By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Last day of January. Super Bowl week. A dreary 32 degrees. Gray skies are spitting snowflakes around Arlington's Ameriquest Field, coffin to one of Major League Baseball's longtime cadavers.
Cold day, meet hell. Hell, meet...
"Beautiful day!" shouts the revival evangelist dressed in a Texas Rangers uniform. "Little cold won't stop us from getting our work in. From getting better. From winning."
He can't be serious...
"Can we win the West? Yes. Absolutely. Without a doubt. That's the goal," says the man now adamantly slamming fist on desk and conjuring images of Dallas Mavericks coach Avery Johnson, plus some years and minus some drawl. "Seems like every year the Rangers have it going until around the All-Star break, then they collapse. But nope, no more. I'm going to take them all the way to the finish line."
"This is not the same old Rangers," continues the charismatic leader who is blowing my mind, much less distracting me from a runny nose and tingly toes. "I'm going to take the shackles off this team. I want the players to be who they are, not a bunch of guys looking over their shoulders and worrying about petty stuff. If you're a prankster, prank. If you're quiet, don't say a word. As long as they keep the firemen and the police out, the clubhouse belongs to them. I know these guys have it in them, and it's my job to get it out. When we start clicking, we'll take no prisoners."
And with that, new Rangers manager Ron Washington spews forth more enthusiasm, energy and good vibes in four minutes than predecessor Buck Showalter produced in four years. I have no idea whether Washington can manage a lick, but I'm pretty sure he just sold me a vacuum cleaner, a timeshare condo and, most important, hope.
"I know," says Rangers general manager Jon Daniels. "He's been like that since minute one of meeting one. And it's not an act, he's sincere and genuine. Everybody that meets him takes a step back and says, 'C'mon, nobody's this good.' But he is. He's the real deal."
Says pitcher Kameron Loe, "He brings a lot of positivity, more than we're used to having around here."
Give Daniels the credit. For firing Showalter, a sedate old-schooler who strangled a talented clubhouse into a tomb of sub-.500 zombies. And for not half-assing his way through a pile of re-treads, instead gambling on a 54-year-old who's never managed above Class A and spent the last 10 years in a third-base coaching box for the Oakland A's.
But give Washington the reins. Or he'll damn sure yank them from you.
"I'm blessed with the skills to teach, to make people feel good about themselves," says Washington, sitting in the same office and the same chair where for years Showalter routinely grumbled pity parties. "Nothing tricky. But I'll make these players better; make 'em reach their peak. I'm a high-energy guy and I won't waver. I expect them to play follow the leader."
Washington's glass is so half-full it's overflowed onto his desk, out the door and down the street, threatening to fill up the giant hole from which the Dallas Cowboys' new stadium will rise. But all the rah-rah and psychological booster chairs won't make a diddle of difference if Washington can't affect the Rangers' physical state.
"We've got a lot of raw talent, but let's be realistic," Daniels says. "He's not being handed a perfect roster."
The Rangers, owners of baseball's longest streak without a trip to the League Championship Series, have finished third or worse in a four-team division every year since 1999. In their abysmal 35-year history they've endured 21 losing seasons, 19 managers, five owners, five logos and zero sniffs of the World Series. Even last year, when the starting pitching's earned-run average reached a 10-year low and the lineup became baseball's first in 70 years with four players slugging 40-plus doubles, the best Texas could manage was 80-82 while absorbing a 135,000 decrease in attendance.
Solution? New manager, new marketing campaign—"You Could Use Some Baseball"—and a new commitment to continuity, evidenced by last month's four-day organizational meetings at the Arlington Hilton highlighted by inspirational speeches from owner Tom Hicks and former Cowboys personnel guru Gil Brandt.
"From top to bottom we've had too much turnover," Daniels says. "We're committed to ending that, because I think our lack of continuity has impeded our success."
Though Washington promises to overhaul the style, the Rangers return in 2007 with similar substance.
As the team reports to spring training in Surprise, Arizona, next week, Kevin Millwood remains the pitching ace, fortified by Vicente Padilla and Brandon McCarthy, acquired in a trade for longtime No. 1 prospect John Danks. Free agent and once-upon-a-time untouchable Eric Gagne is the new closer. The outfield, left punchless by Garry Mathews Jr.'s departure via free agency, features Brad Wilkerson (yuck), Kenny Lofton (yuck) and Nelson Cruz (yuck...no, wait, who?). The infield of catcher Gerald Laird, first baseman Mark Teixeira, second baseman Ian Kinsler, shortstop Michael Young and third baseman Hank Blalock is intact, though, and after just three days of interaction, Washington predicts a warmer hot corner.
"I just want him to be Hank Blalock, hitting homers, driving in runs and playing third base like a Gold Glover," Washington says. "I'm taking the burden off him coming to the park wondering if he's going to play against some tough lefty pitcher. Instead, I want him focused on figuring out a way to beat that lefty's ass."
Can the Rangers find consistent fourth and fifth starters? Can Washington will them into winning games 3-2, not just 11-2? Can 38-year-old Sammy Sosa, signed to a low-risk contract, make Texas' roster and add everyday pop without a corked bat or juiced body?
"It's all going to work out," says Washington, concluding his wintry mix of sermon and salesmanship. "I've started getting rid of the tension that was everywhere, with the players and even their wives. We're cleansing ourselves. We're going to be a team that scratches and claws when we're behind and that goes for the knockout blow when we're ahead. We're going to win."
It's two months until the Rangers' season opener and seven years since their last playoff game. But frostbite in Hades be damned, I'm ready to run through a wall. Or at least out into the snow.
Whaddyaknow, I am in a baseball mood.