By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
SURPRISE, ARIZONA--If baseball has a paradise, this is it. Surprise, where the Rangers now share a palatial 132-acre facility with the Kansas City Royals, is the polar opposite of Port Charlotte, Florida, the retirement swamp where the team had trained since 1987. Here there is more energy, more life. Periodically, military jets fly in tight formation overhead, screaming toward nearby Luke Air Force Base. The main artery into the $45 million complex, Bell Road, is lined with palm trees and cactus, a scenic desert vista. The centerpiece of the compound is a 10,000-plus-seat stadium, beautiful in its construction--all old-school red brick and gray paneled awnings and spongy green grass.
Today is the club's first spring training exhibition. As on most mornings, the Rangers begin practice with some light stretching, in full view of the august White Tank mountains, the 4,000-foot peaks that outline the horizon just to the west of Surprise, where the Hohokam and Western Yavapai Indians once lived. Just behind the main field lies the expansive 37,000-square-foot clubhouse and the covered batting cages. Behind them are six full practice fields (one of which mirrors the dimensions of the Ballpark in Arlington), a half field for infield and bunting drills and an 82-yard football field used for conditioning. In total, it is an awesome sight, and so it's easy to understand why most of the Rangers--most, not all--smile broadly even though it's barely 9 a.m.
"Man, this is the best time of year," says newly acquired outfielder Doug Glanville. He's no stranger to losing, either, having spent the past five seasons with the similarly inept Philadelphia Phillies. "Nothing that happens here counts on the record. Everyone is a contender."
As a reminder of that, the coaching staff, at the behest of new manager Buck Showalter, is donning red ballcaps; the same style the Rangers wore the last time they reached the postseason--waaay back in '99 when they were (once again) swept by the Yankees in the first round. It's one of the little touches orchestrated by Showalter in an attempt to change the club's mind-set. The old way of doing things, he says, is over.
He is a manager so in tune with the everyday machinations of his team that he has a hand in everything from those hats to teaching the nuances of the hit-and-run to the daily schedule, which is rarely deviated from and always meticulously mapped out. In some ways, Showalter's camp is a bit anal retentive--and there's a lot of that going around; I watched some poor OCD case rearrange Sprite cans in the media fridge for a good 10 minutes. For the most part, though, the discipline is welcome, giving the team a sense of direction, of purpose, something the Rangers couldn't claim the past few seasons. More than any player addition in the off-season, tapping Showalter to be the skipper will most likely prove the Rangers' biggest, best decision.
Nearly to a man, the players agree. Surprisingly, for a group that finished 31 games out of first place last season (roughly as well as a bunch of blind kids with corrective shoes might have done), hope manifests itself on the faces of this crew. "Someone said it springs eternal," second baseman Mike Young says.
Someone did. Someone was foolish. Because for all the opulence of their new digs, for all of Showalter's good intentions, for all the ambition and regurgitated rhetoric, these are still huge questions about these players. They still reside in the American League West, one of the toughest divisions in baseball. Their center fielders still need to prove they can play, their leadoff men need to show they can get on base and their pitchers need to have success despite that no one in baseball sees this as a solid starting crew. For now, at least, they are still the Rangers, and they still look screwed.
That's when the guy who could help this team exceed all expectations introduces himself.
"Hi," he says, sidling up to me on a sun-soaked practice field and extending his hand, "I'm Buck Showalter."
Aside from making me leery--a natural reaction when approached by sports personalities; usually when they seek you out, they're gripping something sharp--this is a fundamental change in approach from the previous mangers. Johnny Oates loathed anything peripheral and treated reporters like a bad rash. I didn't deal with Jerry Narron much, but when I did, he was far from compelling. At least Oates gave you rancor; Narron barely gave you a heartbeat. With those two managers, if you weren't a beat writer, you may as well have been an apparition--they didn't see you; you didn't exist. Ostensibly, there are things more important in a manager than personality traits, but this speaks to something higher. It says that Showalter is involved, that his attention to detail is supreme, that nothing goes unnoticed. Not even some idiot from an alternative weekly.