Boy Blunder

Is baseball's youngest general manager man enough to rebuild the Rangers?

The Texas Rangers stink and, fittingly, general manager Jon Daniels feels like raw fish.

"I put our name on the list," Daniels says as I arrive for lunch at Las Colinas' Blue Fish restaurant. "Should just be a few minutes."

Cool. Wait. I mean...huh?

Mark Graham
Mark Graham

You're telling me the Rangers' No. 1 decision-maker can't snap his fingers, circumvent a waiting list and finagle the joint's primo table? A 20-something power broker we're counting on to take down the American League can't bully his way into a Japanese sushi bar?

"Probably could," Daniels says sheepishly. "Maybe I'd try it if we were in first place. But not these days."

And so we wait. Only five minutes, but we wait. While one of us chats calmly on his cell phone, the other learns that although Daniels may not have experience under his belt or skins on his wall, he does possess two qualities vital in leading the Rangers out of eternal mediocrity: Perspective. Patience.

"He's an intelligent, knowledgeable, brilliant baseball mind," says Rangers owner Tom Hicks, who last month rewarded Daniels a contract extension despite baseball's worst record. "My opinion of JD hasn't wavered."

Perhaps it should've. Because Daniels is certainly culpable for this Rangers season meandering toward a whimpering end like the 35 before—without a sniff of the World Series.

It is Daniels who got the job in 2005 as a 28-year-old Doogie Wowser, armed with an Ivy League education, an uncanny knack for crunching numbers and a promise to maneuver the Rangers like never before. It is Daniels who gave fat contracts to Nos. 1 and 2 pitchers Kevin Millwood and Vicente Padilla, only to watch them go a combined 9-15 with an ERA around 6.50. It is Daniels who traded away Highland Park product Chris Young, only to cringe at him becoming an All-Star and leading baseball's starters with a 2.00 ERA. It is Daniels who acquired Brad Wilkerson, only to shrug when a recent three-homer game that raised his batting average to .230 was neutralized two nights later by a four-strikeout pratfall. And it is Daniels who hired manager Ron Washington, only to see the bubbly optimist feud with players, fume about shoddy fundamentals and field one of the worst teams in baseball.

It is Daniels who built this team. This team that a year ago was tied for the AL West division lead at the All-Star break, but this year needed a hot, wet June to sneak within an embarrassing 15 games of the first-place Los Angeles Angels.

"I expected us to compete for a division title, but after the hole we dug the odds are clearly stacked against us," Daniels concedes while perusing the menu of undercooked, overpriced Asian delicacies. "I'll take my share of the blame. I deserve it." They would criticize. But they don't recognize.

Despite wearing a black golf shirt emblazoned with the Rangers logo, Daniels goes wholly unnoticed by a lunch-time crowd more concerned with Sake than sucky. Not once during our 90-minute summit is Daniels identified, much less approached.

Comforted by glasses of iced tea and water, we pick through a lead-off bowl of edamame, nonchalantly eliminating the salted, steamed green soy beans in much the same obscure environment in which the Rangers are dawdling through another forgettable season.

"It happens," Daniels says of getting recognized. "But only about one-third of the time."

The anonymity is probably best, because the failures of Daniels' baseball team are all too familiar.

One of these days the Rangers will break the Déjà Boo. One of these days, they'll finish better than third in their four-team division. One of these days (and for the first time in their 36-year history), they'll advance to the League Championship Series. One of these days they'll stop shrinking like Michelle Wie against the big boys and halt the relentless losses that long ago coagulated into one giant defeat.

Today, however, is not the day.

The Rangers had a representative at this week's All-Star Game in San Francisco—shortstop Michael Young—only because league rules mandate at least one player per team. They last saw .500 on April 13, bottomed out at 23-42, had an unprecedented starting pitching ERA of 6.92 through 65 games and didn't register a winning road trip until July.

"I think we were all fooled in spring training," Hicks says. "I'm not sure I understand what's happened yet. It's like we caught the flu and we can't get rid of it. We've had some tough injuries, and now we've got guys playing who are essentially minor leaguers. I'm very disappointed this year.

Scariest part? Most of Daniels' off-season signings have worked.

Entering the break, the GM's top three free-agent risks were rewarding him with surprising results. Sammy Sosa, after a year out of baseball, had 63 RBIs, ninth-most in the AL. Center fielder Kenny Lofton, who turned 40 in May, was hitting .301 with 20 stolen bases, and surgically re-booted closer Eric Gagne boasted 12 saves and a microscopic 1.32 ERA. But instead of leading Texas into a pennant race, these off-season acquisitions have been devalued into tradable commodities for younger prospects as Daniels begins the team's latest, greatest rebuilding project with an expected flurry of deals before the July 31 deadline.

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