It was Spring 1994. I had been discharged (honorably) from the Navy a few months earlier after 6 years of service. I had umpteen thousand dollars in the bank that I had been saving for a rainy day. However, it wasn't raining this day. It was beautiful. Not a cloud in the sky, the breeze was blowing and the temperature was unseasonably comfortable. Anytime the temperature is comfortable in Texas, it is unseasonable. I showed up the Ballpark in Arlington to watch another Rangers game. I went to quite a few games that season. I could afford tickets (only $16 for box seats then) and it was also the inaugural season of the new ballpark. I arrived early, before the gates even opened, prepared to watch some batting practice and try to get a few autographs if anyone was signing.
The gates opened and I wandered down to the left field seats where some of the Rangers were shagging fly balls. No youngsters, I'm not talking about Austin Powers type of shagging. Anyway, there was no one else around. I mean no one. I was out there all alone so I tried to start up a conversation with Juan Gonzalez who wasn't catching any flies, but was just leaning against the wall. It was like I was a member of Congress trying to talk to Sammy Sosa. He didn't understand so much and I didn't understand him either. I do have to give him credit though because he did TRY to talk to me. He didn't just walk away. I never saw Juan sign an autograph at a game although I'm sure he did at some point. I never saw him go out of his way to be fan friendly.
This went on for a couple of minutes and then one of the Rangers coaches signaled for the outfielders to come back to the infield. Before he left Juan did the funniest thing. He took the ball from his glove and tossed it up to me and said "Here kid". I'm 99% sure that is what he said. What is funny about it is that I was 24 at the time and had a mustache. I caught the ball and looked around thinking he meant for someone else to get it, but there was still no one around. I was happy for the "souvenir" and went on and enjoyed the game. I still have the ball and keep it with my other non-card collection.
Just a couple of things about Juan Gonzalez. I think he was pretty well liked by the fans when he played for Texas. He put up great offensive numbers, but didn't always hustle. Sometimes he wouldn't get to a ball he probably should have or he wouldn't run out a groundout. He could turn a double into a single in a hurry as well. In 1998 he won his second AL MVP award. That season he had 101 RBIs at the All-Star Break. That number hadn't been reached since 1935 when Hank Greenberg had 103 RBIs by the break and it hasn't been reached since. Many people were discussing his chance to break the record of RBIs in a season which has been held by Hack Wilson with 191.
Of course, Juan Gonzalez was named by Jose Canseco as a PED user in his book, Juiced. Like many people who put up gaudy numbers during what is often called the "Steroid Era", Juan's reputation has taken a serious hit. Despite all of that, Juan has never admitted to using steroids. Someone who was on track for a Hall of Fame career flamed out in the latter stages due to multiple injuries. Despite numerous attempted comebacks, nothing seemed to work out for Juan, on the field or off.