'Igor' refocuses role in Puerto Rico

VEGA BAJA, Puerto Rico -- Juan Gonzalez steps out of his car on this Saturday afternoon carrying a St. Louis Cardinals bag, dressed in a sleeveless shirt, sweat pants and plastic spikes.

The ballpark in this city, a small venue with 3,000 seats, is nearly empty. Only the employees preparing the facility for the faithful who will arrive in a few hours witness the arrival of the two-time American League MVP.

The former Texas Rangers slugger greets a couple of youngsters, already dressed in Vega Baja's red and blue uniform, who will help as bat boys during the Puerto Rico Baseball Federation game against Cataño.

That night, Gonzalez will step on the field as the designated hitter in a league that has 48 teams.

It has been a long road for the 40-year-old Gonzalez, who last played in the majors in 2005. Ten years ago, he was still considered one of the most feared hitters in major league baseball, where he belted 434 home runs in a career that spanned 17 years with Texas, Detroit and Kansas City.

"I have had that passion for baseball since I was a kid, thank God. Given this opportunity, first by God and by the Double-A baseball league to allow pros to play and having the chance to play for my town, that door opened and I came in," Gonzalez told ESPNdeportes.com recently at his parents' residence in Vega Baja, a city east of San Juan. "I'm there helping, sharing my knowledge and experience with the young kids. At the same time, it's about pride."

Gonzalez, who also spent part of spring training in 2008 with the Cardinals, took the opportunity when the federation opened its doors to professional players. In the past three years, teams have been allowed to hire professionals who are not playing in other leagues as long as they play for their hometown clubs.

Salaries here are paid in three figures instead of six. But Gonzalez denies that he is in need of money, declaring that this is the most fun he's had in a sport he's played since he was 16.

"I do it for self-satisfaction and the pride that I'm playing for my hometown and helping others," he said. "God gave me the opportunity to play for a long time in the best baseball in the world. … [I want] to live a quiet life and help my neighbors as best as I can."

Change of scenery

The distances in the Puerto Rican ballparks have been friendly to Gonzalez. He's batting .321 with five home runs and 12 RBIs. With the regular season winding down, Vega Baja leads the North Atlantic with a 14-5 record, third-best in the league.

In the majors, Gonzalez had access to personal trainers and modern gyms. Here, he is in charge of his workouts, which include running on the beach and weightlifting. He takes batting practice with a friend in the western part of the island.

The routine includes midweek practice at Carlos Roman Brull stadium, a couple of miles off the beach. There, he shares the practice field with players between 18 and 45 years old who also maintain the playing field. Most of the participants have daytime jobs.

The change of environment doesn't bother Gonzalez, who sees this stage of his life as a chance to share his knowledge.

"They look at me as a figure, but I'm their teammate and friend. I tell them not to limit their questions, anything that is for their benefit," he said.

Gonzalez relishes the opportunity to reshape young lives in an area with a high crime rate, in a part of the world where sports remains a way to channel away problems and worries.

"I have learned in here, with my hometown team, to understand each other with kids that have had problems with the law," Gonzalez said. "But I come in and tell them that they can see life in a different way. You fall down, you get up."

"Igor," as he is known, still has his detractors and is selective in the interviews he grants. Some argue his presence and that of other former major leaguers has had an adverse effect on young players in this federation of 1,200 players. Teams can have just one professional player on the roster.

Vega Baja manager and former Philadelphia Phillies reliever Aristalco Tirado praised the inclusion of former big leaguers such as Gonzalez, even though he admits it will cost some of the younger talent playing time.

"Igor has been very helpful with the young kids, who look up to him," Tirado said. "Sure, it has some effect on kids not getting their chances, but overall it is positive."

Gonzalez's presence has boosted attendance. Last year, Vega Baja averaged just over 300 fans per game. This year, more than 1,000 arrive during the weekends, when the former outfielder gladly interacts with fans.

"I have been socializing with them a lot; it is a town custom. Here obviously, as a figure from this town, I bring them the love, the happiness, especially to kids," said Gonzalez, while sipping on coffee prepared by his mother. "It's nothing different. It's the same game, same three bases, nine positions. What changes is the community. What changes is the comfort of home."

Legacies and scrutiny

The cloud of steroids has lingered over Gonzalez's accomplishments in recent years. He reaffirmed that he never used performance-enhancing drugs in the majors. He also lamented that Jose Canseco's book and former senator George Mitchell's report would affect his legacy and that of former teammates Ivan Rodriguez and Rafael Palmeiro, even though the latter did test positive for steroids.

"I have nothing to hide," he said. "Nothing. And I offered to be tested, whenever they wanted. If you have nothing to hide, there is nothing to worry about," Gonzalez said.

The local media leaves Gonzalez alone in Vega Baja. While in the majors, his private life was under a microscope in Puerto Rico and Latin America. Now he's barely mentioned in the TV gossip programs.

"I feel very peaceful," he said. "Being a public figure in our country is not an easy thing."

If it was a difficult time for him in Texas, it didn't show on the field. Gonzalez proved adept at handling the celebrity spotlight, keeping his focus and winning two MVP awards through marital woes.

His most memorable big league years came with the Rangers, where he did two tours of duty. But he favors his time with the Cleveland Indians, where he played with fellow Puerto Ricans Roberto Alomar and Wil Cordero.

"I saw what a passionate fan is … . They involved themselves in the game in the heat of the moment, they involved themselves in the game. In Cleveland, they fall in love with their ballplayers. But a lot of people see us just as machines that produce," Gonzalez said.

"In Texas, after the George W. Bush group left, that changed. … In Cleveland, I saw Jim Thome averaging .090 and he got a standing ovation. That place was different."

Gonzalez played with the Indians after one year with the Detroit Tigers, who acquired him from the Rangers in 1999. With the Tigers, he had just 22 homers and 67 RBIs. Even so, Detroit offered him a multiyear contract valued at $140 million, which he declined because of problems with the new Comerica Park's hitting conditions.

"Detroit was a very difficult experience. I wasn't expecting the trade. I got there with a lot of enthusiasm and found out the team wasn't the best," Gonzalez said.

Outside of baseball, Gonzalez focuses on helping the community with one condition: He wants no media attention when he becomes involved in a cause.

"What value does it have to help someone and then publicizing it in newspapers? That is not giving. I help, but I ask them to please not say anything."

The steroid era has hurt the legacy of ballplayers such as Mark McGwire and Palmeiro. Gonzalez is eligible for the Hall of Fame this year, but he said he won't feel slighted if he is not elected.

"It is an incredible dream. You have to be clear that I'm not the only one who is eligible to be selected," Gonzalez said. "If I don't go in, it will come in due time. The numbers are there."