Juan for all

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The players may change, but this year's Texas Rangers look like every other model that preceded them. No matter how much money owner Tom Hicks sinks into the payroll, the Rangers will eventually be undone by their own history, which they can no more escape than their own skin. Even Rangers fans, among the most resilient and forgiving in any sport, have wearied of such teases and imminent disappointment. That's why they have not come to the Ballpark as they did last season; attendance will fall well short of 1997's record-setting three-million-plus mark.

Which is too bad: They have missed a remarkable season from a remarkable player, a man who has long been the league's most underrated superstar, which no doubt is tied to the fact that he plays for the league's most underachieving team. Indeed, suiting up for the Rangers is like starring in a series on the UPN.

Gonzalez's career numbers are extraordinary: Since 1992, he has hit more than 40 home runs during a season five times, including the past three; since 1991, he has driven in more than 100 runs six times; and his career batting average is, at the time of this writing, an impressive .289. Hell, Pete Rose's career batting average was just .303. Well, not just.

But baseball fans are not concerned with numbers gathered over the long haul. Oddly enough, in a game so slow-paced, so deliberate as baseball, the crowd likes its thrills immediate, intense, almost visceral. The crowd at Busch Stadium exploded on Monday, when Mark McGwire caught up to Roger Maris and history. Their celebration was unrelenting, a mixture of tears and cheers. Fans like something they can hold on to--a record-tying home-run ball, for instance, even if it lands in someone else's lap.

At the beginning of July, there was that brief moment when the national press treated Gonzalez like the second coming of Ruth. For one week, McGwire and Sammy Sosa had a little company as they raced toward hallowed ground. For a man who would rather watch the circus than stand inside the three rings, the attention was a bit overwhelming, but Gonzalez begged for it when, on July 5, he drove in four runs against the Seattle Mariners to enter the All-Star break with 101 RBIs--the second most in history at the halfway point of the season. He and Hack Wilson, who drove in 190 runs in 1930, became, for a moment, as intertwined as McGwire and Maris; Gonzalez was on pace to break a record far older and far more daunting than Maris' home-run mark.

But he didn't even come close: After Monday afternoon's win against the Twins at the Ballpark, Gonzalez has 149 RBIs, with only 19 more games left to play. After so much ruckus was made early in the season about his being set to surpass Wilson's seemingly untouchable record, anything less almost seems like a disappointment. Notice how his name is barely uttered on SportsCenter, how he has all but disappeared from the national media spotlight that has made a god of Mark McGwire.

"I had a little bit of pressure because of the 101 RBIs before the break," he says. "But in the second half, Mark [McLemore] was hurt a little bit, [Tom] Goodwin at lead-off went down a little bit, so I couldn't drive in as many runs. It's just the circumstances of the game. But I'm real happy. We have three more weeks, we're in a pennant race, and I'll just continue working hard. During this part of the season, everyone's tired, especially the bullpen. We need our second wind. All I know is, I am trying hard."

What he has accomplished this season might well be a footnote in the history books when the final out of the regular season is recorded. But consider this: Gonzalez could well finish the season with more than 162 RBIs, which would place him on a list alongside men whose names are bigger than the game itself: Babe Ruth (who drove in 163 in 1931), Lou Gehrig (165 in '34), and Joe DiMaggio (167 in '37).

Stop. Consider that again.
At the beginning of the season, much was made of Gonzalez's maturation. It was often said he had grown from a boy into a man, that his mood swings had given way to run-producing swings. Before a spring training game at the Ballpark, Gonzalez sat for a lengthy interview with ABC-TV, something he often refused to do during his younger days. His advisor, mentor, and father-figure, Rangers' Latin American Liaison Luis Mayoral, sat in the nearby dugout and said, "Look at how composed he is. He was not like that a couple of years ago, but he has come a long way. Now, he is a man."

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky