If a line were drawn between Gonzalez’s statlines of 1998 and 1999, the sets of statistics would look like they came from two different players. Before he was traded from the Tigers to the Arizona Diamondbacks for prospect Karim Garcia in December 1998, Gonzalez was the kind of solid, above-average player every manager likes to have around, but hardly a superstar. A line-drive hitter who made lots of contact, he batted in the .270s and played a decent outfield, despite a popgun arm. But in 1999, at the age of 32, Gonzalez shattered his image as a solid but unspectacular role player by suddenly emerging as one of the top hitters in the game.
In high school, the skinny Gonzalez had played second base and led off in a lineup that included high school star and future Yankee Tino Martinez. Drafted by the Houston Astros, Gonzalez ambled through the minors, finally breaking in in 1991 with a flat swing that sprayed line drives to all parts of the park but produced only occasional power.
After five seasons in a Astros uniform, Gonzalez was shipped to the Cubs in June 1995 but returned to Houston for the 1997 season. In 1998, he signed with the Detroit Tigers to be closer to his Michigan-based sister, and began strength training, adding 10 pounds to his wiry 6’2″ frame. But the crucial moment came in batting practice when Bobby Higginson told him, “‘You gotta learn to hook the ball to play in this park to take advantage of the short porch in right [in Tiger Stadium].” Gonzo opened his stance and began consciously pulling the ball. The ball didn’t exactly jump off his bat that year, but the 23 dingers he slugged were a career high.
The Tigers remained unimpressed and shipped him to Arizona in one of the least heralded moves of the winter of 1998. D-Backs manager Buck Showalter considered using Gonzalez as a leadoff hitter, but after the arrival of the speedy Tony Womack, decided to platoon him with Bernard Gilkey in the third spot in the lineup, between Jay Bell and Williams. The platoon never came off. Gilkey developed eye problems, and Gonzalez began the season with a 30-game hitting streak, followed immediately by a 12-game streak. With Gonzalez batting a torrid .390, Showalter could hardly sit him down when Gilkey returned, and the previously unheralded outfielder finished with career highs of 111 RBIs and a .336 batting average — a 36-point improvement over his previous best.
Gonzalez’s sudden success was so unexpected that D-Backs management had left him off the All-Star ballot in favor of Gilkey, Womack, and Steve Finley. After his hitting streak Gonzo’s popularity soared, and, spearheaded by a local radio host, fans began a write-in campaign. The movement took off, eventually prompting a local communications company to set up eight Internet kiosks around Phoenix that garnered 40,000 online votes. Snake fans were so enthusiastic that they used up the D-Backs’ allotment of 125,000 ballots by late May, forcing the club to borrow more from Los Angeles and Colorado. Gonzo never cracked the top ten in balloting, but NL manager Bruce Bochy named him to his first All-Star Game anyway.
By the time the All-Star Game had ended, the Diamondbacks realized they had caught lightning in a bottle and promptly signed Gonzo to a three-year, $12.5 million contract extension. For the next two years he delivered, never batting lower than .311 and improving his power totals each year.
In fact, 2001 was a staggering home run year for the skinny Gonzalez. Balls seemed to flee his bat the way birds scatter from a footstep. He slammed 10 homers in April, an NL record, and hit 40 by the end of July. The media talked of an assault on Mark McGwire‘s single-season home run record, but Gonzalez cooled in August and September, merely breaking the 50-home run plateau for the first time in his career.
While Gonzalez became big-time on the field, he never let it affect him off the field, as he continued to be one of baseball’s good guys. With a photographic memory for names and faces, he remembered everyone he met at all the ballparks, from the players and umps to the baggage guys and clubhouse stewards. Gonzalez was considered to be the highest tipper in baseball, sometimes asking a worker’s highest tip that year and then topping it by a substantial margin. Known for his ability to socialize with superstars and rookies, he had a reputation for generosity, often picking up the bar tab for lower-paid players, writers, and baseball employees.
With the birth of his triplets in 1998 Gonzalez learned the perspective that comes with having a family, and there is no doubt that Megan, Jacob and Alyssa took center stage in his life. But he also loved the fans, and one of his most treasured possessions was a ball thrown to him before he filed for free agency in 1997, signed by the denizens of Wrigley Field’s bleachers.