Gonzalez Powerful potential But slugger, 23, focuses on present

August 22, 1993|By Milton Kent | Milton Kent,Staff Writer

The talk of pride and accomplishment comes so easily to Juan Gonzalez. It might sound like bragging coming from someone else, but not Gonzalez.

Besides, if anyone in baseball has earned the right to brag, it is the Texas Rangers left fielder, who led the majors in home runs last year, won the Home Run Derby during the All-Star break here and is leading the American League in homers this season with 36.

And he's only 23.

"In such a short time and at such an early age, I've accomplished so many things. I'm one of the top players in the game. I am very proud," the Spanish-speaking Gonzalez said through an interpreter.

Gonzalez will not turn 24 until October. Already he is tied with Joe DiMaggio as the 11th youngest player in baseball history to hit 100 career homers.

At that pace, it would take Gonzalez just over nine more years to reach the 500-homer plateau, and no one who has seen him hit doubts that he can do it, least of all Gonzalez.

"I may think occasionally about where I could go, but the bottom line is I have to take it day by day and to give my best every time I go out," said Gonzalez. "I'm centered on what will happen today, not necessarily 10 years from now, because I could get hurt and never play again."

Said teammate Rafael Palmeiro: "He can get to a Barry Bonds status real soon. I think he's there now."

Orioles manager Johnny Oates said, "I wouldn't say he's scary, but he demands a lot of respect, for what he did last year and what he's doing this year and for what he can do the next 20 years, if he wants to."

This season, Gonzalez -- who can become the first player since Boston's Jim Rice in 1977-78 to lead the AL in homers in back-to-back seasons -- has added a component to his repertoire: hitting for average.

Before this season, Gonzalez had never hit above .293 at any stop in his pro career. He is batting .319, good for third in the league. Were it not for the phenomenal year Toronto's John Olerud is having, Gonzalez, tied for fourth in RBI, might have been a Triple Crown candidate.

"My mind at this stage of life is totally into the game," Gonzalez said. "I can go to bed and sleep well, with no preoccupations. I am happy," said Gonzalez.

Texas hitting coach Willie Upshaw says Gonzalez has developed the ability to hit the pitch the other way, rather than relying on his great strength to pull the ball.

"He understands that pitchers are going to try to get him out by throwing low and away or high and away and that he'll have to go get the ball," said Upshaw. "You have to go the other way."

Gonzalez is from a section of Vega Baja, Puerto Rico, that is infested with drugs and crime. He has taken on the mantle of role model for young Puerto Ricans, going back to talk to them often, as well as donating money.

In that regard, he draws comparisons to another Puerto Rican baseball great, the late Roberto Clemente.

"Throughout the years, Puerto Rico has had many outstanding baseball players, yet not too many, perhaps none dedicated time to following his path in relation to Clemente, the human being," said Gonzalez. "I don't want to be like Clemente, but I want to follow in his footsteps."

And just as Clemente did in leading the Pittsburgh Pirates to the 1971 World Series title, Gonzalez has had success against the Orioles.

His four homers at Camden Yards are second-most for a visiting player, and one of them, a 450-foot blast to dead-center last July 26 off Mike Mussina, is the longest in Oriole Park history.

In addition, Gonzalez, who was robbed of a third-inning homer by Brady Anderson last night, won the home run hitting competition here last month during the All-Star celebration, capping the contest with three prodigious blasts to the left-field seats, one of which traveled 475 feet and bounced off the railing of the upper deck.

"I see the ball really well here. The background makes the ball look really good," said Gonzalez. "And the ball really travels."

Especially when it flies off his bat.

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