By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
The Texas Rangers' plans have gone to shit.
Ain't it grand?
Last winter, the franchise had designs on hosting the Major League Baseball All-Star Game in 2015. Then arose the sudden proliferation of proposed new ballparks around the league, the Glory Park development stagnation in Arlington and— poof—the issue is now shoved onto a back burner.
Last spring, the team left training camp in Surprise, Arizona, counting on players such as Brandon McCarthy, Jason Jennings, Kazuo Fukumori, Kason Gabbard, Jason Botts and Ben Broussard. Then arose injuries, ineffectiveness and—poof—none of them are a part of the team's current makeup.
And just two months ago, management was this close to firing manager Ron Washington after his team's abysmal 9-18 start. Then arose a team meeting, shocking production from unheralded youngsters and—poof—Washington is suddenly a candidate for Manager of the Year, and the Rangers are one of baseball's best feel-good stories during this week's All-Star break.
Said general manager Jon Daniels during a TV broadcast last week, "It's a great time to be a Ranger."
Remind me the last time you heard that one. And sorta agreed.
While it's disappointing that Rangers Ballpark in Arlington won't host another midsummer classic in the foreseeable future—vice president of communications Jim Sundberg confirmed last week the topic has been tabled— it's fitting for this woebegone franchise with only one playoff game victory in 37 seasons to have essentially stumbled into accidental, awe-inspiring success.
The best plans, after all, are sometimes simply laid to rest.
By all accounts, Washington was as good as gone in late April. His team saddled with baseball's worst record and routinely displaying fundamentals that would embarrass the Bad News Bears, Washington seemed like he might be out of a job by his 56th birthday (April 29).
In a recent interview with KTVT-Channel 11 sports anchor Babe Laufenberg, Rangers owner Tom Hicks was asked how close his manager came to getting fired. Replied Hicks, "Pretty close." And last week All-Star second baseman Ian Kinsler admitted he was prepared to see his manager canned. "I thought so, yeah," Kinsler said. "It didn't look good."
Daniels, Hicks and team president Nolan Ryan held an emergency meeting, kicking around the idea of firing Washington and even going so far as to construct a list of potential successors before deciding to reassess the situation at the All-Star break. But, alas, the names of Don Baylor, Mike Hargrove, Jim Tracy and Jackie Moore will remain static in a folder, locked away in the contingency cabinet. Because, despite eroded job security and a patchwork pitching staff, Washington has not only kept the Rangers from capsizing but guided them to a 50-46 record while re-introducing metroplex fans to entertaining baseball.
"The common thread throughout our turnaround this season has been the manager," Daniels says. "Ron's been the calming influence. His job security is a complete non-issue now."
Truth be told, Washington had very little to do with the inception of his team's transformation. It all started 30,000 feet in the air, on the April 24 flight home from a hideous three-game sweep in Detroit.
In a series that featured horrible starting pitching, outfielders egregiously missing cut-off men and all the enthusiasm of 25 zombies, the Rangers were outscored by the Tigers, 37-10. After an 8-2 loss in which Frank Catalanotto, Adam Melhuse, Botts and Broussard littered the lineup, veterans Michael Young and Eddie Guardado made an in-flight announcement.
"Get to the park early tomorrow."
In a players-only meeting before facing the Minnesota Twins, the team opened its mouth, mind and heart. Some encouraged. Others yelled. Most listened.
That night the Rangers won in 10 innings. Since the meeting the team is 43-30.
"We knew we were better than we had been playing," outfielder David Murphy says. "But it was good to hear everybody saying it at once and believing it together. After that, we kind of found our bearings and we took off. Now, here we are."
At the most improbable of rest stops.
For the first time in franchise history the Rangers sent four position players—Kinsler, Young, Josh Hamilton and Milton Bradley—to the All-Star Game, this one the last ever at fabled Yankee Stadium.
The Rangers hit, they fight, they hit some more, they run, they claw, they win and—most impressively—they entertain.
Says Daniels, "We're fun to watch."
Last week, I took time to watch a Rangers game. Four of them actually, against the Angels. And I was rewarded with the most scintillating four-game split in the history of Rangers Ballpark.
Fueled by an influx of hungry, happy youngsters who were not even remotely in the franchise's major-league plans back in Surprise, the Rangers rallied from down 8-0 to almost win Game 1, received a stellar debut from pitcher Matt Harrison to win Game 2, stole Game 3 on Hamilton's walk-off homer and erased a 10-4 deficit in Game 4 only to lose, 11-10, in 11 innings.
The Rangers finished the series seven games back. But thanks to an unscripted combo of desperation and development, they were also back.
If not for injuries to veteran starters, the Rangers would've never relied upon refreshing rookie pitchers Harrison and Eric Hurley. Injuries to Hank Blalock (replaced by Ramon Vazquez) and Gerald Laird (Max Ramirez) and the flameout of Broussard (Chris Davis) inadvertently gave young players opportunities and presented fans with a glimpse of an enticing future that doesn't look half bad as the present.
Which brings us to my reality casserole. I hate to spoil a picnic that has seen the Rangers on the cover of Sports Illustrated and engaging in mosh-pit celebrations after game-winning homers, but this team isn't yet a legit contender.
Even with 20 of 26 games at home starting July 28, you'd have to be dopey enough to peer into John Wiley Price's version of a black hole to believe this pitching can hold up. Despite being baseball's best-hitting outfit, the Rangers can't survive into September with a current, crappy pitching staff whose combined ERA soars well above gas prices.
Trotting out starters like Harrison and Hurley and Scott Feldman and Warner Madrigal—who?—and the second coming of Mitch Williams (C.J. Wilson) as the closer, the Rangers would have to keep scoring 10 runs a game to catch the Angels. That's not realistic.
Which is why, like it or not, the Rangers should again be sellers come the July 31 trading deadline. This isn't the year. It's the year before the year.
Daniels should part with veterans such as Bradley, Guardado, Vicente Padilla and Blalock, guys who won't be a part of the pennant-chase proceedings come 2010. After considering Ramirez's clutch hitting and his "Double Play of the Year" against Anaheim in which he survived a violent home-plate collision and recovered to throw out a runner at third, the Rangers should commence an auction on either Laird or Jarrod Saltalamacchia.
Not that the rest of this season won't be captivating. That Washington still has his job, that the Rangers are above .500 and that this town will be talking baseball into August is remarkable.
Planned or not.