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.

No way, I told the manager. This b.s. has got to stop. I pleaded. I begged. I did everything but throw myself down on the floor to do the Curly Shuffle. He blinked.

Eventually he relented, sending me off in a midsize Mitsubishi that was supposed to go to some now-unlucky woman. I think he was worried I'd soil the waiting area if I didn't get my way. He was right.

Kenny Rogers doesn't have to be perfect, but he must help anchor a staff that, according to most observers, is the Rangers' weakness.
Kenny Rogers doesn't have to be perfect, but he must help anchor a staff that, according to most observers, is the Rangers' weakness.
The ability of new second baseman Randy Velarde to turn double plays should help a pitching staff that was too often let down by poor defense last year.
The ability of new second baseman Randy Velarde to turn double plays should help a pitching staff that was too often let down by poor defense last year.

If you ask folks around here, most of the scouts and reporters will tell you that the everyday lineup is set. Aside from the occasional Scott Sheldon, Frank Catalanotto insertions and barring injury, it's likely there won't be too many personnel changes during the season.

That's if you ask the scouts and reporters. Or Oates or Melvin. Or just about any of the players. Any of the players, except for Chad Curtis.

"He's in his own world," one scout says during lunch in the media room, bits of turkey sandwich and mayo smearing the corners of his mouth, before tapping his noggin and adding, "The guy has problems."

It's no secret that Curtis isn't exactly the clubhouse coolguy. Ostracized or simply ignored by scores of Rangers, he doesn't tend to sit around playing cards and talking about the hot piece of cooze who was looking for autographs outside. Last year, Curtis, who can be vocal about his strict religious beliefs, had a well-publicized falling-out with then-shortstop Royce Clayton.

But like him or not, Curtis carries a supreme belief in his abilities, an attitude that hovers somewhere between deserved confidence and misplaced arrogance. Maybe the chip on his brawny shoulders stems from being a runt of a guy--the diminutive outfielder is generously listed at 5-foot-10 in the media guide, creative measurement that would put my short ass at, what, 7-1? Perhaps it was instilled in him during his childhood, or after he slipped to the 45th round of the '89 draft. Or it could come from nurturing a career that's spanned six teams in nine years. Whatever, he hardly wants for self-assurance or drive.

Example: Despite the Rangers agreeing to terms with Greer on a three-year contract worth up to $29 million and essentially gift-wrapping for him the leadoff spot in pretty pink paper, bow included, Curtis trained liked a loon during the winter to supplant Greer at the top of the order.

"The way I evaluate the situation is, I want things to happen for the good of the team, and I don't want to put my individual goals first," Curtis says standing by his locker. He has a short-cropped, armed-forces haircut and a soft, almost inaudible voice. "I think Rusty is a good player, too, and I think he'll do fine out there. But as a professional, my off-season was geared toward winning a starting job and leading off. That's what I'm here to do."

This isn't mere conjecture. Not some banal cliché trotted out to tell this strangely dressed, rash-scratching reporter that he's not going out quietly. He believes this. (I used to believe Super Friends on Saturday mornings was dramatic genius.)

Delusions or no, Curtis did a lot of work in the off-season when most reserves in similar situations would have cracked another beer and flipped over to the Spice channel. Did a lot of specific sprint training he hopes will give him a quicker step in the outfield and greater foot speed on the basepaths.

"It was high-speed, high-intensity work," Curtis explains. "I think I really benefited from it."

Against the visiting Twins in a snore-bore of a game, he shows it, ranging from left center field to the left-field line to track down a dying pop fly. Not bad, I think, and wonder if he'll prove everyone wrong this time the way he's been doing for most of his career. (He must have proved something to still be kicking around the majors). The thought sticks with me enough to ask the slovenly, aforementioned scout about the odds of Curtis usurping the top slot.

"His realistic chances of being a starting leadoff hitter for this club?" he snorts rhetorically. "Not good. Probably about the same as you or me nailing a celebrity."

You can joke, I say with a glance that could melt paint from the wall. I don't tell him that my computer wallpaper is a picture of Alyssa Milano. And, sticking with that train of thought, I'm rooting for Curtis.

It took 45 thirsty minutes to reach my hotel in Port Charlotte, and I arrived desperately in need of a cold brew. Or five. The desk clerk told me of some sports bar that's "always hopping." I should have known. The "always hopping" sports bar was a white-trash pool hall with three TVs the size of freezer bags, a horde of men who must have been Hee-Haw rejects, and a few girls who looked as if they'd recently been smacked in the face with a sack of nickels. One of them was my bartender.

"Whaddaya have, gorgeous?" the thirtysomething in tight acid-washed jeans asked, flirting by flashing a hockey player's toothless smile.

I ordered a Sam Adams. She delivered it and shuffled off. It was a miracle that her pants didn't tear in the process. That's about when I noticed something drowning at the bottom of my drink. I figured it was probably one of her Lee Press-On Nails. Either that or she liked me and it was a key to her trailer park.

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