By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Which isn't to say that he's without certain troubles and/or irritants. The Rangers still lack pitching. They failed to sign Delgado (which made a lot of people moan), and Rogers, for those who haven't heard, ain't happy. At all. Plus, the organization just raised ticket prices, which pissed off some of the fans--not that Hart had much to do with it and not that anyone absolved him of responsibility, either.
"I just don't know what the hell he's doing," one fan would say of Hart later in the week during the team's first spring training game against the Kansas City Royals. "They didn't spend any money in the off-season, and then they go and raise ticket prices."
Of course, that had more to do with owner Tom Hicks than Hart, but who cares about details and facts when the scapegoat has already been identified?
The hits keep coming from all positions, it would seem, but if the Rangers want to build on last year's surprising 89-win season, then they'll need Hart to do what he's doing now--somehow ignore all the distractions and the naysayers and the general negativity directed his way and focus on what's best for the organization.
"I never play golf during the spring," Hart says when asked if he'll participate in this afternoon's club-run golf outing, a way for the team's big-time supporters (that is, Hicks' rich friends) to meet the team's big-time players, coaches and front-office types. Hart might have played, despite what he says, but he's recovering from recent elbow surgery that repaired a damaged tendon. No golf, the doctor told him, for at least another three or four weeks. "Really, I don't play in the spring. Never. I'm here for baseball. There's too much work to do. I mean, I might sneak away on an off morning; maybe you pick an odd, off day and do that. But we do two-a-day workouts here, and I'm out here every day. To me, this is where my passion is. And the one thing I can still compete at, golf, I do really enjoy that, too, but this is what we're here for. This is a great time of year--the best time of year. You're looking at the hopes of what you've done during the winter. There's a sense of excitement and optimism about starting the season. This is what we do. The greatest days are when you get to play, and then the next step is coaching or managing, and I've had all of those. But the next step is probably in the job I'm in right now. I love it, but, then, that can be a Catch-22 sometimes, too."
That's what everyone expected to happen last season--for him to retire and make way for then-Assistant General Manager Grady Fuson to move up. Before the year had even begun, people wondered aloud about when Fuson would officially take over, and it really was a question of "when" not "if" in nearly everyone's mind. By the All-Star break, Hart was beginning to believe that was the best course of action, to step aside and prove the forecasts correct.
"You know, this is a long story, and I don't think that, necessarily, going into it is a great thing," says Hart, alluding to what several sources contend was an acrimonious relationship with Fuson. "But I can say in all candor that, at the All-Star break, I made it clear to Tom that I was prepared to go."
Sometime thereafter, though, things changed. Hart and Hicks talked and talked and talked some more. Manager Buck Showalter, a friend and advocate of Hart, chimed in, too, about wanting Hart to stay, which made Hart think that maybe he didn't want to leave after all. Suddenly, golf and semi-retirement didn't look so attractive. Before anyone could see it coming, Hicks flip-flopped and decided to extend Hart's contract and keep him installed as GM.
"Tom came to me about two weeks after the All-Star break and told me he wanted me to stay, that he appreciated my position but that he wanted me to stay," Hart recalls. "I thought about it, thought it through myself, gave myself a good heart-to-heart, and it worked for me. It wasn't a huge deal made out of it for me; we just did it. And I think as we went through the winter, I talked to Tom about giving Buck an extension and some things starting to develop. I think that Buck's comfort level was increased if I was going to be here, and the staff that we have that came over either with me or with Buck, it was like a family here, and that was important to me. Made the decision to extend for two years and we left it at that. I think it gave a lot of people here, more than me, a comfort level that was important."