Gonzalez's shot in '96 changed fortunes

Gonzalez's shot in '96 changed club fortunes

As Texas prepared to face New York in Game 1 of the American League Division Series in 1996, the Rangers' first postseason game ever, Juan Gonzalez walked up and down the dugout telling his teammates to "get on his back."

Gonzalez, as he did the entire season, carried the Rangers to their first postseason victory with a three-run home run in the fourth inning off Yankees starter David Cone. The blast put the Rangers up, 3-1, and they went on to win, 6-2, at Yankee Stadium.

"The RBI man of the world was telling the team to get on his back," second baseman Mark McLemore recalled. "Then, going out and doing it -- that's impressive."

On a week when Major League baseball has crowned a new home run king and fans recall their favorite team's most memorable home runs, Gonzalez' blast off Cone comes to mind for Rangers fans.

"To me, that home run, by far and away, is the most important just because of the magnitude of it," said Eric Nadel, Rangers radio broadcaster for 29 years.

The fourth inning began with Ivan Rodriguez singling to right, followed by Rusty Greer drawing a walk. Gonzalez then put the Rangers on the board with his three-run blast.

Gonzalez carried the team the entire series, hitting .438 with five home runs and nine RBIs. He homered in all four games, only the second player in history to accomplish that feat in a postseason series.

"He was just unconscious," Nadel said. "But the rest of the team couldn't score off the Yankees."

Without Gonzalez in the lineup, the Rangers hit .190 with one home run and seven RBIs. Although the Yankees won the series, 3-1, Gonzalez will be remembered for turning in one of the most impressive individual postseason performances in history.

It capped off an MVP season for Gonzalez. He set three franchise records in home runs (47), RBIs (144) and slugging percentage (.643).

"He was just at a point in his career where he had supreme confidence," McLemore said. "If he got out, it was because he got himself out, not the pitcher. He was just going out there at the top of his game with unshakable confidence, and that rubbed off on the team."

The '96 Rangers squad finished with a 92-70 record, along with the league MVP and manager of the year, Johnny Oates.

"That team knew how to win," McLemore said. "We could get that hit if we needed it, we could get a sac fly to get the guy on third home. The pitchers made pitches when they needed to make them. Now, that's knowing how to win."

Greer called it the most memorable season of his nine-year career with the Rangers.

"We probably didn't have the most talent around, but we had a bunch of guys that went out there and played," he said. "We played as a group and most of us are still friends today."

"That season was a huge lift because it got us started on a run of three division titles. Being the first post-season team, it was a monkey off everybody's back in the organization."

The dreaded 'no postseason' monkey almost stayed with the Rangers, though, as a nine-game lead nearly slipped away. In mid-September, the Rangers lost nine of 10 games, but recovered to win six of their final eight games to take the division over the California Angels.

"The thing that stands out the most is the way they didn't fold," Nadel said. "It was their first-time leading a pennant race and they held on."

The '96 season was the beginning of Rangers post-season baseball, as they made return trips in 1998 and 1999.

Other memorable home runs --

August 25, 1986 -- Geno Petralli hit a game-tying two-run home run off Boston starter Roger Clemens in the eighth inning of a nationally televised game. It was Petralli's second home run of his career. Ruben Sierra homered in the ninth to defeat the Red Sox.

October 1, 1996 -- After Gonzalez went deep, Dean Palmer hit a two-run home run later in the fourth inning to give the Rangers insurance runs against the Yankees. The Rangers won their first post-season game ever over the Yankees, 6-2.

June 30, 1997 -- Texas pitcher Bobby Witt unleashed a solo home run in the sixth inning off Ismael Valed of the LA Dodgers to give the Rangers a 3-2 victory. It was the first home run by a Rangers pitcher since they moved to Texas in 1972, and the first by an AL pitcher since Baltimore's Roric Harrison went deep on October 3, 1972 against Cleveland.

July 15, 2003 -- Hank Blalock belted a game-winning, two-run home run in the 2003 All-Star Game against current Rangers' closer Eric Gagne. The AL defeated the NL, 7-6, for home-field advantage in the 2003 World Series.

Drew Davison is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.