Prodigal Son

Former superstar Ruben Sierra, exiled in Oklahoma City, is tearing up the minors. As if it matters.

For their part, Melvin and the Rangers say they've "discussed" Sierra, even "entertained" the idea of a September call-up. But, Melvin is quick to add, at-bats are scarce for those already on the Texas roster, including rookie outfielder Pedro Valdez, whom the organization is high on. And if you can't get the young guys into the lineup, how are you going to get Old Man River in there?

"I can still run good, hit good, throw good," Sierra insists, imploring you to believe him as if you have a say in his future. "The way I feel, I can play four, five years."

As much as you've ever rooted for an athlete in your adult life, you root for Sierra. You hope he's right. You cross your fingers that he'll get the phone call for which he desperately longs, that he'll eventually find his way back to the majors, be it with the Rangers or another club. You want it to work because he's accommodating, not just with you, but with the fans and his teammates; where he once managed to alienate himself from both parties, he now embraces them. You want it to work because he's different now, because El Caballo--as he was known back in the day--is still a horse, but he's no longer an ass. You want it to work because he's irrepressible, because he spent last season toiling in Atlantic City with some independent team called the Surf. The Surf, for godsakes.

It was all Sierra could do, he says, to keep playing the game he loves. It was a last-ditch effort to stay in baseball and catch the eye of a major-league scout.

It worked. Sort of. He signed a minor league contract with the Rangers in May and shipped off to quaint but insanely boring Oklahoma City. He's been there since. He might be there until the end, when his skills up and quit and head for that final shower without him.

That's what your brain says, anyway. While your heart contends a comeback is possible, your noggin tells you to stop being a candy-ass and snap to it, that he's got no shot. The odds are long, to be sure.

There is a distinct possibility that he could deteriorate here--a wannabe ballplayer imprisoned in a wannabe town. (Charming as it may be, OKC borrows a lot of its personality from other cities--from a downtown canal you might describe as Venice gone hick, to the ballpark, which is inviting but transparent in its Camden Yards-like appearance.) This, frightening as it may sound to the erstwhile big leaguer, may be all there is.

"I like Oklahoma City," says Sierra, who, 14 years earlier, passed through here on a two-month stint before getting paroled by the Rangers. "I stay in a nice apartment and meet nice people. But I want to get back to [Texas]. I started my career there, I want to end it there. I had lots of fans there. I think I'll have lots of fans still there when I get there."

Sierra pauses, kicks at an invisible nuisance on the carpeted floor, and looks at you gravely. It's the first time all weekend he hasn't brandished a mighty grin--or been so confident.

"If," he says solemnly, "I get there."

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