Boy Blunder

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

Keith Grant debuted as a Mavericks teenage ball boy in the '80s and eventually rose to GM Donnie Nelson's right-hand man. And there's little doubt that the Jones boys—Stephen and Jerry Jr.—will ascend to the Cowboys' throne when Jerry finally retires. But never in the Dallas area or the world of sports has a kid climbed so far, so fast up the executive ladder.

"There was a learning curve," Daniels says. "But I'm totally comfortable now."

While Hart showed his face about as regularly as Punxsutawney Phil, Daniels—with Preller serving as his international scouting director and daily sounding board—has affixed accountability to the organization. Though born five years after the Rangers arrived in Arlington and young enough to be the 55-year-old Washington's son, he's exhibited the talent to conduct positive transactions, the testicles to pull the trigger on risky deals and the temperament to admit when he's wrong. Guided in part by 35-year-old assistant GM Thad Levine, senior consultant Hart and Preller, whom he helped land a job in the organization in '04 after a stint with the Los Angeles Dodgers, he's able to talk current events with players his age in the morning and in the afternoon negotiate with 68-year-old Phillies GM Pat Gillick.

Mark Graham
Mark Graham

The kid whose taste matriculated from eggplant parmesan to sashimi tuna. The guy who resembles The Sopranos' "Christopher." The punch line whose name is only temporarily Jon, until he reaches puberty and the "h" fully develops. The boss they call "JD."

They're all growed up.

As in married to Robyn in '03, driving a Yukon, living near the Four Seasons Resort in the posh part of Irving, turning 30 on August 24 and, most telling, becoming a father to a boy named Lincoln back in January.

"I'm still the guy who learned to love sushi when one of my friends worked as a waiter and brought home leftovers," Daniels says. "Still pretty intense; I wear my feelings because I care so much. But with Lincoln it makes it easier to keep the focus on the big picture. He takes the edge off the tough losses."

Says Robyn: "He keeps things in perspective now. Sometimes he even relaxes."

A good umpire always cleans his plate, but this is ridiculous. Suddenly, Jon Daniels is channeling Joey Chestnut, the world's hot dog-eating champ. My lunch date isn't exactly scarfing 66 hot dogs in 12 minutes, but he is sending me to the showers and calling for a closer—himself.

"I'm going to pick at that if he's done," Daniels says to our waitress, eyeing the remaining two California rolls.

"Fine," I say. "Call yourself out of the bullpen."

It's not the messes Daniels has made in his first two seasons that will define his Rangers legacy, it's the way he cleans them up in the next two weeks.

When he traded Young and Adrian Gonzalez to the San Diego Padres for Adam Eaton and Akinori Otsuka in January 2006—with just four months on the job—the training wheels came off, the honeymoon abruptly ended and the skepticism about Daniels' age escalated into criticism about his actions.

Neither the swapping of Alfonso Soriano for Wilkerson, Francisco Cordero and Kevin Mench for Nelson Cruz and Carlos Lee, nor John Danks for Brandon McCarthy appears headed for Daniels' win column. Cordero leads baseball in saves for the Milwaukee Brewers, Cruz is back in the minors, Danks has five wins for the Chicago White Sox and Wilkerson strikes out more than Lindsay Lohan at a Relient K concert.

In Arlington, home of the worst franchise in professional sports, they're accustomed to losing. There have been just 14 winning seasons since 1972, a cumulative record 193 under .500 and consistent success only in the dot race in the bottom of the 6th inning.

Losing they can take. It's the premature jettisoning of a local pitching talent like Young that really irks fans. And Daniels. "It's really the only deal you can say is one-sided," admits Daniels, who watched Eaton pitch only 65 innings last season because of a pre-existing finger injury. "We underestimated Chris, and Adam never got healthy."

But before we trash Daniels as the quintessential bean counter who compares unfavorably to trendy, nerdy wunderkind GMs like Brian Cashman (Yankees), Theo Epstein (Red Sox) and Mark Shapiro (Indians). Before we lament firing Doug Melvin (Brewers) or not hiring Dave Dombrowski (Tigers). Before we judge a newbie after just 22 months, consider this:

The Los Angeles Clippers have owned an NBA lottery draft pick in 18 of the past 21 years and parlayed them into just four playoff berths. Elgin Baylor is a horrible GM. Jon Daniels isn't. Yet.

"I'm going conservative and saying he's been average at best," says Greg Williams, co-host of KTCK 1310 AM The Ticket's baseball heavy afternoon show Hardline. "A lot of his trades have been disasters, but at the time we were all ecstatic about them. He doesn't have the benefit of hindsight like we do. Besides, his biggest stories are yet to be written."

With this season deader than Rafael Palmeiro's marketability, a philosophy at least temporarily geared toward rebuilding for 2009 and the unrestricted trade deadline approaching, Daniels is charged with overseeing a subtle fire sale. On the block are veterans Lofton, Sosa, Gagne, Otsuka and even Teixeira, whose contract expires next season. In return, Hicks and fans demand pitching, youth and, most of all, hope.

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