vast majority as the team’s designated hitter.
A productive player when on the field, Gonzalez finished the 1995 season with 27 home runs and a .295 average.
After two limited and shortened seasons, Gonzalez took the second half of the decade by storm and solidified himself as potentially the American League’s most feared hitter.
He was selected to the all-star team and won his first MVP Award 1996 off the back of his nearly 50 home runs, .314 average, and a staggering 144 RBI.
He also netted his second Silver Slugger.
The Rangers made the postseason for the first time in their history.
Facing the Yankees in the 1996 American League Division Series (ALDS), Gonzalez mashed five home runs and drove in 9 runs in just a four-game series.
He joined Ken Griffey Jr. and Reggie Jackson for most home runs in a postseason series at five.
The Yankees defeated the Rangers and would go on to win the World Series, but Gonzalez and the Rangers were reaching their true potential.
Following an injury sustained during Puerto Rican League play, Gonzalez joined the Rangers in May 1997 following successful surgery on his thumb.
Gonzalez had another great year, amassing his fourth season with 40-plus home runs.
He netted over 100 RBI for the fifth time, and won the September American League Player of the Month, a month in which he hit 10 home runs and batted .337.
Following the season, the Rangers nominated Gonzalez for the Roberto Clemente Award for his work with Puerto Rican youth and role model status.
Gonzalez followed 1997 with a healthy, productive, and historic all-star season in 1998.
Texas Rangers teammates (1991-1999)
Juan Gonzalez and Ivan Rodriguez pic.twitter.com/8pHMNt67X1
— OldTimeHardball (@OleTimeHardball) October 21, 2021
He became just the second player in history after Hank Greenberg to enter the all-star break with 100 RBI or more and finished the season with 157, leading the league.
Gonzalez won the MVP Award for the second time in his young career, becoming just the second Latin American player to do so.
He won another Silver Slugger, his fifth, and hit his 300th home run in 1998.
Once again his Rangers made the postseason to face the formidable Yankees, where they would lose in the ALDS again.
Gonzalez, unlike in 1996, did not perform well in the postseason, and he finished the series with just one hit.
The Rangers would make the postseason and again lose to the Yankees in the ALDS in 1999.
It would be Gonzalez’ last season in Texas.
Gonzalez caused controversy before the all-star game when he announced he would refuse to participate in the game unless the fans elected him to the starting lineup.
When he was not elected, he was not invited to the game.
The 1999 season was another good season for Gonzalez, and he finished in the top 10 in the American League in average, runs, total bases, and slugging.
As the 1990’s ended and the 2000’s began, Gonzalez began to see his health and production decline.
He was traded by the Rangers to the Detroit Tigers in a megadeal.
The Tigers had just moved into a new park of their own with dimensions not favorable to right handed sluggers like Gonzalez.
The Tigers front office was intrigued by the prospect of having a two-time MVP winner and potential Hall of Fame player in Detroit and offered Gonzalez an eight-year deal worth $151.5 million.
Due to the park’s dimensions, Gonzalez turned down the massive contract offer from the Tigers that would have made him the highest-paid player of all time.
“That park is too big for my batting style,” he said, adding “It is better to play at ease than and be happy than to have all that money. Money does not assure you of happiness.”
Gonzalez was never the same player after being traded from the Rangers, and bounced around to the Indians, where he was selected to his third all-star game in 2001.
He was signed again by the Rangers for the 2003 and 2004 seasons and again with the Indians in 2005, but injuries hampered his production and he retired following the 2005 season.
Gonzalez finished his career with 39 WAR, almost 2,000 hits, 434 home runs, and a .295 batting average.
Life Outside/After Baseball
Known as one of Major League Baseball’s best hitters of the 1990’s, Gonzalez also played professionally in Puerto Rico like many big leaguers during the offseason and after his retirement from MLB.
Between 1989 and 2007, Gonzalez played for a number of teams, including the Criollos de Caguas, the Santurce Crabbers, the San Juan Senators, where he played with Carlos Delgado, Ruben Sierra, Bernie Williams, Roberto Alomar, and Edgar Martinez.
Following his retirement from MLB in 2005, Gonzalez played for the Carolina Giants, where he made the all-star team and won the league’s championship.
Following his retirement, Gonzalez returned to Puerto Rico and began helping to mentor and coach young baseball players.
He has served in a variety of roles in his hometown and is still focused on being a positive role model for the youth in Puerto Rico.
In 2018, Gonzalez was named the head coach of the Puerto Rican national team.
That year, he led the team to victories against Cuba, Mexico, and Venezuela to win the Central American and Caribbean Games championship.
The team followed the victory with a gold medal in the 2019 Lima Pan American Games, Puerto Rico’s first in the tournament.
Gonzalez’ commitment to humanitarianism has resulted in multiple visits to George W. Bush’s White House.
Bush, who owned the Texas Rangers while Gonzalez was manning the outfield for them, said of Gonzalez,
“I admire in Juan, more than his abilities as a player, the genuine interest he has in helping youth and the less fortunate.”
Gonzalez, like many players of the 1990’s and early 2000’s, have found themselves embroiled in controversy on the topic of performance-enhancing drugs (PED’s).
Gonzalez has remained adamant that he never used PED’s or cheated, despite being named in fellow slugger Jose Canseco’s 2005 book Juiced, in which Canseco names a number of 1990’s players for using steroids, including Gonzalez, Mark McGwire, Rafael Palmeiro, and Jason Giambi.
“I never used any of that stuff,” Gonzalez told ESPN Deportes in a 2009 interview, continuing “I have nothing to hide. Nothing.” In 2005, Gonzalez also said “I never saw needles. I never saw pills. I never saw anything. The only guys who have put needles in my body are doctors.”
In 2001, steroids and syringes were found in a duffel bag at Toronto’s International Airport.
The bag had come off the Cleveland Indians’ team plane.
The bag was identified by the Indians’ equipment and clubhouse manager as belonging to Gonzalez.
Gonzalez’ personal trainer Angel Presinal also maintained the bag belonged to and had been packed by Gonzalez himself after Presinal himself had been accused of owning the bag by a member of Gonzalez’ entourage.
This incident was documented in the Mitchell Report, a report submitted by Senator George Mitchell documenting steroid use in Major League Baseball.
While the evidence for Gonzalez being a steroid user circumstantial, Gonzalez has yet to be elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York.
Becoming eligible Hall of Fame election in 2010, he received just five percent of the vote, followed by four percent in 2011.
He then fell off the ballot.
Gonzalez was one of the best hitters of the 1990’s, but injuries and lack of production in the 2000’s along with steroid allegations may permanently hamper Gonzalez’ chance at the Hall.
In 2015, Gonzalez was honored by the Texas Rangers and was inducted into the team’s Hall of Fame by a panel of media members, Rangers club officials, and living Rangers Hall of Fame inductees.
Gonzalez finished his Rangers career as the franchise’s leader in home runs with 372, RBI with 1,180, and extra base hits with 713.
He also is among the leaders in a number of other categories, including runs, hits, and games played.
In addition to his offensive prowess in Texas, he also proved worthy defensively throughout his career with his Indians manager Charlie Manuel commenting:
“I’ve always known that Juan is an excellent player. But the thing that surprised me most about him is his work in the outfield. He covers a lot of ground, has strong hands and a strong and precise arm.”
Juan Gonzalez remains one of Major League Baseball’s iconic sluggers, one of Puerto Rico’s best imports along with his hero Roberto Clemente, and a role model for young baseball players around the world and in Latin America.
His hitting talent combined with his strong arm in the outfield guided the Rangers to their first taste of postseason baseball in their history, and perhaps remains the Rangers’ best all-around hitter and one of the best players in Rangers history.
Despite the lack of a Hall of Fame plaque or a World Series win, Juan Gonzalez is an important part in the story of Major League Baseball.