Boy Blunder

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

"Those three guys needed to work out for things to really go right for us," Daniels says. "But it hasn't been enough. The first two months our only consistent area was the bullpen. The guys we counted on to hit didn't hit, we didn't field and our starting pitching didn't give us a chance in a lot of games. I don't know which problem came first—the chicken or the egg—but obviously a lot of things have gone wrong that we didn't anticipate."

Given lucrative contracts last winter, Padilla has been either horrible or hurt, Young has been ho-hum and Washington and his sunny disposition haven't meant shit to a team besieged by pitching woes, infield injuries and thin skin.

The rookie skipper had to apologize to the team for calling out catcher Gerald Laird in the dugout during a game and later engaged in a private spat with first baseman Mark Teixeira for ignoring a take sign. Though both incidents undermined Washington's bravado as the ultimate players' coach, Daniels views neither as more than potholes on the road to managerial maturity.

Even though his team had the worst record in baseball, Jon Daniels scored a contract extension from Rangers owner Tom Hicks in June.
Mark Graham
Even though his team had the worst record in baseball, Jon Daniels scored a contract extension from Rangers owner Tom Hicks in June.
Daniels came from an upper-middle-class background, but the mean streets of New York City toughened him up.
Daniels came from an upper-middle-class background, but the mean streets of New York City toughened him up.

"Early on I don't think he got a fair shake from the media," Daniels said of his manager. "Some of the stuff that was written and said was extremely premature and short-sighted. I actually think he handled those situations well. They aren't red flags at all. Honestly, he handled them perfectly."

In a wacko season in which the Rangers' humbling highlights have included celebrating the 600th career homer of a guy (Sosa) who belted only 2 percent of his dingers in Texas, inducting a modest .305 lifetime hitter (Rusty Greer) into their Hall of Fame and touting the fact that Washington has yet to be ejected from a game, now arrives this. Teixeira gets hurt, Hank Blalock gets hurt and Ian Kinsler gets hurt. Three-fourths of the infield—long considered Texas' strength—is on the disabled list and...the Rangers start playing their best baseball of the season?

Without rhyme or reason, no-name backups have tried to salvage the season. With unlikely contributions from spring training afterthoughts such as Ramon Vazquez, Desi Relaford, Travis Metcalf, Adam Melhuse and Marlon Byrd, Texas recently played 10 consecutive games against the three AL division leaders and promptly went 6-4. Over the last month they've won 15 of 23 games, six of seven series and, if only for a moment during a marathon, looked like a bona fide Major League Baseball outfit.

Even for a Cornell grad like Daniels, there's not an easy explanation.

"If you would've told me we'd be playing with those guys and more than staying afloat," he says, "that would have been a pretty big leap of faith for me to believe it."

Though Daniels jokes that "I'm not sure they're even aware of it," the Rangers are 12-7 since his contract extension. Kameron Loe went to the minors and came back closer to Derek Lowe. Young started hitting. Jamey Wright actually pitched beyond the fifth inning. And, sooner than later, Teixeira, Blalock and Kinsler will return.

Only Zonk, those two nuns and a clubhouse naively clinging to a colossal comeback believe the Rangers will play meaningful games after the break. But hey, Scooter Libby avoided jail time, that bullshit "Um-buh-rell-uh" song gets radio air time and the first-pitch temperature for Rangers-Angels on July 5 was a remarkable 77, so anything's possible.

"It'll take a miracle," Laird says. "But it's a weird game. Let's stay hot for two months and maybe we can make it interesting in September."

The Rangers must sweep the three post-break games this weekend in Anaheim. Anything less, and this season immediately dissolves into next season.

Says Wilkerson, "Stranger things have happened."

It's not easy to hoodwink a guy who was taking subways to a Manhattan prep school at age 13, surviving two muggings and a near-fatal car crash before he was 21 and catapulting himself into a Major League Baseball career at a time when the rest of us were still paying off college loans.

"Are you at all interested in this?" Daniels asks, pointing his chopsticks in the general direction of a spiny lump of soft-shell crab. "It's really good...but I'll gladly eat it."

"How about you?" I retort, trying unsuccessfully to sucker him into a two-for-one trade just for the hell of it. "You scared of these jalapeño rolls?"

"Nope," he says, engulfing the crab after a swift dip through the wasabi and soy sauce.

No negotiation. No fanfare. No nonsense. No regret. Of course, Jon Daniels was always an old soul.

"Very focused and determined," says his wife, Robyn. "From the moment I met him."

The oldest son of Mark and Mindy, he indeed seems alien. Or at least a product of the kind of special, upgraded gene pool formed only by a school headmaster father and a mom who teaches at the Lexington School for the Deaf in New York. While at 11 most of us were certain only about the existence of cooties and the existential significance of Nintendo, Jon boy was out becoming a man.

He was gifted and talented all right, but for Daniels it was acumen over athleticism. He played a little basketball and idolized Gary Carter, Lenny Dykstra and Dwight Gooden while holding down catcher and third base in the Bayside neighborhood of Queens. His detour to enlightenment arrived promptly in the sixth grade. Of the 2,500 academically elite New York students chosen to take the entrance exam to prestigious Hunter College High School in '89, Daniels was one of only 230 to pass.

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