'Juan Gone' lived up to his nickname
Everything's bigger in Texas, and Gonzalez was the biggest of the Rangers' sluggers
Editor's Note: In celebration of tonight's Home Run Derby (7 p.m. CT on ESPN and ESPN3), each of the ESPN local sites are selecting their city's top 10 sluggers and crowning their all-time home run king.
ARLINGTON, Texas -- Texas Rangers outfielder Juan Gonzalez was so prolific at hitting home runs in the mid-to-late 1990s that a foul ball in Game 3 of the 1996 ALDS against the New York Yankees at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington caused the gameday crew to set off fireworks.
It was the franchise's first home playoff game and Gonzalez had already hit three homers in the first two games of the series at Yankee Stadium. So when he tagged one, they assumed it was yet another home run.
"Bob Costas said on the broadcast that apparently in Texas they set fireworks off for foul balls," longtime Rangers public address announcer Chuck Morgan said. "Then one pitch later, Juan made sure to set off the fireworks again with a real homer."
The home run was one of five Gonzalez would hit during the four-game series. His three-run homer in Game 1 at Yankee Stadium keyed a five-run inning that gave the Rangers their only playoff win until last season's run to the World Series. He hit .438 in that series and drove in nine runs. The rest of the Rangers combined to hit just .190 with one homer and seven RBIs.
Gonzalez tops our list of the best home run hitters in franchise history for a variety of reasons. He is the club's all-time home run leader with 372. He was consistent, hitting at least 20 homers in nine seasons. He won two AL MVP awards, both of them coming in years that the Rangers made the playoffs (1996 and 1998). And he could crush a ball at any moment on nearly any pitch.
Former Rangers broadcaster Mark Holtz used to have a saying when the club was in a rough patch during the late '90s.
"He'd say: 'I think it's time for Juan to win a game by himself,'" Rangers radio play-by-play voice Eric Nadel said. "And inevitably, within a few days, he would. He could look so terrible chasing sliders down and away and then the next pitch hit one 450 feet. You never wanted to miss one of his at-bats."
Gonzalez also made his mark in the Home Run Derby 15 years before Josh Hamilton wowed everyone with his memorable performance at Yankee Stadium. Gonzalez was the first player to hit a homer into the facade of the upper deck in left field (473 feet) at Oriole Park at Camden Yards and the green wall behind the center-field fence (455 feet) on his way to beating Ken Griffey Jr. for the derby crown in 1993.
Juan was the most gifted hitter I ever played with.” -- Rangers veteran Michael Young
It was a chance for the country to see what Rangers fans witnessed on nearly a daily basis during Gonzalez's 13 years with the organization.
"Juan was the most gifted hitter I ever played with," said Rangers veteran Michael Young, who played with Gonzalez in the slugger's final two seasons in Texas (2002-03). "To this day, I've never seen a guy hit balls as hard as Juan. Two things stick out: How hard he hit the ball, and his nose for the RBI. You put a guy on second base and he'd take it to a different level."
Gonzalez didn't put on the kind of batting practice show that Hamilton and Nelson Cruz have at times during the past few years. But Young said when Gonzalez was in the middle of a hot streak, he was capable of turning some heads before the game started.
"I remember in Houston, he hit five over the hill in center field and to that back wall," Young said. "It was just sick. It was an absolute display in BP. His homers were 2-irons. They stayed low and hard. He didn't hit many high, majestic homers. They were bullets that didn't stop."
Former Rangers general manager and current TV analyst Tom Grieve remembers Gonzalez as not only an impressive home run hitter, but a player that single-handedly impacted the fate of the team during long stretches.
"When he won the MVP twice, he carried the team for weeks at a time," Grieve said. "Without him, we don't win. He was the man on those teams -- and there were good players on those teams, Hall of Fame-caliber players on those teams.
"But if you were talking about who was the man on those teams, it was him. He was the main guy on those teams. When he got hot, he got hot like very few other people."
Darren Oliver, who was a starter for Texas in the 1996 playoffs, remembers seeing Gonzalez hit home runs to all parts of the ballpark.
"No matter where the pitches were, he'd just lean on stuff," Oliver said. "He hit them everywhere."
Gonzalez wasn't the type of hitter that would simply take advantage of the famous ballpark "jet stream" that helps carry balls to right-center and right field like Alex Rodriguez did so well in his brief but productive three-year tenure (he hit 156 homers in those three seasons, which is why he's so high on our list). Gonzalez would pull many of them to left field, which isn't easy to do in Arlington. He led the American League in home runs twice -- with 43 in 1992 and 46 in 1993. Both of those seasons, the Rangers played at Arlington Stadium.
"That was a pitcher's park and he was hitting all of those homers there," Nadel said.
Of the top-10 all-time home run seasons in franchise history, only two were accomplished in the old park -- by Gonzalez in 1992 and 1993. The rest are at much more hitter-friendly Rangers Ballpark in Arlington, which opened in 1994.
"Those line-drive homers were fun to watch," Grieve said. "People that watched games on TV used to say time and time again: 'How can Juan swing at a slider in the dirt from a right-handed pitcher?' He got the bat started and a lot of times he had made his commitment to swing, so he'd miss those pitches. He wasn't going to walk. He was very aggressive and if he got his certain pitch or you made a mistake, he let it fly. And he could crush it."
RANGERS' TOP-10 HR HITTERS
Here is our top-10 list of home run hitters in Rangers history. This isn't simply the top-10 all-time home run leaders in franchise history. Our list is based on home run production while the players were with Texas, an ability to hit home runs with frequency, hitting big home runs in key situations and wowing us with terrific moments with the long ball.
- 1. Juan Gonzalez
- 2. Rafael Palmeiro (10 seasons, second all-time on club HR list)
- 3. Alex Rodriguez (only three seasons, but hit 156 HRs, including a club-record 57 in 2002)
- 4. Mark Teixeira (switch-hitter had power from both sides of plate)
- 5. Nelson Cruz (has 13 more HRs than Hamilton with nearly the same number of at-bats)
- 6. Josh Hamilton (Must-see hitter had memorable 2008 HR Derby performance)
- 7. Ruben Sierra (became first Ranger to homer from both sides of plate in same game in 1986)
- 8. Pete Incaviglia (20 HRs or more in all five seasons in old park)
- 9. Dean Palmer (hit 38 HRs in 1996 AL West title year)
- 10. Larry Parrish (three seasons of 26 or more HRs in old park)
Richard Durrett covers the Rangers for ESPNDallas.com.