Hello, no-hitters! Who can forget Nolan's 6th no-no on June 11, 1990, in Oakland? Then, just for grins, he went out a year later and blanked the Toronto Blue Jays on May 1, 1991, becoming the oldest pitcher (44!) to throw a no-hitter. Seventh heaven, baby! When the Ryan Express was rolling, nobody could touch him.

————

Hang around Surprise for an hour and someone from the organization, or perhaps a 74-year-old fan in black socks, sandals and a fanny pack, will beat you over the head with the fact that Baseball America recently ranked Texas' farm system the fourth-best in baseball. (The Rangers were 28th a year ago, making theirs the biggest one-year jump in ranking history.)

"We're No. 4!" seems a rather meek rallying cry, but it is significant that the Rangers—considering the age of their star attractions last spring (Sammy Sosa at 38) and this spring (Ryan at 61)—actually boast talent on this side of the hill. Acquired in Daniels' deals, shortstop Elvis Andrus, third baseman Chris Davis, pitcher Eric Hurley, catcher Taylor Teagarden and pitcher Neftali Feliz—all younger than 24—are among the publication's Top 100 prospects.

"What Jon has done in acquiring these kids," Ryan says, "is the backbone of our rebuilding."

This season the Rangers will fixate as much on minor league stats as major league standings, but their future is one of baseball's brightest.

"If rebuilding is a five-step process, we're about at step three," assistant GM Thad Levine said in January at the team's annual mid-winter carnival. "We've turned the corner."

Which brings us, grudgingly, to 2008.

Rangers' frustration in a nutshell: Payroll is down; ticket prices, for a third consecutive season, are up.

"Sometimes it's painful to admit where you are, but the Rangers have done that," longtime TV analyst and former GM Tom Grieve said at the winter carnival. "They're developing. They're taking the slow steps. It's a tough sell to fans, but it's the right direction."

Hicks anticipates a "spike up" on the field, and Daniels chirps that "there can always be a Colorado" unexpectedly surging to the World Series. But most experts are blasé about these Rangers. Neither Fox nor ESPN have scheduled a single Texas game for national broadcast in a season that commences March 31 in Seattle and ends September 28 in Anaheim, California.

"Will this be a much bigger challenge than I anticipated?" Ryan asks. "Probably."

Michael Young will again collect 200-plus hits, and Kinsler will blossom, and diving David Murphy will channel Rusty Greer. But the problem, like it's been since 1972, is pitching. While the New York Mets signed Johan Santana, the Rangers settled for Jason Jennings, fresh off a 2-7 season plagued by arm problems. The Rangers are again stubbornly counting on a staff led by Kevin Millwood and Vicente Padilla (who last year combined to go 16-23 with an ERA over 5.00) and a bullpen of has-beens (Eddie Guardado) and not-yets (Kazuo Fukumori).

The opening-day lineup should be Kinsler (second base), Young (shortstop), Hamilton (center), Blalock (third base), Milton Bradley (right), Ben Broussard (first base), Marlon Byrd (left), Frank Catalanotto (DH) and Gerald Laird (catcher). Unlike years past, this will not be a Rangers team of the slugging genre. Blalock, in fact, is the only player with a 30-homer season.

The offense, and really any hope of a winning season, hinge on two five-tool players with red-flag histories: drug abuse (Hamilton) and emotional freak-outs (Bradley).

But when you're 0-for-forever, you accept talent, warts and all. Almost.

Despite being desperate for a bat and some buzz, Hicks says he would not sign steroidal slugger Barry Bonds, promising to veto the idea even if it came from Ryan. "Character guys," Hicks frames it. Really?

With a linebacker's build (6-foot-4, 235 pounds) and Popeye's forearms, Hamilton is the most physically impressive Ranger since Ruben Sierra in his prime. Hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo gushes that the 26-year-old has more power than Sosa and Juan Gonzalez.

"The guy is a monster. Outrageous potential," Young says. "Some of the bombs he hits are just ridiculous."

But after eight failed trips to drug rehab, Hamilton found himself on his grandmother's doorstep in October 2005, strung out on crack and clinging to life. Allowing the division rival Anaheim Angels to snatch free-agent gem Torii Hunter, the Rangers gave up coveted pitching prospect Edinson Volquez to gamble on the born-again Hamilton.

"I've got my priorities in order now: God, God and God," says Hamilton, who projects a divine year of hitting .300 with 35 homers, 95 RBI and 25 stolen bases. "I'd be the biggest hypocrite ever, as far as my sobriety and Christianity, if I didn't stay on the right path."

Bradley, whose character repeatedly came into question during angry, infamous run-ins with fans, teammates and umpires, has the same number (21) and locker (double-wide, isolated in the corner) as last year's supposed problem child, Sosa.

"He's a fired-up kinda guy," Washington says. "I'm not about to take that away from him. If I see something cropping up, I'll hurry fast as I can and hope I get it in time."

But what if, as an assist to the demons, Washington is late to the party and Bradley blows up? What if Hamilton can't stay clean and/or healthy? What if the committee of closers results only in a variety of disappointments? What if Bush leaves the White House and brings his bad karma back to Arlington?

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