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Juan May Be Missing, But He Won’t Be Forgotten

The extreme disappointment of the Rangers getting swept at home at the hands of the Former Rangers, AKA the Baltimore Orioles, had only one silver lining. And that was the celebration of one other former Rangers.

Ivan Rodriguez took his place in the Rangers Hall of Fame Saturday night. We can only hope now that soon number 7 will be off David Murphy’s back and on the Ballpark’s left field facade where it belongs.

But if there is one downer to the ceremony, it would be that one other Ranger great was not there to be enshrined with Pudge.

While The Magnificent Seven was being honored, his longtime fellow Puerto Rican, known to his countrymen as Igor, seems to be fading into obscurity. Some younger fans might not realize just what an unbelievable player Juan Gonzalez was in his prime. He wasn’t putting up the power numbers the likes of McGwire and Sosa were, which many wanted to blame on The Ballpark’s deeper left field power alley compared to Arlington Stadium’s, but he was still one of the most feared hitters and RBI men in the game. Having Chuck Morgan play the Star Wars Imperial March when he came to bat just fit; He was simply intimidating when he stood in the box during those years in the 90s.

When the Ranger strafed Juan primarily for Justin Thompson and Gabe Kapler (plus others), my gut feeling said they were going downhill. I was sadly proven right. Thompson never stared a game for Texas, Kapler did absolutely nothing outside of homering in his first two Ranger at-bats and setting the team’s hitting streak record, and the Rangers would be out of the postseason for 10 straight years.

Even I could tell Juan just never seemed to fit in within the United States. His thick accent always stuck out. He always seemed to be a loner. And because of that, he perhaps received the most criticism for things like not wanting to be an All-Star in 1999 if he wasn’t starting or sitting out of the Hall of Fame game because his baseball pants didn’t fit.

And so, just as I suspected, Juan has chosen to go his own way with his baseball career behind him. He has gone back full-time to his native island, reportedly teaching youth baseball while leading a pretty quiet life.

And even though multiple representatives of the Rangers contacted him about induction, including Eric Nadel, he turned them down.

We may never know if there is any specific reason why Juan has chosen to distance himself from the organization that helped make him a star. The common assumption is that he became permanently soured when The Large Rodent, AKA Tom Hicks, accused him of using steroids in a supposed tirade about Juan’s lack of production when the Rangers brought him back in 2002.

I get the feeling a large number of fans and media members will more remember the gripes and controversy. Me, there will always be one moment I’ll remember above all else.

It was the last game of 1998 before the All-Star break, when he hit his second home run of the game off Randy Johnson to hit the 100 RBI mark for the year. The crowd gave him a standing ovation, and then another one when he came out to right field the following inning. He could not hold back the tears.

But maybe that’s just me – trying to remember the good times above all else.

I also remember TR Sullivan’s column when Juan won the 1996 AL MVP over Albert Belle, saying, “That shows you there is justice in the world. Character should count for something.”

I never got to meet Juan Gonzalez, but I don’t think he was ever a bad guy – just one who struggled to fit in and had his own way about him. So maybe in that way, I can relate.

I wish that one day, Juan will have his plaque in the Rangers Hall of Fame. Time ca heal all wounds, we can only see.

But if this is what Juan truly wants, then I can step back and accept that. And choose to remember the good times of Igor knocking balls all over the Ballpark.

Finally, Pudge Gets His Day

Most people have that one personality that they remember being able to see more than anyone else.

For me, it was the short, stocky Puerto Rican who manned the plate for the Texas Rangers for more than 12 years.

And that’s why it’s going to be an honor tonight to see Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez inducted into the Rangers Hall of Fame.

Hopefully it will soon be followed by David Murphy accepting a new jersey number so #7 can hang from the left field facade where it belongs. But that’s for later.

For now, it’s time for North Texas to show appreciation for one individual who’s greatness wasn’t truly appreciated when it was there.

Pudge was known more than anything for that Howitzer of a throwing arm that made him they guy simply no one wanted to run on. Teams that relied on base stealing – yes, there were still some that existed even in the power ball times of the 1990s – would come to Arlington and find themselves effectively shut down.

It was more than just the arm, however – it was the reflexes. He would get the ball, and within a split second, he was up and in perfect position to throw. Maybe this is just my own nostalgia goggles, but I can almost remember him regularly going crouched position to cannon fired in about half a second, whereas most catchers would take close to a full second.

And the defense was only part of the game. I doubt anyone can fully understand how hard he worked to become one of the best pure hitters of the game.

The term “contact hitter” usually describes someone willing to take borderline pitches to force an even better one. But Pudge was the type of guy who would go after this outside pitches – not because he was undisciplined, but because he could hit them.

I’ll always remember two at-bats above all else when it comes to Pudge. The first was in a June 1995 game with the winning run at third. After swinging and missing at two high fastballs from Lee Smith, you knew he was getting another in the same location, and logic dictates he should hold back. But instead, he finds a way to get the bat up high enough and knock the third fastball at the letters into center field to win the game.

The second was back around 1998 when he hit a line drive shot into right center field for a home run. That was the deepest part of the park at more than 407 feet. And going the opposite way for him.

It all amounted to a total package that was sadly taken for granted. To many in the area, none of what he did on the field mattered as long as he couldn’t somehow guide the team’s young pitchers into Cy Young candidates. It was why so many begged the Rangers to trade him in 1999 to bring in the Great God Roger Clemens. And why when they finally let him go after 2002, newspapers quickly praised the supposed leadership abilities of Einar Diaz.

But as the Rangers headed to another last-place finish in 2003 while Pudge helped carry the Florida Marlins and its young pitching staff to a championship, that claim that he couldn’t work with pitchers was thrown right back in his critics’ faces. Turns out maybe lack of talent on the mound was more to blame in Texas.

Only then did the phrase “you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone” truly sink in. And while the Rangers ultimately managed two pennants with Bengie Molina and Mike Napoli behind the plate, the revolving door of catchers goes on.

Sadly, Pudge may never be remembered for being the best at what he did perhaps in history. Historians want to be locked down on the past and treat certain individuals, like Johnny Bench, as untouchable in that regard. And of course, there is the likelihood that baseball’s “moral guardians” will try to lump Pudge in with everyone in the so-called “steroid era”of the 90s and keep him out of the big Hall of Fame for as long as possible.

But for now, Ivan Rodriguez will be honored among the people who will appreciate what he did. Finally.