Tuesday, February 19, 2008 Updated: February 20, 9:01 AM ET
Cardinals hope long-shot Gonzalez pays off
By Tim Kurkjian ESPN The Magazine
JUPITER, Fla. -- Manager Tony La Russa pointed to a side field in the Cardinals' complex, smiled and said, "One of the great ironies of spring training -- Juan Gonzalez's first official offensive responsibility of the spring: sacrifice bunting. I asked him if he had ever done that. He said, 'Three times. The manager got fired.'"
Gonzalez is not here to bunt. He is in Cardinals camp in hope that he can recapture at least some of the greatness that won him two MVPs, and "terrorized the league,'' La Russa said.
Gonzalez is 38 now, he hasn't played in the major leagues since getting one at-bat in 2005, and he was named in the Mitchell report. But there he was Tuesday, hitting line drive after line drive, bomb after bomb, in batting practice in a group that included Albert Pujols and Troy Glaus.
"I was in that group,'' said Cardinals utility man Scott Spiezio. "Juan was great. Imagine those three guys hitting in a row for our team.''
That might be a long shot, but it didn't appear that way on Tuesday. Gonzalez still has that long, smooth, gorgeous swing.
"I wish Charlie Lau -- the best hitting coach of all time -- had been here to see that,'' La Russa said of Gonzalez's round of BP. "He always said, 'Swing easy, hit it hard.' That's what Juan does.''
Former catcher Mike Matheny, now a Cardinals coach, was the BP pitcher.
"Guys with a long swing have trouble keeping the inside pitch in fair territory, but Juan can do that,'' Matheny said. "I made it tough on him -- not intentionally -- because I was all over the place. But he got to everything. He has a great swing.''
Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak said the first recommendation to sign Gonzalez came from Cardinals coach Jose Oquendo, who had seen him working out in Puerto Rico. The second came from former Cardinal Eduardo Perez, who has worked tirelessly this winter to revive baseball in Puerto Rico. The third came from Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina.
"That was 3-for-3,'' Mozeliak said. "Then I saw Albert [Pujols] at a function in the offseason. He told me, 'You have to give him a chance.' That was it.''
Perez said, "Juan was the first guy every day to workouts; he beat all the young guys to the ballpark. He has the passion. I watched him, and when Jose Oquendo came down, I asked him to take a look. He said, 'Wow, if he can play defense, he can help a lot of teams.' And Juan didn't just hit, he played defense. He played great defense in right field."
The Cardinals' outfield situation is muddled, with not one player who has proved that he can play every day against all types of pitching. And the Cardinals are especially heavy on left-handed hitters, another reason they signed Gonzalez. It was a low-risk deal; if it doesn't work out, the Cardinals aren't out much money.
The reward could be much greater. Remember, from 1995 to '98, Gonzalez drove in 514 runs in 511 games, making him the first player since World War II to drive in a run per game for any four-year period.
"He will get an opportunity to make the club if he has his game, and I'm told that he does,'' La Russa said. "My concern is his legs [since he hasn't played in so long]. I almost went to see him this winter in Puerto Rico. If I was a younger manager, I would have gone.''
The Cardinals had concerns. Gonzalez had back problems even in his 20s, and a leg issue forced him to miss all but one at-bat of the 2005 season with the Indians. His total playing experience since then was 36 games in 2006 with the Long Island Ducks of the Independent Atlantic League. And Gonzalez was named in the Mitchell report.
"It's a bad situation for the game, not just for Roger Clemens, but for all of baseball,'' Gonzalez said. When asked if he had used performance-enhancing drugs, he said, "I never used anything."
So why would a player who has been connected to steroids, who essentially hasn't played in the major leagues since 2004, who has had a history of injuries, even consider a comeback?
"I have goals in mind,'' he said. "I came back to finish those goals -- 500 home runs is a goal [he has 434]. But the No. 1 reason I'm [in camp] is to make this team.''
I have goals in mind. I came back to finish those goals -- 500 home runs is a goal. But the No. 1 reason I'm [in camp] is to make this team.
Gonzalez said Tuesday he "felt like a rookie in my first big league camp. I'm very excited about the challenge for me. I have experience and I have ability. What I have to do is stay healthy. I let my body rest for a year, and I feel great now.''
He looks thinner and leaner than he did five years ago. "I have been working out, running, lifting weights,'' he said. "I feel like I'm swinging the bat very well. So, we'll see what happens.''
It will be a surprise if Gonzalez makes the club, and contributes heavily, but he is full of surprises. He is the son of a high school math teacher. He is very politically aware. Ten years ago, he could name the mayor of each of the 78 towns in Puerto Rico, and could name the president of most countries in the Western Hemisphere. He knows of former President Harry Truman's work, which might make him the only major leaguer who knows of Truman's work.
In December, Gonzalez met with President Bush, who was the Rangers' owner when Gonzalez played there. Gonzalez wanted to talk to the president about the politics in Puerto Rico. While he was in Washington, Gonzalez also met with Puerto Rican soldiers who were injured in the war in Iraq.
"I went to Walter Reed [Army Hospital]; it was incredible,'' Gonzalez said. "I met these young guys who had no legs, no arms, no eyes. It was tough. But it was incredible. They said they wanted to go back to Iraq. I said, 'What?'''
President Bush didn't encourage Gonzalez to make a comeback, nor did the injured soldiers. The inspiration came mostly from Gonzalez himself, whether it was to reach 500 home runs, to win a World Series ring or to make sure his career didn't end with an injury after one at-bat in 2005. And for at least the first day of workouts, Gonzalez showed that he might make it back.
"If he stays healthy,'' Perez said, "he will be the comeback player of the year.''
Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.