Do over

Todd Van Poppel doesn't have to be great anymore, just good enough

The reporters ask their questions in hushed tones, as though too ashamed to form the words. They stick their microphones and notepads in front of the players and wait for them to answer, which they always do--even when the loss is so humiliating, they'd rather disappear.

The Texas Rangers, standing in front of their lockers, answer the journalists in whispered mumbles; their eyes look as blank as their words sound. "It was my fault," says second baseman Mark McLemore, who bobbled a ball in the bottom of the ninth, allowing the Los Angeles Dodgers to put runners on first and second.

"I failed to do my job," says closing pitcher John Wetteland, who threw a fat fastball to Gary Sheffield, allowing him to drive in the tying run. "Live by the sword, die by the sword," the fastballer says.

A few of the Rangers--among them the surly Will Clark, the sulking Lee Stevens, the injured Rusty Greer, the ignored Bill Haselman, and Mike Simms--sit in a somber circle and cradle their cold longnecks. They hunker in numbers, keeping away the prying--those wanting to know how the Texas Rangers could let a 5-4 win against the Los Angeles Dodgers turn into a 7-5 loss.

Of course, nobody really had to ask; they had seen it with their own unbelieving eyes, watched as one of the spring's finest teams dissolved into absent-minded errors and empty bats and melon-sized pitches.

The Rangers' numbers--514 runs scored at the All-Star break (best in baseball) coupled with 22 errors since June 1 and a humiliating 5.76 earned-run average--prove what any casual fan knows: This is one of the finest teams in all of baseball, and one of the most godawful, often in the very same inning. On the one hand, you have Juan Gonzalez driving in more runs at the All-Star break than anyone in history, save for the Detroit Tigers' Hank Greenberg in 1930. On the other, you have Kevin Elster, the comeback player of the year in 1996--24 homers, 99 runs batted in back then--whose idea of hitting for the cycle these days is striking out, grounding out, popping out, and lining out. What are the players going to say?

Standing all alone on this July 1 night is pitcher Todd Van Poppel, who was one McLemore bobble, one Wetteland fastball away from recording his second win in three starts. The reporters should have crowded around his locker, celebrating his first baby steps back into the major leagues after so many stops and starts and stops again.

But instead, by the time Van Poppel--who left the game having surrendered four runs and had the lead in his back pocket--emerged from the showers, only two journalists remained, and one of them was a lackey from a local radio station collecting his two obligatory remarks. There would be no quote from Van Poppel in the morning papers, even though the former Arlington Martin High School star was pitching in his hometown for the first time as a Texas Ranger. Already, the comeback kid has become a footnote to a season in decline, despite manager Johnny Oates' assertion that "if Van Poppel pitches like this every night, he'll be successful."

Van Poppel--a first-round pick of the Oakland Athletics in June 1990 who became, in seven years, the very definition of the word disappointing--is suddenly back in the bigs once more, being asked to help keep the hometown team from sinking even further out of the playoff picture. The hopes of the Texas Rangers fall, in part, on a young man--all six feet five inches of him, all 26 years going on 46--who hasn't been in pro ball long enough to have been a has-been. At best, he's a hasn't-been; at worst, one more kid who came up too fast and sank even quicker.

"Right now, I don't really think about where I'm pitching or who I'm pitching for or anything like that," he says, his barely audible words tumbling over themselves. "I just go out and do my job. My confidence is really good right now. I never doubted myself. I knew at times I had messed up, and I just had to get myself back together. And I knew if I did that, I could be a successful pitcher."

Texas is the fifth team he has signed with in eight years, which is hardly the resume anyone expected from a kid who went 11-3 and posted a 0.97 ERA with 170 strikeouts during his senior year in high school. In 1990, Van Poppel was the National High School Baseball Player of the Year, a 4.0 student and a strikeout wonder. On August 1, 1996, the Oakland A's released Van Poppel from his contract, six years and two months after the team took him as the first-round draft pick in the free-agent draft.

With the A's, Van Poppel wasn't much of a pitcher: He won 18 games, lost 29, and gave up almost six runs in every nine innings of work. When he was cut, Sandy Alderson, Oakland general manager-turned-club president, referred to Van Poppel as "dead weight" he was only too happy to be rid of. Van Poppel said of his release, "In a way, I feel relieved."

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