I remember being in my swimming pool when I heard the news on the radio, blaring from the patio.
“We like Juan. We want Juan to stay. We think we’ve made a very fair offer. The ball’s in his court now.”
Words to that effect came from the misguided lips of Tigers GM Randy Smith, who was explaining, in the summer of 2000, how the team was pushing hard to keep OF Juan Gonzalez in Detroit for many years to come. The Tigers had acquired Gonzalez, the enigmatic slugger and two-time AL MVP, from Texas in December 1999, knowing full well that he wasn’t signed beyond the 2000 season. In return, the Tigers sent OF Gabe Kapler, IF/OF Frank Catalanotto, and P Justin Thompson to the Rangers.
Smith’s courtship of Gonzalez was painful to watch. It seemed as if Smith was the only one who didn’t know that Gonzalez had no intention of staying in Detroit beyond the one year. Then, as I listened incredulously in my pool that summer day in 2000, it was confirmed.
Smith, with the apparent blessing of owner Mike Ilitch, was dangling something like seven years and well over $100 million at Gonzalez. And Smith was genuinely hoping the moody, sour Gonzalez would take it.
The Tigers had just moved into Comerica Park for the 2000 season, and if you think it’s a pitcher’s park NOW, let me remind you that the original dimensions of CoPa were so brutally unfair to right-handed hitters as to be cruel. The left field line was nearly 350 feet away, and the left-center alley was about 400 feet from the batter’s box. By the time Smith made his ridiculous offer, Lord knows how many of “Juan Gone’s” would-be homeruns and doubles were caught by tickled outfielders. Those lost hits didn’t do anything to lighten Gonzalez’s mood.
And Smith wanted Gonzalez to shackle himself to baseball’s Yosemite Park for seven years?
Well, Gonzalez rebuffed the Tigers and became a free agent, right on schedule. After managing just 22 HRs, 67 RBI and a .289 BA with the Tigers, Gonzalez became an Indian and did 35-140-.325 with the Tribe, playing in the much more realistic Jacobs Field.
Of course, Smith’s ill-advised trade and subsequent failure to secure Gonzalez for the long term turned out just fine for the Tigers. That contract would have been the biggest albatross ever saddled on a big league team in baseball history. For Gonzalez turned out to be a fraud, an injury-riddled bad apple who’d already peaked, despite his last hurrah in 2001 with the Indians.
So news of Miguel Cabrera’s new contract extension with the Tigers should be met with relief and assurances. Cabrera, just 24 (he turns 25 in April), is six years younger than Gonzalez was when Smith tossed all that dough at him. His best years are ahead of him, not behind. Plus, the team is a lot more attractive than it was when Gonzalez was here. The early-21st century Tigers were God awful, and no doubt Gonzalez saw that coming, too. Plus, the dimensions of CoPa have been drastically altered in left and left center. Look no further than Magglio Ordonez, or Gary Sheffield, to see that Comerica is no longer a barrier to high-octane offensive production for right-handed hitters.
All I know is, Mike Ilitch should thank God that Juan Gonzalez rejected the panderings of silly little Randy Smith back in 2000.