Thursday, August 27, 2009

Opening the Vault: Juan Gonzalez

Over a year ago Sports Illustrated posted their entire archives for free online. At the time I wrote about how fantastic this was for sports history nerds like myself, who could spend hours a day at work or in class reading articles about Mark Fidrych or Magic Johnson or Olympic heroes at the height of their glory or fallen stars like Dwight Gooden or Mike Tyson at their lowest. Little did I know how much time I would actually waste on this site. I've read articles ranging from an interesting profile on Michael Jordan after his first retirement to recaps of the 1991 NHL playoff semifinals. I became such a shut-in while reading these articles that in order to quell any suspicion about my disappearance I dressed a gorilla in human clothing and trained it to go out in my place to any social events that came up. Of course this plan backfired as my friends, family and girlfriend all preferred the more stimulating conversations, improved manners and decrease in feces throwing that my trained gorilla provided over my company. Now that same gorilla is my boss and dating my ex. How embarrassing. Anyways my time in the S.I. Vault reached it's nadir the other day when I found myself neglecting my duties at work for a chance to read an article grading the Major League Baseball free agent class of 1977. I had never heard of Wayne Garland before reading that article but I felt compelled to read a five page story dealing with his various struggles after signing the first large contract ever handed out to a free agent pitcher. This constant need to read S.I. articles had spiraled out of control into my worst obsession since I maxed out all my credit cards in college buying Precious Moments figurines from Hallmark.
Just so something positive can come out of my addiction to the S.I. Vault I thought I would post this article about Juan Gonzalez's disastrous season with the Detroit Tigers. I wrote one of these last summer about Matt Millen with the idea of making this a weekly feature on this site and here it is over a year later and I'm only posting my second one, which sounds about right for me. Once again I'm not going to be critical of Tom Verducci's writing, because 1: Verducci is one of the best writer's covering baseball today and 2: my writing is terrible and I'm barely literate so I have no room to speak. Instead I'm just going to focus on the parts of this article that are funny or painful now that we can look back on them with some historical perspective. This was a rather long article so I've only excerpted parts of it and if you want to read the whole thing go here.

One of the finer features of the home clubhouse in Comerica Park, the Detroit Tigers' new stadium, is a huge TV in the center of the team's clubhouse. The unit faces the right side of the room, and it inspired envy among a few of the Tigers with lockers on the left side when they checked out their new digs on the eve of their April 11 home opener. One of those players quickly calmed the others by noting that the left-side residents had an expensive addition of their own who would undoubtedly help them attain oversized-appliance parity: outfielder Juan Gonzalez. "Is Juan on our side?" said one of the left-side guys. "Then we'll have a TV of our own tomorrow."

Little did these players know that they dodged a bullet, because in Juan Gonzalez's media guide biography from the 2000 season it says his favorite T.V. shows were "Suddenly Susan" and "Caroline in the City." Speaking of "Caroline in the City", which is a sentence I never thought I would say or write, I have kind of a funny story about that show as it is directly involved in one of the only fistfights I've ever been in during my life since I retired from the Kumite after defeating Chong Li for the World Title in Martial Arts. Anyways, during my freshman year at State my room mate Mike, who I've talked about frequently on this site, stayed up until all hours watching whatever crap was on the television. This was back before I became the caustic, cynical and lazy person I am today so I was taking all morning and early afternoon classes and actually cared enough about my grades to read all the materials and attend all the lectures and take a copious amount of notes. Exams were coming up and my stress level was reaching an all time high. Mike of course could care less about how he did on exams as long as his GPA was high enough not to get kicked out of school, so he stayed up until ungodly hours watching whatever crappy movie or tv show was playing on TV. Since we lived in a cramped dorm room my loft bed was literally on top of the television so there was no way for me to avoid the sounds of the tv. Things started to get tense the night before when he stayed up until 4 AM watching "Enemy Mine" a terrible 80's sci-fi flick about a human and alien stranded on a deserted planet and the friendship they forge even though the two are at war with each other. I let this slide but the next day I was tired as hell and had an exam the following morning. I went and laid down in my loft and Mike started watching tv, namely an episode of "Caroline in the City" where Dill is trying to learn how to rollerblade. Without warning I sprung out of my loft bed and pulled the cord for the tv out of the wall. Mike got up and shoved me in the back and I picked up a case of Capri Suns (my weapon of choice that year) and started swinging it around my head. After this skirmish went on for about 10 minutes, our neighbors next door started banging on the wall so we stopped. I went to bed, he plugged the tv back in and we never mentioned the incident again because it was easily the most embarrassing fight either one of us had ever been in.

He must not be interested in a big-screen TV because another one has yet to appear in the clubhouse. But the Tigers are perfectly willing to make Gonzalez the highest-paid player in the game by a margin of more than 25% over what the Dodgers are paying righthander Kevin Brown, who is getting $15 million per year. Detroit offered Gonzalez $151.5 million over eight years shortly after the Nov. 2 trade with Texas, according to a source familiar with the proposal.

Let's play a terrifying game of What If? What If Juan Gonzalez didn't have an agent who must have been certifiably insane. What If Juan Gone's agent had acted like any normal rational agent would have and after waking up from passing out after receiving such a mind-blowingly large contract offer immediately said, "YES! YES! YES! He'll sign immediately! Where can I meet you? How soon do you want to do this? I'll draw the contract up right now! No takesie backsies!" Now I'm not sure how this contract would've worked. I'm assuming it would've kicked in like an extension after the 2000 season, which means the Tigers would've been paying Juan Gone at least $18,875,000 last season and that's assuming the offer wasn't backloaded. Now Juan rebounded and did have a couple of nice seasons after he left Detroit but he hasn't played an inning in the majors since he played exactly one inning back in 2005. That would've been the single most disastrous contract in Major League history. If Gonzalez signs that deal it would've crippled the franchise for the entire decade. No Dombrowski, no Pudge, no Maggs, no Leyland, no World Series run in '06, just a bloated payroll being weighed down by the contract of an oft-injured, useless and washed up old slugger. Even acquiring and playing Edgar Renteria wasn't as damaging as this contract would've been. That's the scariest thought I've had since my dream the other night that Matt Millen had been hired to run the Lions again and he hired a coaching staff that was the cast of the Puppetmaster movies.

General manager Randy Smith gambled on Nov. 2 that Gonzalez was the marquee player who would be the foundation of the franchise's revival and help sell tickets that go for as much as $75 at the Copa. Smith traded pitchers Justin Thompson and Francisco Cordero, outfielder Gabe Kapler, infielder Frank Catalanotto, catcher Bill Haselman and minor league pitcher Alan Webb for Gonzalez and two spare parts, catcher Greg Zaun and pitcher Danny Patterson.

What a bunch of crap for both teams. I remember when this trade went down I was excited to have a two-time MVP on the team but was wary with the way the Tigers had completely gutted their system to make it happen. Thompson was the centerpiece at the time but ended up suffering a major arm injury and was never the same pitcher after that. Kapler was a hot prospect at the time but seemed more concerned with modeling than playing baseball. I still remember when he played for the Tigers he would come up to the music "Whatta Man", preen in the batter's box and then strike out on three straight pitches. Catalanotto pieced together a solid career as a platoon utilityman and Patterson gave the Tigers a few solid relief seasons before succumbing to an arm injury himself. Cordero probably had the best career of anybody after this trade as he became a top line closer for the Rangers and has made a few All-Star teams in his career. The Rangers also managed to flip him to the Brewers for half a season of Carlos Lee and Nelson Cruz, the latter of which has blossomed into an All-Star outfield slugger. In the long view this trade turned out pretty good for the Rangers due to the fact that they are still benefiting from the deal in the form of the production they are getting from Nelson Cruz. However if you break it down on the players traded in the original transaction and what they provided their respective clubs it turns out to just be kind of a "meh" trade.

There are those in the Tigers organization, however, who wonder why the deal was made in the first place. Peter Bragan Jr., general manager of their Double A affiliate in Jacksonville recently told the Detroit Free Press, "Did those boys up there have a brain spasm or something? They told us as far back as two years ago that their plan with the new stadium was to build the team around higher-caliber pitchers because they pushed the fences back.... Then they acquire a righthanded slugger in Gonzalez. That seems kind of strange."

This is a perfect indictment of the Randy Smith era. The fact that the general manager of the Double-A affiliate openly questioned the moves the general manager of the major league team in a major publication is unbelievable. This would be like the whitetrash assistant manager of a local Arby's going on the record in Forbes magazine with criticism of the company's decision to give away Roastburgers for free on Wednesday afternoons. The funny thing here is that the Double-A manager is right and was probably eminently more qualified to run the Tigers than Randy Smith was. I remember after it became obvious that Juan Gone was going to leave after the season, the Tigers made a bunch of noise about going out and acquiring Mike Mussina and another pitcher (Kevin Appier maybe?) with the money they had offered to Gonzalez with the idea they would assemble the great pitching and defense required to win at the expansive Copa. Of course both Mussina and Appier laughed in the Tigers faces and took big money to sign with the Yankees and Mets respectively and the Tigers were left holding their cash and making their hundredth trade with the Astros to acquire Chris Holt and drudging up Willie Blair's corpse for another abbreviated go-around. Ugh. I hate Randy Smith. He almost single handily ruined my interest in baseball. It's funny that he was viewed as some sort of general manager prodigy when he was first hired, and then turned into a disaster of such epic proportions that, if not for Matt Millen's reign of terror, he would have been viewed as the worst general manager in Detroit's sports history. This would be like if Mozart had been billed as a musical genius wunderkind and then ended up only playing keyboards in a Flock of Seagulls tribute band.

If you were to cast someone to play Rangers manager Johnny Oates in a movie, you'd choose an actor such as Wilford Brimley, someone with a grandfatherly manner and a twinkle in his eye. Oates says... "He's not a bad guy. He is sensitive and moody. Any little thing could set him off and ruin his day, and you weren't going to get anything out of him that day. But he's not a bad guy."

I know I promised not to be critical of Verducci's writing but it's just lazy to say the actor most likely to portray Oates in a movie is the guy whose most famous for being the Quaker Oats spokesman. My last name is Stout, so this would be like saying the actor most likely to play me in a movie would be Fatty Arbuckle while ignoring the fact that in real life I look like some kind of mutant cross between DJ Qualls and Sandra Bernhard.

"Juan will not play if he's not 100 percent," says Melvin. "He has so much pride, he doesn't want to go out there if it means he can't run full speed to first base. Because that means the fans might boo him. He is a prideful person. He's not a bad guy."

I'm pretty sure that if one person has to preface a statement about your character by saying "He's not a bad guy, but..." It means you are a pretty bad guy. However if multiple people, including nearly every person you've had a working relationship with over the previous decade has to preface what they say about you with, "He's not a bad guy, but..." then you might be the worst human being since Ivan the Terrible or at least Stalin.

That tag—he's not a bad guy—gets thrown at Gonzalez more than breaking balls a foot off the plate. He grew up in a drug-infested barrio in Puerto Rico, the same streets that claimed the life of an older half-brother, Puma, a heroin addict, in 1994. One brother dies of an overdose, another never so much as puts a cigarette to his lips and becomes such a Puerto Rican icon that shopkeepers build shrines to him behind their counters. "When you walk with him in Alto de Cuba," Smith says of Gonzalez's barrio, "it is like walking with a god."

Wow, being motivated by the death of a heroin addicted older brother named Puma. That sounds almost to badass to be true. It seems more like the backstory to a television drama about a motivated and serious young Puerto Rican undercover cop, who shoots first and asks questions later, plays fast and loose and blurs the line between following police procedure and stopping at nothing to get his man, all while butting heads with his straight-laced, by the book partner and hard assed sergeant who is always threatening to pull him off the case. Damn, for a minute there I thought I had an original idea for a television but I just realized that I just described pretty much every police drama going back to the Andy Griffith Show episode where town drunk Otis is coerced by Colombian drug lords into smuggling little balloons filled with cocaine into Mayberry for distribution. After getting drunk and ending up in the town's drunk tank one of the ballons burst inside Otis' stomach sending him into a murderous coke induced rage where he strangled town deputy Harry Fife to death before he could be subdued. Harry's brother Barney took over his deceased brother's position and posed as a bumbling and comically inept town deputy while coldly and methodically killing off the men he saw as responsible for his brother's tragic death. How could I forget such a landmark series.

Gonzalez reached the big leagues at 19 and won a home run title at 22. He spoke almost no English, so in 1992 the Rangers hired Luis Mayoral, a respected Latin American journalist and baseball executive, as a kind of guidance counselor for Gonzalez and his Puerto Rican teammates, catcher Ivan Rodriguez and outfielder Ruben Sierra.

Until this paragraph I never realized that so many former Rangers stars essentially ended their careers as productive players in Detroit, and this list doesn't even include Dean Palmer. I guess what I'm saying is I can't wait for 2020 when a past their prime Josh Hamilton, Ian Kinsler or Michael Young are slowly fading away while wearing the Olde English D.

...A few weeks later Gonzalez refused to dress for the Hall of Fame exhibition game because the uniform pants the Rangers brought for him were too large. Of the All-Star voting, he says, "The system is wrong. Any player who plays every day, works hard and puts up numbers like I do should be starting the All-Star Game. Players and managers should vote for the starting players." About the exhibition in Cooperstown, Gonzalez says, "I couldn't play because my right wrist was sore. The pants they gave me were size 40. I wear 34. They were clown pants."

I actually love this idea. The way the Tigers played from 1995-2005 was the equivalent of watching a group of drunk Shriner clowns mimic a baseball game. The idea of Juan Encarnacion kicking a ball around in right field while wearing some oversized green and purple polka dot pants while Roger Cedeno comes running over to help before slipping on a banana peel and Bobby Higginson is stuck in left field with his head up some horses ass kicking his legs around in a comical fashion while circus music plays in the background would've been a humorous way to watch some painful Tigers defense. I think it should be a written rule in baseball that the worst team from the previous year has to play the following season dressed like clowns. Attendance at Nationals games would go through the roof. They could even get a donkey to play left field. Hang on, my head is exploding with ideas right now.

Smith wasn't bothered by either incident. The Tigers G.M. had been badgering Melvin about a trade for Gonzalez since last June. Melvin kept telling Smith he didn't have the nerve to trade Gonzalez with the team still in a pennant race. The Rangers eventually lost to the Yankees in the Division Series. At the World Series, Melvin bumped into Gonzalez's agent, Jim Bronner. Knowing that Gonzalez's contract ran out after the 2000 season, Melvin asked, "Would Juan consider a deal similar to what Larry Walker [six years, $75 million] took from the Rockies?" "I don't think we can do that," Bronner said.

So now we find out that Juan Gonzalez turned down two contract proposals in the matter of months that were worth tens of millions of dollars more than he would make over the remainder of his career. I'm assuming his agent never represented anybody of note again and in fact I wouldn't be surprised if his body turned up in some lake in Puerto Rico. I wonder if he was this bad at negotiating in other areas of the law. "Ok so I got you out of your speeding ticket, but in order to get the prosecutor to drop it I had to agree to have you plea to a third offense D.U.I. Now you'll lose your license for life and you may end up serving a year in jail but at least you won't have to pay the $120 fine. Now I think this is a really generous offer but if you want to hold out and see if I can get him to agree to give you a vehicular manslaughter charge just let me know."

When the Tigers made their $151.5 million offer to Gonzalez, they also invited him to Detroit for an introductory news conference. Who knows, Smith thought, maybe he'll even sign the contract when he steps off the plane. Except Gonzalez didn't show.

Wow, as much as I hate Randy Smith for single handily trying to ruin my interest in baseball as a child reading this paragraph actually made me feel a little sorry for him. As a single man who lives with a cat and whose idea of an exciting Friday night is working on a cross stitch and watching old VHS copies of the Frugal Gourmet I know a thing or two about being stood up. I've asked out girls who never called me back, called me Allan when I was out with them, came up with fake illnesses to get out of seeing me again or just plain didn't show up. But that's mostly because I drive around in a windowless conversion van with "Sex Wagon" spray painted on the side and rope, duct tape and bags of lye in the back and my idea of a romantic first date mostly involves them picking up the tab after eating out at a gas station Rally's, so my bad luck with girls is more than deserved. However I think if I were taking someone out for the purpose of giving them a check for 151 million dollars they would at least show up regardless of how creepy my car was or how low on the shit totem pole of gas station fast food garbage I tried to feed them.

In his seven full big league seasons (not including the strike-shortened 1994 and '95 seasons), Gonzalez has averaged 41 home runs and 127 RBIs while batting .298. "I don't care if he's high-maintenance," says Detroit third baseman Dean Palmer, who played with Gonzalez in Texas. "When you produce like he does, it doesn't matter. I'm sick of hearing him take crap. The bottom line is the guy drives in 140 runs year in and year out and works as hard as any player in baseball. That's what counts."

Well, according to, Nostradamus Palmer's bold prediction of 140 rbi for Juan Gone was only short by 73. Juan's final line that year .289/.337/.505 with 29 homeruns and 67 rbi, which was hands down the worst season of his career up to this point. Since Palmer was so off-base on this prediction it makes me feel more secure that his prediction that the world will come to an end in 2012 and that I will die after being eaten alive by a grizzly bear in the ensuing chaos won't come true.

Says Smith, "If you invest the money on a star player, you want a guy who's as dedicated to the game as this guy. He doesn't want much. He wants to play, work out, go home, and do it again tomorrow."

Did Smith even talk to Melvin or Oates or anybody in baseball before he traded for Juan Gone? Because about five paragraphs up both Melvin and Oates talk about how he refuses to play unless everything surrounding him is absolutley perfect, including the size of his pants. By all accounts Juan was famous for being one of the most mercurial prima donna sluggers to play in baseball since Mercuilus McPrimadonna starred for the Boston Bees in 1938. Gonzalez would keep this reputation up for the remainder of his career until it eventually forced him out of the game. He was famous before his season with the Royals for training with a shirt on that said "162", for the number of games he was going to play in. He ended up playing 33. The next season he signed a one year deal with the Indians and had all of one at bat before straining his hamstring and sitting out the rest of the season. That's how Juan's career finished. That doesn't sound like someone who wants to play, work out and go home, it just looks like someone who will work just hard enough for someone to cut him a check, a work ethic that I'm trying my hardest to get named "the Beefshower method."

After dinner Gonzalez and his friends piled into his white Mercedes and headed for his downtown apartment. He drove the car through empty streets wet from a cold rain, past the silhouettes of abandoned and crumbling buildings. In such spots the utter darkness of Detroit is as complete and foreboding as Europe during the war.

It wouldn't be an article about Detroit without an unnecessary shot at how run down Detroit is. I'm surprised Verducci, whose writing I generally like just didn't go the whole nine yards when mentioning Detroit cliches and say something like, "As we drove back through downtown Detroit, past a group of fat fans holding up Tigers pennants and dancing around a burning police car, drug dealing prostitutes, sewer dwelling cannibals and a series of bombed out buildings that appeared to be straight from 1945 Dresden, I know longer wondered what it would be like to live in a Mad-Max style post apocalyptic world, where lawlessness prevailed and the streets were patrolled by a homo-erotic punk rock biker gang in search of gasoline because I was already in a place that was much worse."

The future Gonzalez said he didn't worry about now seems as murky as the air that night. Six months of courtship, and the Tigers still don't know if he will stay.

He won't

In a more hopeful moment, before Gonzalez had experienced the vastness of Comerica Park and the ineptitude of his new team, the Tigers printed pocket-sized informational brochures about the shiny new ballpark, with a smiling Gonzalez on the cover. The tag line below the photograph resonates with unintended irony: YOU'LL LOVE PLAYING HERE.

He didn't