The A-Team

Love it when a plan comes together? Not so fast. Sure, they've got A-Rod and I-Rod, but what about Rusty Greer hitting leadoff, Tim Crabtree closing, and Johnny Oates acting human? John Gonzalez goes to Texas Rangers spring training to look for answers.

"Mechanically--number one, he was injured--but mechanically, he just couldn't get the ball to go where he wanted it to go last year," Oates says with his identifying singsong twang. "First, though, we had to get him healthy. But mechanically, he had a bow in his back that was leading his weight toward third. He's worked on that. I've said since the [winter] that he could be the biggest key to our ballclub...getting production from Darren could be the biggest key."

The Rangers think they have a few problems? Huh. Try this: I've been free-balling it in a five-times-too-big bathing suit straight outta Wal-Mart for the last two days. And I think I'm getting a rash from the "Easywear T" that I picked up to complete my radiant ensemble. I could be wrong, but I'm pretty sure the rigors of recording a save pale in comparison to worrying over a might-be fungus. Either way, sportswriters aren't usually snappy dressers to begin with, but right now, I could trump any of these slobs and their outlandish fashion faux pas.

Manager Johnny Oates likes his veteran team almost as much as he likes his cool shades.
Manager Johnny Oates likes his veteran team almost as much as he likes his cool shades.
Chad Curtis, top, believes he has a chance to hit leadoff for the Rangers; there's no doubt that Pudge Rodriguez, below, will continue his free-swinging ways no matter where he hits.
Chad Curtis, top, believes he has a chance to hit leadoff for the Rangers; there's no doubt that Pudge Rodriguez, below, will continue his free-swinging ways no matter where he hits.

American Airlines, you see, lost my luggage.

Soon after we arrived at Fort Myers Airport, the planeload of us waited for our luggage at Belt 4 in the baggage-claim area. Then the luggage ran out. There were 30 of us left.

"What do you mean there aren't any more bags?" we all bitched in exasperated unison. The attendant just stood there, gawking blankly at the impatient mob that had encircled her.

We were summarily invited to file a complaint at American's ticket counter. When the lot of us arrived at the desk, no one was there to bear the brunt of our reproach. Surprise, surprise. After half an hour or so of discussing with my fellow malcontents how to best dismember the next airline rep to walk by, our friend from the baggage-claim area finally showed. Alone. She wasn't in too much of a hurry. Took one or two of us at a time, then disappeared through a dark blue door near the conveyor belt where she did God knows what for 10-minute stretches. This maddening cycle went on for quite a while until, finally, it was my turn. Grinning and joking, thinking, moronically, that my charm would make her want to find my bags faster, I described what I'd lost, where I'd be staying, and for how long. She blinked. I asked what to do next. She blinked. I inquired as to how long it should take to rectify the situation. She blinked. Then, just when I was beginning to think she was mute, she assured me it would be taken care of by tomorrow or the next day. Or, at the latest, the day after that. Probably.

The pitching staff's "could-be" success--or failure, depending on how it all goes down--hardly begins and ends with Oliver's left hand or with the starters. It rides on improved relief pitching, too. Witness: The Rangers mustered only three complete games in 2000, leaving the bullpen overused and ragged. A bullpen that is now anchored by Tim Crabtree, who may be the most scrutinized Ranger this spring. With John Wetteland gone, holed up in New Mexico rehabbing an ailing back, Crabtree becomes the closer, even though he's never been labeled one before. It's a significant challenge for a 31-year-old with five saves to his credit.

For the record, Oates and general manager Doug Melvin have publicly expressed their commitment to Crabtree. Oates almost goes out of his way to tell packs of reporters that he has "a great deal of confidence in Tim." Probably does. Today. In spring training. Where games don't count. But what about down the road? In June? If he struggles? At that point, he'll likely have as much job security as my dotcom counterparts, most of whom are now panhandling on street corners. Or worse, working for alternative weeklies.

"He's got good stuff," says one American League scout. "But I'm not sure if he'll be able to handle the stress of being the closer. It's a tough role. A lot of guys can't do it; they don't have the wherewithal. It's a concern."

I'm relieved to hear this. Not because I wish the ballclub ill--unlike the Cowboys, who could all come down with horribly painful venereal diseases without any sympathy from this writer. Nay, because of that whole misery and company thing.

Alamo Rent A Car wasn't much better.

The bonehead who was "helping me" was either new or had an extra chromosome. With every question he asked me--license, credit card, destination--he became increasingly confused, enough so that he had to retreat into the back for reinforcements. The manager materialized, taking over for Bonehead, who by now was sufficiently aggravated by the "no-good computers." Fine, I thought, someone who knows how to tame the machines. Not really. The manager told me there was no reservation for a "Gonzalez." Told me they'd treat me like a walkup. Told me the only car they had was a station wagon.

I started having flashbacks to my high school days. I couldn't afford a car back then, so I borrowed my mom's ride when my buddies couldn't, or wouldn't, come get me--a white '91 Ford Taurus wagon with rust streaks and no tape deck. My friends and I dubbed it the Loser Cruiser. As you can imagine, it went over big with the hunnies. Eunuchs got better results.

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