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.

Draining my beer, unidentified substance and all, I paid and headed for the door, calling it a craptacular night.


It's the middle of the week--I think. Who can tell? I left my day planner and my watch in my as-of-yet unrecovered bags--and the Rangers are rolling right along, working pitchers and extras into whatever situation they can, trying to find out what they don't know about some of the lesser cast members.

Shortstop Alex Rodriguez is the most sought-after Ranger at spring training, and his teammates say the focus on him helps take some of the media spotlight off of them.
Shortstop Alex Rodriguez is the most sought-after Ranger at spring training, and his teammates say the focus on him helps take some of the media spotlight off of them.
Shortstop Alex Rodriguez is the most sought-after Ranger at spring training, and his teammates say the focus on him helps take some of the media spotlight off of them.
Photos by Nick de la Torre
Shortstop Alex Rodriguez is the most sought-after Ranger at spring training, and his teammates say the focus on him helps take some of the media spotlight off of them.

Alex Rodriguez is not one of them. Rodriguez is a known, and valued, commodity. The 25-year-old shortstop is one of the game's elite when in uniform, and just about as good as it gets when he's not. He has a .308 career batting average. He's swiped 133 bases, too. Over the last three years, he's ripped more than 40 homers and 110 RBIs in each season. He's won numerous awards. Speaks Spanish. Donates tickets to the Boys & Girls Clubs. Has a movie star's looks, your neighbor's politeness. Doesn't walk on water, but, if you asked, he'd probably try.

Hicks heaped $252 million on him--digits he should probably wear on his jersey instead of No. 3 considering how much the contract has been talked about--to entice the fly into his trap. Now he's here, and everyone loves him. Make that nearly everyone. For A-Rod, the trouble lies not in smacking hits or gobbling up ground balls or winning over his teammates or favoring his manager, but in satisfying an often insatiable media and fan base, a portion of which looks at the Seattle import as evil incarnate. His contract delivered a deathblow to the game, is the tired, pious refrain. I'd like to see any of them turn down that kind of money so they could do something in the spirit of "baseball's best interests." Wouldn't happen. But that won't stop them from nagging him.

They're everywhere down here, the press, poking their nose in, following him around with cameras and tape recorders, wondering aloud how he could do "this," whatever that is, to our pastime. The detracting fans attack with commensurate zeal. During a game a few days ago, Rodriguez walked up to the plate, tugged on his shirt sleeve, and dug into the batter's box. The crowd cheered for a good long while and then, as the claps and hooting tailed off, one fan screamed loud enough for everyone to hear: "You ruined baseball." The Target answered by driving a home run over the right center-field fence, just above the "Johnny's Be Good Diner & Pub" sign. It was hard to tell which blow had greater impact.

"We're going to hear a lot of that this summer," Oates says.

Rodriguez is no fool. He knows as much, but can that make it any more palatable? Who wants to hear that kind of criticism in his own back yard, be it the spring training yard or the digs in Arlington?

"That's just part of the game," Rodriguez says without rancor, an indifferent look spread across a well-tanned visage. "There's really nothing you can do."

It's not all negative attention. The majority of the reporters here just want a story, a little taste of a man you know nearly as well as we do. Problem is, while many of the intentions are innocuous, A-Rod is besieged by interview requests. "He's gotten hundreds [of requests]," says John Blake, the team's media relations master, "at least."

Earlier today, 60 Minutes came calling. Or maybe it was 60 Minutes II. I'm not sure. I asked one of the ballpark staff guys--a nice man with a dark brown caterpillar mustache and a Texas hat; name was Keith--if he knew who the lady with the gray/blond hair, the one talking on the steps of the Rangers dugout with A-Rod, worked for. He didn't. Didn't seem to care either. Keith and most of the Port Charlotters have this perpetually glum appearance these days. An appearance that does little to hide their aggravation. They're distraught that Hicks is going to move spring training to some place called Surprise, Arizona, either next year or, latest, the year thereafter. It's just not right, Keith says. What's this town going to do once the Rangers leave for good?

"The Rangers mean a lot to Port Charlotte," he says with a whisper usually reserved for wakes. "Think about all the money they bring in to the restaurants and hotels. Where are we going to make up that kind of money?"

A plaque on the second floor of the Rangers Executive Office here confirms the team's economic impact on the county. Last year, in what was likely a brown-nosing attempt to endear themselves to the organization, the county's Board of Commissioners passed "Rangers Day." The framed parchment says so. Also says the Rangers account, yearly, for "$6 million in expenditures and visitors." A good chunk that likely will be forever lost.

But there's nothing Keith can do. Nothing any of them can do except watch the unidentified reporter asking Rodriguez questions and enjoy the little time they have left with their favorite, now traitorous, team.

Rodriguez doesn't seem to be overly enjoying these on-the-record chats. Has this apathetic face that more or less says, ho hum--but it's a courteous ho hum. That's OK by most of the players. Just having the media darling in the general vicinity takes the heat off. Last year, they would have been the ones answering stupid questions. This year? This year, A-Rod serves as other-worldly shortstop and baby sitter to scribes.

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