By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
And to think, the Atlanta Braves nearly drafted Van Poppel in 1990, but Van Poppel told Atlanta he was going to the University of Texas and then the 1992 Olympics. Instead, the Braves drafted Larry Wayne Jones--or the shortstop better known as Chipper. "Everybody knew Van Poppel was the prize," Jones once said. "Everybody else was second."
But the prize turned out to be a booby prize: Van Poppel never went to college and never played in the Olympics, and after being cut by the A's, he signed on with the Detroit Tigers, where he didn't last long: He ended the 1996 season with a 3-9 record and an astonishing 9.06 ERA. Batting practice pitchers have better records. When Detroit released him, Van Poppel landed with the Anaheim Angels, who promptly threw him into the junk heap, where the Kansas City Royals picked him up and dumped him in the minors; there, on average, he gave up a run every single inning, and in fewer than 30 innings, he surrendered 10 home runs. Tony LaRussa, who managed Van Poppel at Oakland, explained the obvious: The kid "was asked to be a big-leaguer before he was ready."
Rangers GM Doug Melvin signed Van Poppel on June 11, 1997, and sent him to the low minors. There, he'd be out of the big club's way and, well, if he developed into a major-leaguer after all this time, then the Rangers would eventually bring him back to Arlington. Last season he played in Class A Port Charlotte and AA Tulsa, getting three wins in 13 starts; he also threw in Venezuela during the winter, where only one out of every four batters got a hit against him--impressive enough, but it ain't exactly the big time.
The plan was to keep him down on the farm during the entire 1998 season, where he could be born again away from a spotlight that has incinerated too many young men just like him. Management figured that maybe with the Class AAA Oklahoma RedHawks, Van Poppel could find the arm he left behind all those years ago in high school. They figured he could spend a summer in the minor-league shade, then come back to Arlington and prove them all geniuses--or so they said in story after story written about the resuscitation of a pitcher's dead career.
At the beginning of the season, before the first pitch had been thrown out, even Nolan Ryan, who went to Oklahoma City and worked with the young pitcher for a few days, insisted Van Poppel would be back one day, better than ever. "He just needs some time," said the hurler-turned-rancher who now does a little PR work for the Texas Rangers. "He'll be back."
But, of course, Van Poppel didn't get that time. At the end of May, the Rangers' starting rotation fell apart faster than a fake Rolex. Bobby Witt is now long gone to the St. Louis Cardinals bullpen (further proof that big-league pitching is neither these days), Darren Oliver and John Burkett struggle just to get outs, and Matt "Pitch or" Perisho is back in the minors after a dazzling display of ineptitude. Only Rick Helling and Aaron Sele have offered any hope in a rotation pitching coach Dick Bosman and Johnny Oates promised contained "at least four 15-game winners" at the beginning of the season. And even then, 12-game winner Sele has given up six or more earned runs in three of his last seven starts, dating back to a June 3 no-decision in Oakland.
And so the desperate Rangers called up Van Poppel on June 20, whisking him away from Oklahoma City, where he was 5-5 after 13 starts, with a 3.72 earned run average. In that start, his first in the majors since September 1996, he didn't even last three innings, surrendering five runs (on five hits and five walks!) to the first-place Angels, a team once more than six games behind the Rangers in the American League West. He looked scared on the mound, like a child lost in a crowded department store; the ball seemed to move at 93 inches per hour.
"That first outing wasn't me," Van Poppel says. "I knew that. I had thrown the ball well all year [with the RedHawks], and that first outing, well, I had a rough one, and I just threw it out the window and moved on, because I knew I was a better pitcher than that. In years past, something like that would have been tough for me, but this year it's easy, because I've been very consistent, I've been throwing the ball well, and I really have a lot of confidence in my ability and what I can do right now. The reason I came over to Texas is because they had the patience and the confidence to give me time to get myself ready, and I knew the only way they were going to call me up is if I was ready."
He lasted 8 1/3 innings his very next start and gave up four runs to the Arizona Diamondbacks; it was his first win in the major leagues since August 30, 1996. Then came the Dodgers game, the win that wasn't.