By Stephen Young
By Stephen Young
By Stephen Young
By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
Wanna see shortstop and All-Star Game MVP Michael Young giggle? Turn on SNL's "more cowbell" skit before last Sunday's home finale against the Cleveland Indians and watch him double over in laughter.
Wanna hear Young grouse? After the 11-6 loss, ask him about the season in general and owner Tom Hicks' recent criticisms of him in specific.
"I can't put my finger on what went wrong," says Young, capping a day in which he displays polarized emotions from the same locker chair. "We need to improve. In all areas of the game."
Downtrodden at another loss that drops his team to a mired-in-mediocrity 78-78, Young bristles when the topic turns to Hicks' radio comments about the Rangers lacking mental toughness and the shortstop failing to be a leader.
"It's frustrating, yeah, that I ever got dragged through it in the first place," says Young, who received only a voice-mail apology from Hicks but two weeks ago met with general manager Jon Daniels in Seattle to clear the polluted air. "I try to pay no mind to it because it's totally inaccurate. It shouldn't have ever been an issue at all."
You get the feeling Young will forgive quicker than he'll forget.
Kinda like Rangers fans. Though, after a seventh consecutive season finishing third or worse in a four-team division, the losses long ago coagulated into one giant defeat. In their 35 years they have endured 21 losing seasons, 895 players, 27 announcers, 18 managers, eight general managers, five owners, five logos and 0 sniffs of the World Series. The owner of baseball's longest streak without a trip to the League Championship Series, the Rangers have played 5,543 total games with exactly one playoff win.
Sadly, the only consistent winners in Arlington are the colored dots that race around the scoreboard in the 6th inning. The Rangers will play October baseball this season. But merely to close the schedule against the Seattle Mariners this Sunday--October 1.
"We really thought we had the makings of a team where the whole could be more than the sum of the parts," says Daniels in the post-game clubhouse. "We're not happy being a .500 team. We're not happy being in third place. We're not happy about not achieving our goals. The results this year, mine included, are totally unacceptable."
The Rangers have at times looked terrible. But, man, they sure don't look tight.
Across the room from Young's contagious cackles, teammates hoot and holler as pitchers C.J. Wilson and Josh Rupe stage an intra-team World Cup using a miniature soccer ball and leather couches doubling as goals. Eventually stifling the giggling and goalkeeping, players bound out the doors to personally greet fans entering the park. Doesn't seem possible these are the same players that prompted a public debate on their manager's job, incited the wrath of their owner and did nothing to debunk the myth that manager Buck Showalter has them wound tighter than the U.S. Ryder Cup team.
While his players frolic amidst the futility, Showalter enters an adjacent room wearing gray sweatpants, a white T-shirt and a wry smile. Between spits into a Styrofoam cup, he ponders this season's failure.
"What went wrong?" Showalter says, repeating the question. "What went right?"
The home finale proves a proper burial. Staff ace Kevin Millwood gets rocked for six runs. Carlos Lee's lack of urgency turns a lazy fly ball into an inside-the-park homer, prompting the crowd of 36,617 to boo his ensuing at-bat. Zonk is here, relentlessly banging his drum. The Rangers are here, banging their heads against the wall.
"There are no easy answers," Showalter says. "And I don't like excuses. We thought if things went right we had a team that could get to 90 wins. That didn't happen."
The starting pitching's earned-run average (5.03) is its lowest in 10 years, the Rangers became the first team in 70 years with four players hitting 40-plus doubles, and Gary Matthews Jr. emerged as perhaps the team's best all-time center fielder. But mostly, despite a $13 million payroll increase from '05, there are deficits. In trades. In the standings. In fans.
Daniels traded away Chris Young, who blossomed into an 11-game winner for the playoff-bound Padres, and Alfonso Soriano, who became a legitimate MVP candidate for the Nationals with an unprecedented season of 40 homers, 40 doubles and 40 steals. For Soriano, the Rangers got a player (Brad Wilkerson) who struck out 116 times in 95 games. Texas was tied for the division lead at the All-Star break, only to shrink into Michelle Wie against the big boys, going 16-23 versus the division-leading A's, Yankees and Tigers.
Worst of all, the Rangers weren't exciting. They hit 61 fewer homers at Ameriquest Field, never won more than six straight and suffered their first losing record (39-42) at home since '97.
The result: Attendance fell 135,000. Buzz, interest and relevance all but vanished.
Either stubborn or naïve, Hicks nonetheless gave Daniels an "A," and the GM indicated he's leaning toward bringing back the 50-year-old manager with the four-year record of 317-324. If the Rangers weren't already dead, fielding a team next season that can't manufacture runs or excitement would be suicidal.
"We're not going to give fans the same product, not the status quo," Daniels says. "We're going to attack the off-season."
Before they trick us into caring about next season's opener April 2 at Anaheim, the Rangers need to re-sign free agents Matthews and pitchers Vicente Padilla and Adam Eaton. Minor-league pitching sensation John Danks needs to be in the rotation. And, breaking the worst franchise in professional sports' perpetual rebooting, the Rangers need to provide fans with optimism based on something other than the intangible theory of "Dammit, we're due!"
Most important, Young needs to be respected, valued and marketed like a superstar.
Only the fourth player to record 200 hits in four consecutive seasons, Young deserves to be the centerpiece of Texas' next sell job. The Rangers have already opened contract extension negotiations with his agent, laying the groundwork for Young to sign a deal that would make him a Ranger for life.
"I believe we've got great talent," Young says, packing for another road trip that will conclude another disappointing season. "We just need to add some pieces. I'm fine with the direction we're going. We just need to play better baseball."
In the end, Young wants what all Rangers fans crave:
More cowbell. Less bullshit.