By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
"This might be the best-attended game in exhibition history," Elkin tells the scribes, or at least those of us who are listening. The intra-squad game is three innings old, but that's three innings too long if you ask most of the writers, many of whom have a glazed look in their eyes.
Elkin is right about the turnout. There are maybe 200 people here, and they're loud. What Elkin mentioned in passing is that the fans were bused in from nearby West Point Elementary. It was the kind of tactic that Nixon and his former press secretary, Ron Ziegler, used to employ--pay a bunch of union workers to turn out, hand them signs and then double or triple the attendance figure before telling the media something on the order of "this is the best-attended rally... ev-er."
Right. In fairness, Elkin was kidding. To his credit, he disseminates information with humor, and he's good at his job. Not so with some others in the Rangers' employ.
There are, as usual, issues with this club. They're not all as glaring or oft-discussed as the team's poor pitching, but they could be equally ruinous. Aside from Elkin, few in Rangers management seem interested in good public relations, and fewer still are adept at it. Elkin gets paid for it, but that hardly excuses the rest of them. The problem is endemic, and it starts at the top with a disdain for fans and the media, sometimes covert, sometimes not.
Hicks is the worst offender. Following the A-Rod trade, someone asked the owner if ticket holders--chiefly those who bought in after the "he's not going anywhere" comment by Hicks--would be given a refund. "There won't be any refunds," Hicks said, sounding like Paul Dooley in Breaking Away. "Of course not." It would have been less offensive for him to roll around in a pile of hundreds while screaming, "Fuck you, suckers!"
The real stink of it is, at the same news conference, Hicks promised the fans that he'd "put money back into the payroll." Hmm, not yet. Not really. (Various team figureheads keep promising me it takes time. Whatever.) They threw a five-year, $15.2 million deal at Blalock, as well they should, but that's been about it. They had a chance to lock down Young, a solid second baseman last year and an exemplary person, but they didn't. Instead, they signed him to a one-year deal worth $450,000--barely more than the $300,000 league minimum. Now that was partly the result of baseball's bureaucracy and semi-complicated rules that you have to have players signed by certain dates, but they easily could have tendered Young a better deal if they so wished.
If you're winning, or even sniffing improvement, that can be a slippery way to conduct your affairs. But when you're dreadful, it's best not to insult your fan base with shameful bait-and-switch strategy or outright lies. (Even if you're cutting payroll to make the team more attractive for a sale, as some have suggested.) They ought to be careful with their words, or at least conscious of the way they handle themselves, because it reflects on the team, and the team doesn't need its image to grow any darker.
I doubt anyone has mentioned this to the players, who periodically enjoy rolling their eyes whenever they're asked to talk about life after A-Rod. Surely they want to move forward, but if they're this put-out in March, how frustrated do you think they'll get in August in some outpost like New York or Boston? Because the topic isn't going away--not for a while.
The clubhouse PR snafus aren't solely the players' domain. Hell, they aren't even the most egregious offenders. (Even though guys like Blalock would rather snort lines of boric acid than talk to the press. Someone asked him about that, if he enjoyed talking to us. "Talking to you guys? Yeah, not really." At least he's honest.)
Last year in spring training, Showalter had a very kiss-kiss relationship with the media. This year, he's been a bit more snippy, which is no big deal for most of us because it passes. But no one, not even Fort Worth Star-Telegram renegade Randy Galloway, has gotten it as bad as DMN beat writer Evan Grant. Half the time he asks Showalter questions, the manager gets unnecessarily argumentative or blows Grant off. That implies Grant is doing something right, and he is, but that doesn't make his job any easier. (Grant can sometimes pick at the manager, too, or argue semantics or minutiae, but in terms of their relationship, he gets far more than he gives.)
The worst case: The other day, on the practice field behind the clubhouse, Grant asked Showalter about Rafael Palmeiro. The former Ranger is now playing for the Orioles, and he had many things to say about his old club and manager, none of which were nice. Showalter refused to comment and walked away in a huff. Later, according to someone close to the organization, the manager pulled Grant aside and brought him into a coaches' meeting, ostensibly to smooth things over. Grant asked the same question. Showalter answered it. But this time, it was GM John Hart who jumped all over Grant, attacking him in front of the captive audience and "motherfucker"-ing him. Whatever the backstory there (Grant wouldn't talk about it, and the Rangers, through Elkin, declined comment), and regardless of the DMN's shortcomings--and there are a lot--it's just bad business to make an enemy of the area's most powerful media outlet. (Unless you work for the Dallas Observer, where it's considered a job well done.) The daily paper is not only how most fans get their Rangers news, but it also sets the agenda for what the radio talk shows discuss on most days. More simply: Handling the situation that way was asking for trouble.