The spring of our discontent

Raphael Palmeiro is hurt. Johnny Oates is grumpy. Pudge Rodriguez is acting like a spoiled brat. Lee Stevens just wants to play baseball. Welcome to Texas Rangers spring training.

PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla.--So much for the Rafael Palmeiro interview. Spring training isn't a week old, and the Texas Rangers' newest old first baseman is limping around the Charlotte County Stadium facilities like a man whose right leg is a foot shorter than his left.

It's 4 p.m. on March 6, and Palmeiro was supposed to have already left--headed back to Dallas on the first available plane so the doctors could get an up-close-and-personal look at his right knee and pronounce the inevitable: surgery. But he lingers in the clubhouse, trying to reach someone on the phone. There's pain in his voice--the man is hurting. He hangs up the phone and hobbles around the clubhouse, looking for his ride to the airport. He mutters something under his breath, then disappears from spring training forever.

And that is that.
From this point on, the Rangers' highest-profile signing in the off-season, the ex-Ranger returned home after five years in exile in Baltimore, is nowhere to be found.

How you guys gonna do without Raffy? During the next few days, that's all anyone will ask general manager Doug Melvin. That's all anyone will ask manager Johnny Oates. That's all anyone will ask the players. No one, shockingly, admits that the season will not actually begin until Palmeiro returns.

For the first time in his major-league career, which began with the Chicago Cubs in 1986, Rafael Palmeiro goes on the disabled list.

What's that sound in the distance? That high-pitched cackling, that ear-shattering anh-anh-anh from over yonder? Must be former Rangers first baseman Will Clark, laughing his weird, uninjured ass off. (Lee Stevens, designated hitter and currently the No. 1 first baseman, later explains that Clark wasn't weird at all. Just, well, intense.)

Only that morning, word had come from the front office that Palmeiro was just fine, doing great, recuperating perfectly. According to Palmeiro, he injured his knee while running stadium steps, part of his training regime--which is odd in itself, since baseball is a sport that fat men can play. The difference was, this time Palmeiro was wearing weights, which came crashing down on him. He slipped and tore the cartilage in his knee, making the very popular and expensive free agent about as useless as a professional athlete's quote.

So a boring spring training becomes exciting, sort of.
Up until then, Melvin and Oates' biggest concern was batting order: Would left fielder Rusty Greer or Palmeiro bat third? This is apparently a Very Important Question, since there have been many stories about it in the daily newspapers.

A second, though slightly Less Important Question, looms on the Southwest Florida horizon: Who will be the long-relief pitcher out of the bullpen? But before you start losing sleep over that--and you no doubt already have--the answer is Jeff Zimmerman. Or Al Levine. Or Mike Morgan.

Now that that's settled.
For a while, it appeared as though the biggest story of spring training was going to involve catcher Ivan Rodriguez--The Boy Called Pudge. Rodriguez showed up for camp a week late, claiming myriad reasons for his tardiness--well, he actually had his agent do the claiming for him, as Rodriguez couldn't seem to find it within himself to make a call to Doug Melvin. Pudge defended his tardiness by claiming he wasn't no stinkin' team leader, so why did it matter if he wasn't there when pitchers and catchers reported in late February? Apparently, the man keeps all the millions the Rangers pay him stashed in the empty space in his head.

When he finally did show up to camp, Rodriguez told the few reporters who actually talk to him--Pudge can be as personable as a concentration-camp guard--that Oates and Melvin knew all along he was going to be late and that when he said he wasn't a leader, well, he meant off the field. He says this as a way of defending himself. To refer to Rodriguez's relationship with Oates and Melvin as a bit strained is being kind. Melvin, who says Pudge should "lead by example," refers to their relationship as "workable." A rousing endorsement.

But the news about Palmeiro suddenly makes Pudge and his fits of bratty behavior shrink to insignificance.

And to think, the biggest drama during spring training usually involves where to drink at night and how to watch the games while getting the best tan. It is hardly surprising that Fort Worth Star-Telegram scribe Randy Galloway usually has the solution to both dilemmas. That is why he gets the big bucks, has the darkest tan of any media member (and player, for that matter), and stays in a condo near the good bars.

Spring training is the most inexplicable waste of time in the sporting world--except maybe for soccer, boxing, or women's basketball. In hockey, a far more taxing endeavor, half as much time is spent preparing athletes for a far more grueling season. Football training camp is a necessary evil, if only so players can spend time learning new plays the coach so brilliantly thought up over the summer--or so they can relearn the old ones they forgot during a summer spent drinking and whoring. And basketball proved this lockout-shortened season that it needs at least a few weeks of pre-season prep, if only to help spoiled-brat fat guys drop 30 pounds.

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