By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
SURPRISE, Arizona--The morning Arizona sun beams down and lets its presence be felt. It needs no help on that score--it's powerful enough to warm everyone below and tan the backs of their necks--but it's magnified nonetheless, made ever brighter as it bounces off the ridiculously large ring adorning John Hart's right hand.
The Rangers general manager is sitting in his golf cart along the first baseline of the team's main practice field. (You know it's his cart because "Hart" is stenciled on the front, lest you forget.) Encircling his personalized mini-vehicle is a knot of reporters, all of whom are peppering Hart with serious-sounding, baseball-related questions. What do you think about the Rangers' chances and what do you think about the pitching staff and what do you think about this or that? It's all very fascinating. More interesting, though, is the fact that Hart has stayed in one place long enough for all of them to interrogate him.
It is no secret that Hart has been largely vilified and singled out for everything that's gone wrong with the Rangers over the last few seasons--from dealing Alex Rodriguez to missing out on free agent slugger Carlos Delgado this off-season to, once again, not bolstering the team's starting pitching. And then there was the unfortunate dealing (or, actually, the lack thereof) with pitcher Kenny Rogers before spring training began. The staff ace wanted more money and more years added to his contract. The team said no, and who do you think caught the bulk of Rogers' wrath on behalf of the organization? For the media and many fans (and at least one player), Hart serves as the synthesis between boogeyman and devil, the monster for torch-carrying mobs everywhere to seek out and crucify in the name of all that's holy.
That doesn't mean that some of the disapproval and loathing hasn't been warranted, but the intensity of that distaste has increased appreciably in recent years to the point that it's far more common now to find someone who doesn't like Hart than someone who can even tolerate him. That wasn't always the case. In Cleveland, where he served as general manager before coming to Texas for the 2002 season, Hart had a much more pleasant relationship with the press, his team and fans. Here, things haven't gone quite as smoothly.
"I don't think it's been as easy here as it was for him in Cleveland," says Sandy Alomar Jr., a veteran backup catcher with the Rangers who served under Hart when both were with the Indians. "I think in Cleveland we won, and things went well, but it didn't start that way for him here. If you're judging him from last year to this year, then the team is going in the right direction, but I think sometimes the media doesn't look at it like that. The reason is, it's very hard to go about a relationship with the media once it hasn't gone well, and I think that has an effect on how fans see you. For players, we're judged by our performance on the field. That's what dictates how we're seen. But for GMs, if you come in with the reputation of being one of the best general managers in baseball and then things don't go so good, then people start saying that you're not the guy they thought you were. That can be hard to take."
As a result, there are people in the local media Hart still won't talk to, radio shows he won't appear on and newspaper reporters who rarely get a quote from him. At least that's the way it went down last season, and for much of this year's off-season, too. That, again, makes today's scene at batting practice awfully strange.
Here's Hart--shit-catcher for the greater Dallas-Fort Worth area--sitting in his golf cart answering questions, and he's enjoying it, or appears to be. The sheer brilliance of his smile is exceeded only by the glare from his ring (a home-plate-shaped gold and jewel-encrusted monstrosity that marks the American League Championship he won with the Indians a decade ago). He is affable and comfortable, even funny at times.
"It's like, gimme your tired, your poor," he says, trailing off on a thought that I wasn't around to catch from the beginning. "Ah, what's the end of it?" he asks. One of the reporters answers, filling in the blanks with "your huddled masses yearning to breathe free."
"Right," he deadpans from behind sunglasses and a white visor, "I knew you guys were smarter than me."
He laughs at that, and so does his audience. The whole scene lies in stark contrast to what was expected--a contentious, teeth-pulling episode with little information given and rancor traded liberally between both parties. Perhaps this is the new John Hart. Perhaps he decided to start anew and let the ill will fade. After all, in the past year, the man battled skin cancer, traded away arguably the game's biggest star and was nearly replaced by a man who then wound up out of baseball until a few weeks ago, to say nothing of the everyday baseball dealings of which he's been a part. You can fight on only so many fronts before all is lost, a lesson passed down from the history books to sports professionals everywhere. So maybe he wants to be a baseball man and forget about scrapping. That, or he's decided to pretend that he's cool with us to alleviate some of the pressure. Whatever the reason, there's something different about the man's approach.