Rangers Redux

Desperate for an assist from Dallas, the Rangers implement yet another rebuilding plan

Two words you rarely associate with a billionaire who owns three professional sports teams and a $35 million home:

Plastic. Cutlery.

Tom Hicks may be unfathomably rich, but today the poor guy's got a lot on his paper plate.

Why is this man smiling? Must be the $35 million home, because his Rangers are the worst team in baseball.
Why is this man smiling? Must be the $35 million home, because his Rangers are the worst team in baseball.

Sure, his 29,000-square-foot spread is the most expansive and expensive in Dallas. His sports empire includes the Texas Rangers in Arlington, the Liverpool soccer club in England and the Dallas Stars incognito. He's one of the most powerful men on the planet, so lavish that his fake character on KTCK-1310 AM The Ticket—you know, the one who has pygmy servants bathe his loins with 100-year-old Cognac—can't be that far from the truth.

But turns out leverage, intimidation and enough spare change in the ashtray to buy Sri Lanka aren't enough to make his baseball team popular or prosperous. What Hicks also needs is you. You, and some paper napkins. Because while he slums it with reporters and Rangers staffers lunching on brisket, white bread and Ozarka bottled water from Uptown mainstay Sammy's, Hicks is beginning some very heavy lifting.

Rebuilding the Rangers. Again.

Building a bridge to Dallas.

Huh?

"We're reaching out and making a more concentrated commitment to Dallas," Hicks says before sitting down in his team's new McKinney Avenue office and digging a flimsy white fork into his zucchini salad. "We've got billboards around town for the first time. And now we've got this place."

To revamp his team's slumping image in Dallas, Hicks cleverly commissioned a fancy-pants Texas Rangers shop. To reboot his team's abysmal play, Hicks inexplicably extended the contract of general manager Jon Daniels and charged him with drafting pitching, dumping veterans and navigating a long-term course that will, mark your calendars, begin birthing big-league benefits come 2009.

For that to happen, Hicks has to be right about Daniels, Daniels has to be right about manager Ron Washington and the organizational brain trust has to be right about everything from 38-year-old tradable commodity Sammy Sosa to 18-year-old recent No. 1 draft pick Blake Beavan. Along with a deteriorating fan base whose dwindling patience can't stomach another renovation, color me skeptical.

"Our fans are smart," Hicks counters. "They're not afraid to take one step back to improve down the road. It's not about selling tickets, because our attendance is pretty good considering our poor play. My concern is winning. To win we've got to step back and start rebuilding."

Echoes Daniels, whose next brilliant trade will be his first, "We recognize we're a couple years away."

Bye-bye, 2008. Of course, 2007 has long been buried.

Spring training's optimism was a cruel Arizona desert mirage. Vicente Padilla has sucked and Michael Young hasn't hit and Nelson Cruz was a bust and Hank Blalock had to have a rib removed. Before summer officially arrived, the Rangers were relegated to relying on Victor Diaz and Adam Melhuse hitting back-to-back homers to earn rare victories. Worse, Washington's eternal enthusiasm somehow begat laughably inept fundamentals and rifts with players Gerald Laird and Mark Teixeira.

"We haven't had the success we anticipated, and I shoulder the blame for that," Daniels says. "It's been disappointing to say the least."

How a GM with a gaping trade deficit gets a one-year, $650,000 contract extension in the midst of a 26-44 start is baffling to those of us with long memories and short fuses. Basically, Hicks' philosophy of the moment goes like this:

It's going to get worse before it gets better.

"The trade deadline is approaching, and I wanted to get in front of that," Hicks explains of extending Daniels. "We've got five or six weeks left to really turn it around. If not, some of our veterans will be traded with the future in mind. I wanted the questions about Jon's security to be off the table."

Barring a 20-game winning streak or Hades fielding a hockey team, veterans Eric Gagne, Kenny Lofton, Teixeira and even new 600-homer club member Sosa will be sacrificed for minor-league prospects and draft picks before July 31. This comes as daunting news to fans, players and the team's marketing staff, dutifully planning a July 21 tribute to Sosa complete with Dominican Republic politicos and pop singers.

"By then," Hicks queries before discarding his plasticware, "won't it be old news?"

By then, Hicks hopes, we'll all be zombified by the new team shop, a shiny, mesmerizing distraction from the on-field pratfalls and front-office hiccups.

Says Vice President of Dallas Sales Dan Fine, "Think of it as our living billboard."

Suite 140 in Uptown Plaza is more chic than chalk.

Across from the Hotel Crescent Court, a good 20 miles from Rangers Ballpark in Arlington, the store is more Jetsons than general admission. Mustard stains, peanut shells and lukewarm draft beer give way to stained concrete floors, glass doors, brushed steel walls and 25-foot ceilings.

Think the W Hotel lobby, with subtle cowhide accents. Add some overpriced margaritas with over-pretentious patrons and, voilà, a trendy Dallas restaurant itchin' for happy hour.

"Not a bad idea," Hicks says. "We might just do that."

Says team president Jeff Cogen, "I thought for a second we'd stolen the W's darn logo. But it was only the sign for the women's bathroom."

Realizing 15 percent of their total attendance comes from Dallas' sweet spot—from Uptown to the Galleria—the Rangers customized their catering. With "You Could Use Some Baseball" billboards. With an airplane flying over downtown last week advertising games against the Chicago Cubs. And, especially, with the new branch office.

The month-old satellite is a 4,400-square-foot reminder that baseball can be two things Dallas is convinced it can't—cool and convenient. You can't buy a short-cut commute to Arlington, but you can get upscale clothing, original 1972 pennants, golf bags, poker chips, game tickets and a ball signed by fantastically flaky former center fielder Mickey Rivers.

Or you can just gawk at the murals of Nolan Ryan's fight and Hicks getting doused with championship champagne, examine Jim Sundberg's '78 Gold Glove, play the MLB 2K7 videogame and generally wallow in high-end ambience nowhere close to befitting the worst team in baseball.

"The idea was to have it be urban, airy and lofty," says Fine, overseeing the centerpiece of the team's five-year, $2 million investment in Dallas. "We want to establish our brand awareness, and we've got exclusive items with a little higher price point. Best of all, we're a full-service ticket office."

It's Dallas' most inspirational bridge this side of the twinkle in Calatrava's eye.

But you know what? Until the Rangers start winning, it might as well be built with papier-mâché.

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