By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
It was Texas Rangers relief pitcher Frankie Francisco, after all, who got all dolled up and hurled this snowball downhill.
With his team in the thick of a surprising September pennant race last season, Francisco donned his rookie initiation garb--leotards, satin slippers, the works--and boarded the team flight bound for a showdown series in Oakland. Twenty-four hours later the shit hit the fan when, er, the seat hit the fan.
"That night swung a lot of things in a lot of bad directions for us," said Rangers outfielder David Dellucci.
As disastrously dramatic as Mavericks interim general manager Frank Zaccanelli announcing the trade of Jason Kidd on December 26, 1996, or Cowboys coach Tom Landry screaming "No! Danny, no!" at quarterback Danny White's audible on a failed fourth down against the Redskins on December 11, 1983, Rangers fans can reluctantly trace their team's recent plunge into embarrassment to September 13, 2004, the night Francisco punctuated a wild bullpen scuffle by throwing a chair into the stands and bloodying the nose of a woman named Jennifer Bueno.
With their psyche shaken, their hottest player (Alfonso Soriano) lost to a pulled hamstring and their bullpen depleted by suspensions, the underdog, over-achieving Rangers lost that game and eventually fell three games short of the metroplex's all-time feel-good sports story.
And now this.
For 12 long months, the Rangers have been rocked by aftershocks from the Oakland earthquake. Last September: Playoff tickets. This September: Punch lines.
"A lot of things have gone wrong in the last year," manager Buck Showalter said after last Saturday's 11-inning, 7-2 loss to the Minnesota Twins at Ameriquest Field. "Some of it we've self-created."
Though he was the reliever who started it, Francisco, of course, isn't the lone Ranger. When your team collapses, it's gotta be a lot of folks' fault, right?
When you have six players suspended a total of 53 games and fined over $100,000. When teammates Ryan Drese and Rod Barajas fight in the dugout. When your All-Star pitcher goes mad cow on two cameramen. When the two deepest, darkest days in your franchise's 34-year history come only nine months apart. When you have exactly one regular hitting over .285. When you're fresh off a franchise-worst 1-12 road trip in which your pitching staff surrendered beer-league softball scores. When four of your best young players start publicly criticizing management. When, after a season of 89 wins, you're going to have to fight like hell to make it to 79.
When that happens, there's got to be somebody to blame. Right?
Blame Buck Showalter.
Shootin' the basebull with a Saturday morning media gaggle about everything from his suggestion that writers carry stopwatches to the thrill of driving on fumes--"It's totally exhilarating!" injects pitching coach Orel Hershiser--Buck doesn't look or sound like a manager who has lost control of his clubhouse. Because he hasn't.
The Rangers, long out of the playoff chase, are merely dealing with reality. It's an existence that gets doomier and gloomier after the loss to the Twins drops them eight games under .500.
"We had our hearts broken last year, and this year we've seen our off-season dreams of a World Series erode and go away," says Buck, seemingly decades removed from his 2004 AL Manager of the Year award. "It's normal human feelings to be disappointed. In this game your IQ changes with wins and losses, and right now we're not real smart. But the guys are competing. We haven't given up."
Blame the heat.
Schedule an August baseball game in Texas at 12:20 p.m., and you get what you deserve: extra innings. Start five games in a span of seven days under the mid-afternoon sun and you do a genuine disservice to your players and fans.
It is life-force-sucking brutal on this Saturday. The Starbucks sign in left field reads 100 degrees. And no, smartass, it's not a dry heat. The announced crowd of 25,351 looks more like 157, until you spot the poor bastards fighting for slivers of shade. Goofball roving reporter Jim Knox just interviewed two pools of sweat who dropped in all the way from Nacogdoches.
Says Dellucci, "It was too hot to concentrate."
Blame Kenny Rogers.
The remorse, the repentance and the rehabilitation are lost on me as Kenny Rogers walks briskly through the clubhouse. The starting pitcher today, Mr. Asshole 2005, is indirectly reminding media members that their pre-game access window is shutting, thereby forcing them to leave the scene of what is potentially another one of his crimes.
Yells Rogers in the general direction of media relations director Gregg Elkin, "C'mon Elk, when's the cutoff? Gotta be close!"
The Rangers were 38-37 when Rogers attacked two cameramen on June 29. Today Rogers pitches six shutout innings, but each of the following four relievers gives up runs, spoiling a rare decent outing and hopefully beginning the trickle of incredibly crappy karma headed his way. (Exactly how screwed up is baseball? Rogers gets 13 games for his attack on two humans. A Florida Marlins bat boy just got six for vomiting one gallon of milk.)
Blame John Hart.
Pedro Astacio, Richard Hidalgo, et al.
It's tough to replace the losses of injured bullpen stalwarts Francisco and Carlos Almanzar. Especially when--assist to Grady Fuson--the farm system is as bare and bumpy as Courtney Love's midriff. Sure, pitchers Edison Volquez, Thomas Diamond and John Danks are nice prospects. But none has a winning record or an ERA under 4.40--at AA.