Doogie Howser, G.M.

A young dog teaches the Rangers to forget old tricks

Truth: Old Texas Rangers General Manager John Hart once appeared in TV ads wearing sunglasses.

Myth: On the cover of this year's media guide, new Rangers GM Jon Daniels will wear a bib.

Truth: Daniels was born five years afterthe Rangers arrived in Arlington.

An honest day's work for Jon Daniels: getting rid of last year's entire starting pitcher rotation
An honest day's work for Jon Daniels: getting rid of last year's entire starting pitcher rotation

Myth: His name is temporarily Jon until he reaches puberty and the "h" fully develops.

Truth: Though he's manager Buck Showalter's boss, Daniels is young enough to be his son.

Myth: Daniels petitioned Major League Baseball to let the Rangers play all day games because he's not allowed to stay up past 9 p.m.

Truth: Almost everyone turns 28-year-old Daniels--the youngest GM in baseball history--into a punch line.

Myth: It really, really bugs him.

"I'd be naïve not to expect it. It is unusual," Daniels said last week from his office at Ameriquest Field. "I've got pretty thick skin, and thankfully the novelty is wearing off a little bit. It's time to get on with the challenge of making the main story how many wins we have instead of how young I am."

Your Rangers opened spring training in Surprise, Arizona, this week confident that in the off-season, more than any other team, they got younger at key positions. Pitcher, where Kevin Millwood is in and Kenny Asshole is out. Second base, where Ian Kinsler takes over for Alfonso Soriano. And general manager, where Daniels assumes control as the least experienced executive in hardball history.

At 28 1/2, Daniels has risen from entry level to power-broker in three years, without screwing the boss (gross) or possessing photos of Buck naked (grosser). Five years ago he was an intern for the Colorado Rockies. When he was promoted to replace Hart in October, he'd never orchestrated a draft or engineered a trade outside of a fantasy league. He's so young he makes Boston Red Sox greenhorn GM Theo Epstein look like Don Zimmer.

Depending on his team's play, Daniels' age will either be asset or albatross. Like Kobe's 81, DiMaggio's 56 and the Dolphins' 17-0, the Rangers' defining number this summer will be 28.

Which all goes against the staunch, staid traditions of baseball.

Which is precisely why it'll work.

"His youth is an asset to us," Rangers owner Tom Hicks said at Daniels' introductory press conference. "He's 28, the same age I made my first leveraged buyout. It shows you young guys can do good things in this world. As you get to know him, you'll see why I made the decision."

Keith Grant started as a Mavericks ball boy in the '80s and is now GM Donnie Nelson's right-hand man. And we all assume that the Jones boys--Stephen and Jerry Jr. --will ascend to the Cowboys throne when Jerry finally relinquishes the spotlight. But never in the metroplex or the world of sports has a kid risen so far so fast.

Born in Queens, Daniels grew up a Mets fan. Blessed with acumen more than athleticism, he never played baseball beyond Little League but earned a degree in Applied Economics and Management from ivy-covered Cornell in '99.

After his Rockies internship, Daniels joined the Rangers in '02, working on contracts, arbitration and the kind of meticulous number-crunching that only geeks and geniuses could appreciate. Suddenly, faster than you can say Michael Imperioli, the New York wise guy who resembles The Sopranos' "Christopher" is balancing the perception that he is little more than Showalter's puppet with the reality that the Rangers are hisbaseball team.

"I've had a couple of 'pinch me' moments," admitted Daniels, known inside the organization as "JD." "I was having lunch in Las Colinas with my wife [Robyn] and mother when a gentleman and his son came to our table. They just shook my hand, offered their support. But as a guy who's been a fan all my life, it really sunk in what a huge responsibility I have to the Rangers and our fans. It was a reality check."

While his pathetic predecessor showed his face about as often as Punxsutawney Phil, Daniels has improved the Rangers' image overnight via candid, classy, consistent media interactions. Hart was AWOL; Daniels is accessible and accountable.

"I want to get out in the community and make the Rangers easy to touch and feel," Daniels said. "I think it's part of my job. In fairness, we haven't had a losing streak yet. But I want to hold myself to high standards of being accessible off the field and for accepting blame or credit for what happens on the field."

Daniels' first report card: Manners, A. Works Well With Others, A+. Multimillion-Dollar Transactions, B+.

Though a fresh-faced decision-maker is intriguing, optimism in Arlington stems more from what's departed than what's arrived. (Unless seven-time Cy Young winner Roger Clemens shows up, that is.) The three faces on Texas' Mount Hatemore--Rogers, Hart and Chan Ho Park--are history. In fact, the entire miserable starting pitcher rotation from '05 spring training--Rogers, Park, Pedro Astacio, Ryan Drese and Chris Young--is gone.

After losing out on Josh Beckett and Matt Morris, Daniels landed his pitching ace in '05 AL ERA leader Millwood. Trades brought pitchers Adam Eaton and Vincente Padilla. And Daniels diversified a lineup that relied too much on the home run in another deal that acquired table-setter Brad Wilkerson to go with returning All-Star sluggers Mark Teixeira and Hank Blalock and '05 AL batting champ Michael Young.

So much for baseball's old guard freezing out the new punk. Obviously immaturity is easier to deal with than Hart problems.

"Maybe if we had to discuss pop culture there would be stumbling blocks," Daniels said of his negotiations with older executives such as legendary 68-year-old Philadelphia Phillies GM Pat Gillick. "Behind the scenes there might be thought put into my age and experience. But up front I've been treated with a ton of respect."

The Rangers, 79-83 last season and with losing records five of the last six years, might not finish as champions. But under Daniels' guidance, at least on opening day they'll start with the ERA leader on their mound and the batting champ in their lineup.

If nothing else, Daniels has already muted the fans' well-worn rallying cry: "Do something!"

"In my mind we're better today in all areas than we were at the end of last season," Daniels said. "I take pride in that. I'm not saying we have the perfect roster, but I expect us to be better."

Truth: Despite his thin résumé and thick hair, Jon Daniels has the talent and the testicles to direct the Rangers to a World Series.

Myth: The Little League World Series.

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