Here's the pitch

The Texas Rangers can't buy a win unless you pay up

It's getting harder every day to be a Rangers fan. Management overpays for damaged goods, gives away the bargain players, then tells us we haven't forked over enough cash to buy a winner. The Rangers should have learned long ago they can't buy a win.

Last year, Will Clark collected a hunk of his $5.6 million paycheck from the bench. Clark, whose five-year contract expires at the end of the 1998 season, did post an impressive .326 batting average--yet he also drove in a meager 51 runs, which averages out to $111,000 per RBI. Clark also played in only 110 of the season's 162 games, forcing reserve Lee Stevens to fill the void with his astonishing 74 runs batted in and 21 home runs. Stevens cost the Rangers a whopping $230,000.

Then there's Rusty Greer--undoubtedly the most invaluable man on the team, as consistent a player as there is in all the majors--who made a paltry $358,333 last season and managed to play in all but five games. More to the point, he averaged one hit every three at-bats and brought 87 men across the plate to score.

"We live in a very unpredictable business," Melvin says. "If you look at the history of long-term contracts, it shows you very seldom get the full value of those contracts because a player gets injured, gets old, or had already reached the downside of his career."

In recent years, the Rangers' heroes have been players brought in for pennies on the dollar, young men who were born or old men who were born again underneath an Arlington summer sky. Last year, Kevin Elster's 99 RBIs and stellar fielding at shortstop helped lead the Rangers to its first post-season berth. Before going to San Francisco in the off-season, Darryl Hamilton played like a one-man outfield; Damon Buford, who replaced Hamilton in center field, collected $225,000, and made only three errors in 1997.

And Fernando Tatis, the 22-year-old third baseman called up from the minors after Dean Palmer was traded to Kansas City this summer, drove in 29 runs in 60 games--and committed only seven errors while learning on the job.

And don't forget veteran reliever Mike Henneman, whose 31 saves in '96 tied him for third most in team history. One can't help but note that John Wetteland, last year's World Series MVP who made $4.5 million in '97 after coming to Texas from the New York Yankees, also had 31 saves this year. What a bargain.

"No one player or no two players can make a team," says Melvin, who must now pay $43 million over five years to one player, catcher Ivan Rodriguez. "Even though their salaries are high for the individual, you sometimes lose sight of the team concept. That becomes a problem."

The Rangers have one of the worst farm systems in the major leagues; there are only a few decent young pitchers in Oklahoma City and Tulsa, and they won't even be ready for the majors for a couple of years. But this team has proven time and again it's the best farm system for the rest of the majors. Every year, it seems, some former Ranger is throwing harder and hitting farther than he did while in Arlington.

Texas has released more good players in the last eight years than it's had on its roster at one time since then. To Sammy Sosa (a superstar with the Chicago Cubs), Darryl Hamilton (San Francisco Giants), Rafael Palmeiro (Baltimore Orioles), Mike Stanton (New York Yankees), Jamie Moyer (Seattle Mariners), even John Cangelosi (Florida), Arlington was a pitstop on the way to somewhere far better.

Of course, most every team in the majors could make the same claim. When players can enter free agency after a mere two years and 100 days in the majors, few stay with the same teams for long; they would rather try their luck on the open market than re-sign with a team looking to keep their price down.

On top of that, teams that want to win now instead of tomorrow often ditch promising young talent for a proven winner, someone who can get you to the playoffs this season--till his arm goes out or his bat dies next year. Too many times the Rangers have given away the keys to the kingdom (Ron Darling, Walt Terrell, Sammy Sosa, Wilson Alvarez) for the key to the men's room (Lee Mazzilli and Harold Baines).

"Everybody wants to win so rapidly, so quickly, we always think that one free-agent signing is going to get you over the hump," Melvin says. "If only every club had the patience to stay with their original pitchers or had the money to keep them. The problem is they become arbitration-eligible or free agents too quickly."

So far, this year's list of free agents is a fairly pitiful one, filled with broken-down retreads whose better days were years ago (former Ranger Julio Franco, who must be nearing 70 by now, and Minnesota's Paul Molitor) and ex-superstars looking to cash in before they check out (including Anaheim's Ricky Henderson, once the most feared base stealer in the league). There are a few pitchers out there that the Rangers might be interested in--Daryl Kile of the Houston Astros is one, as is former Ranger Wilson Alvarez--but Melvin finds before him a list of guys he's seen, and passed on, before.

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