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Original Issue

Puerto Rico's New Patron saint


A schoolboy spots Juan Gonzalez slowing his brown Maxima to a stop, and the sighting sends the students gushing into the street from a courtyard at Alturas dc Vega Baja Elementary School. The children are upon the vehicle before Gonzalez can shift into reverse and park. They push against all sides of the car, some of them pounding on the windows, others pressing their tiny, happy faces against the glass—all of them shrieking with delight.

Gonzalez has to dispatch his four companions to form a human blockade, so that he can back the car into a parking spot. Then, once the Maxima, if not the children, is finally curbed, Gonzalez unfolds himself from the car to his full 6'3". Now even those at the outer edges of this swarm—nearly 800 kids, all dressed in bumblebee-yellow school uniforms—can see him. They begin chanting his nickname: "Igor! Igor! Igor!" Gonzalez, as if wading through a shallow pool, makes his way through the thigh-high throng into the courtyard.

Carlos Ayala, a teacher, shouts into a microphone, "íSilencio!" but neither his command nor his ensuing long introduction of Gonzalez, the Texas Ranger outfielder who is the reigning major league home run champion and who grew up and still lives right here in Vega Baja, Puerto Rico, can still the children. It is only when Gonzalez begins to speak that they hush.

"I want to be an example for you, for Puerto Rico and beyond," he tells them in Spanish. The children are ringed around him, pressing closer as he speaks. "I am proud of the attention I have brought to my hometown. My priority right now is you: the youth. We as adults must work day by day and hand in hand for a better future for our youth.

"We live a very complicated life, full of challenges. The best way to approach the life you're living is with education and sports. After God, education and sports are the best tools to defeat any obstacles in your way. One day you may be in a position like me to influence other young ones growing up."

School officials escort him to a corner of the courtyard, where the children are told to form a line for autographs. They come bearing baseballs, scraps of paper, writing tablets, baseball cards, volleyballs, T-shirts and baseball gloves. One girl, wearing ribbons in her hair, does not want an autograph. She simply stands on her tippy-toes and kisses him on the check.

Quickly the line breaks down, consumed by the impatience of those in the rear. The children are swarming around Gonzalez again. It is becoming dangerous, all of these frantic boys and girls compressed in the courtyard's corner. Ayala and other school officials decide they must get Gonzalez out. They open a crack in the crowd and lead Gonzalez to the safety of the principal's office, slam the door shut behind him and guard it with three teachers as the swirling, yellow wave of youth crashes against the barrier. The constant ringing of the school bell calls the kids back to class, but it can barely be heard over their yelping. It is, of course, not obeyed.

Gonzalez sends a friend out to bring his car around. His other friends encircle him, and they break for the car, its engine running. Gonzalez jumps in and hits the accelerator. Igor has left the building.

"Incredible," Gonzalez says later. "But it has been incredible 52 times like that, all over Puerto Rico. Every time."

Alturas was the last of Gonzalez's 52 off-season visits to Puerto Rican schools before he left for spring training. In every case he asked for nothing but the chance to speak to the children. "I have not seen anything like this since Clemente," says Luis Mayoral, a Ranger public relations assistant and a father figure for many Latin American big leaguers. "His love for children is genuine. Clemente had that."

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 Sànchez López 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."

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 Pellín (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.

"What do you feed this kid?" the coach asked.

"Why are you asking?" the father said.

"He hit three mammoth home runs today," the coach said. "It was incredible."

"That was the turning point," the father says now. "It was the first time I realized he really had something."

The next year Luis Rosa, then a Ranger scout, was in the Gonzalezes' living room seeking the signatures of the elder Juan and his wife, Lelè, on a professional baseball contract. Rosa was offering a 16-year-old boy who weighed 170 pounds a bonus of $75,000. The father asked for more. Rosa said he would go no higher.

"Excuse us," the father said. He, Lelè and young Juan talked in the kitchen. A few minutes later, the father signed the contract and shoved it in front of Rosa.

"He was outvoted, two to one," says Rosa, who now coordinates Latin American operations for the San Francisco Giants. "When I signed Juan, I told a TV station I just signed the top home run hitter to come out of Latin America. When the books are closed on his career, he could reach 500."

No Latin player has hit more than 379 home runs, a total attained by both Cepeda and Tony Perez. In 1989, at age 19, Gonzalez slammed his first major league home run after a late-season promotion from Double A. The next year he hit four more in another September cameo. In '91, his first full season in the big leagues, he hit 27. Then he hit the 43 last year, when he also drove in 109 runs and batted .260.

His weight has been climbing, too, especially since he began a serious weightlifting regimen four years ago. He reported to camp this year at a sculpted 226 pounds, looking very much like an Igor, though the nickname predates his muscular physique. He has been known as Igor since he was 10 because of his passion for a professional wrestler named The Mighty Igor. He and Jackie named their first-born Juan Igor Gonzalez.

"When I first saw Juan, he was 16 and a gangly kid," says Ranger assistant general manager Sandy Johnson. "But he had a big frame, and you could tell he was a good athlete. He had tremendous bat speed, long arms and a natural power hitter's swing. We felt right from the beginning we had something special. Honestly, what he has done is not all that surprising. He's capable of playing better defense, hitting 50 home runs and, as he matures, batting .300."

Gonzalez's defense should improve with his switch this season to leftfield from centerfield, where he was miscast because of his lack of speed. A career .259 hitter. Gonzalez figures he should reach at least .280 this year, though to get to that level he would have to hit to right-field more often and reduce his strikeouts (261 over the past two years). He has been compared to a young Dave Winfield because of his body type, his attacking style of hitting and his long but quick swing. Unlike Winfield, though, Gonzalez has a slight upward arc to his swing that makes him more of a natural home run hitter.

"He's the kind of guy who you'll look back on and say, 'It was an honor playing with him,' " says Texas third baseman Dean Palmer. "I'm talking about Hall of Fame caliber. He's that special."

The screen door of the elder Gonzalez's house swings open constantly for visitors, which explains why Juan the father is in the kitchen taking some mean hacks with a flyswatter at some unwelcome guests. Flores the motorcycle cop stops in to have a picture autographed. Then there are Josuè Pèrez, who coordinates Juan's appearances in Puerto Rico, and the jovial Germàn Melèndez, the self-described second father to Juan, and Luis and...can someone please answer the phone?

"Since his first day in the major leagues it has been like this," Lelè says. "The first call comes in at eight in the morning, and the phone just keeps ringing all day. When he goes back to the States to play, it goes down dramatically."

Gonzalez's father, who does construction work on the side, recently added a second floor to the house to accommodate Juan, Jackie and Juan Igor. There is a balcony framed by two sweeping arches. The home run king can stand there and look past Highway 2 and see the multicolored cubical houses of Alto de Cuba teetering on the hillside like baby blocks.

So, the road signs on the edge of the barrio lie. There is an exit to those streets. There is a way out of the barrio, right? Yes, but for Juan Gonzalez, the place and its people always are within view.