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."

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.

Van Poppel is hardly the starting-rotation savior this team so desperately needs; he's not going to carry the Rangers to the post-season on his broad shoulders. If anything, he will be the difference between second place and third place, the difference between contending in August and disappearing in September. He does not need to win every game he starts. He need only prove he can keep from losing them.

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