By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
PORT CHARLOTTE, Florida--It's early morning in Charlotte County. A brilliant Florida sun peaks from atop the stadium's right-field grandstand, causing rows of empty, metal bleachers to glisten. The temperature creeps toward 70 degrees. The Executive Office, which lies adjacent to the Texas bullpen, and the team's indoor batting cages, which are just beyond that, begin to fill with Rangers. The faint crack of wooden bats against batting-practice balls can be heard in the distance.
Staff members hustle here and there, brooming leftover hotdog wrappers and wax-paper beer cups off the concrete floor beneath the stands. A gentle wind blows in from left field, making the flag near the 410-foot mark in center and the palm trees that spot the landscape dance. A few grounds crew members groom the infield dirt in anticipation of a doubleheader while cars on Veteran's Highway, a major thoroughfare that serves as the gateway to the Rangers spring-training home, whiz by.
Mostly, though, it's quiet and calm here, which probably has less to do with time of day than it does with geography. Port Charlotte is a sleepy place, good for naps and baseball and not much else. Explains why this particular part of South Florida is so appealing to locals, most of whom look as though they're headed to Denture Expo 2001.
At the moment, Johnny Oates is taking full advantage of the morning hush. He's dutifully wearing out a subpath along the field's white-gravel warning track--a walk that's equal parts exercise and contemplation. Dressed in a blue Rangers pullover and short red Rangers shorts, white socks and whiter tennis shoes, he walks back and forth, starting behind home plate, working along the field's outer edge, and finishing in dead center. He does this with decided purpose, retracing the oblong half-circle he's created a good many times, and always with a military-style about-face at each turning point.
Just as he settles into the routine, it's disrupted. An early comer, standing behind the visitor's dugout, greets the manager as he passes by. (A manager who, incidentally, could be a fitness instructor when his baseball days are over, judging by the sweat he's worked up. Of course, someone will have to get him to ditch the short shorts he favors because who wants to hire an old trainer in hot pants?) Oates, in turn, warmly greets the early comer, throwing a courteous wave and flashing that familiar, mustachioed smirk.
"Hey," he offers before chuckling at something his new friend says and then continuing his workout.
The pleasantry is a break in character for Oates, who generally comes off as a hardass--an intelligent, thoughtful man, but a hardass nonetheless.
Maybe that's unfair. Perhaps that evaluation of Oates, 55, is too colored by the tint of last season, in which a 71-91 record (the club's worst mark in a full campaign since INXS ruled the charts) left most of the Rangers in bad moods. It certainly ignores spring training's prevailing theme, one of cheeriness and high expectations for these Rangers and this manager, a consensus that has left everyone more affable than you might expect.
It was clear that things had to change somehow, clear what owner Tom Hicks desired and demanded when he opened his checkbook to hire all these baseball mercenaries. Four fresh veteran faces will mark the starting lineup--Randy Velarde, Alex Rodriguez, Andres Galarraga, and Ken Caminiti. It's a new approach to old goals--another division championship and an appearance, already long overdue, in the World Series--an approach that has everyone around these parts thinking that marked improvement from 2000 is inevitable.
No arguments here. Well, somewhat of an argument. Just because they've made important additions doesn't mean there aren't serious concerns--the pitching staff, the leadoff spot, the hounding A-Rod endures--that could end up morphing into insurmountable dilemmas somewhere down the road.
Therein lies the operative question: Will the Texas Rangers blow through the American League West on their way to loftier points, or will the season more closely mirror my experience in Florida--one tiring, daunting, throw-your-hands-up beatdown after another?
I should have known the trip was doomed from jump, but in case you haven't heard, I'm not all that bright, and I have this uncanny knack for missing what's staring me right in the face. Not a good trait on the résumé for areporter who works at a publication called theObserver, but what are you gonna do?
It was dark through the tiny windows, but frequent flashes of bold lightning, like the heavens were taking pictures, and a bumpy ride told us all we really wanted to know about the storm brewing outside. As the plane jumped--fluttering, first, a few hundred feet up, then right, then dropping like a cement block in water--already-annoying children squealed louder. There were two of them, bouncing around the plane unattended, mashing Play-Doh on their trays and the floor, screaming for their disinterested parents to "watch," repeatedly poking the unfortunate couple in front of them, and generally running amok.
"Not only am I going to die on this death trap," I told the guy sitting next to me, "but I'm gonna have to listen to those little terrors the whole way to Hell."