By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
It's a cold Thursday night in mid-January, and two police SUVs pull up in front of an Academy Sports and Outdoors store in North Richland Hills, an otherwise peaceful community between Dallas and Fort Worth. The squad cars represent protection for a group of Texas Rangers players and executives preparing to address more than 100 fans jammed into a space between the checkout lanes and exercise equipment. It's one of several stops on the organization's Winter Caravan tour throughout Texas and Oklahoma—the same PR tour conducted annually to drum up excitement for a team that generates little of its own on the field.
Rangers ace Kevin Millwood is here, along with young left-hander Matt Harrison, Rangers Hall of Famer Jim Sundberg and TV color commentator Tom Grieve, but if a show of force is necessary, it's there to protect Rangers general manager Jon Daniels. For it was Daniels who declared in a December meeting with Michael Young that it was time to push aside the five-time All-Star and hand over the shortstop job to Elvis Andrus, a 20-year-old wunderkind who hasn't played an inning above Double-A in the minors.
For a team able to manage only one season with a record above .500 since its last playoff appearance in 1999 and one that drew fewer than 2 million fans for the first time in 13 years, this news wasn't going to energize its fan base. Only Britney Spears could rebound from this much bad publicity. And Young demanded to be traded, submitting a list of teams for which he was willing to waive his no-trade clause to get the heck outta Arlington.
When Daniels sits before the North Richland Hills crowd, he is ready for all would-be attackers. Certainly someone will be ballsy enough to ask him how he could insist that the team's marquee player move positions for a kid who's not even old enough to drink a beer. Hadn't Young already taken one for the team when he moved from second base to short in 2004 to make room for Alfonso Soriano? Surely someone will want to know how, with the Rangers history of alienating fans through botched trades and laughable free-agent contracts, Daniels could bully the face of the franchise to play third base, a position he had no experience playing.
But Daniels comes prepared. Just hours before he faces the crowd, he learns that Young has called Rangers president Nolan Ryan and rescinded his trade request. He has agreed to switch positions, again, and Daniels tells the crowd as much. Resounding applause follows.
But later, long-time season-ticket holder Biff Liebbe has a question for Daniels about Andrus: "My concern is that he had 32 errors at Double-A...so how do you make us, the fans, feel a little bit better about moving a premium infielder to third base?"
Again Daniels appears ready, his Cornell-educated mind a veritable database for baseball stats that he can log onto at will. He rattles off the names of shortstops like Derek Jeter, Omar Vizquel and Edgar Renteria, who were promoted to the big leagues at about the same age as Andrus; then he lists the number of errors they made in the minors and the number of Gold Gloves they eventually won in the majors. And if that's not enough to satisfy the skeptics, Daniels adds that first basemen in the majors tend to save infielders from committing errors because of their ability to pick throws out of the dirt; major league fields are better quality than minor league fields; and there's simply a different focus level in the bigs.
"We feel like he'll make some special plays along with the routine plays," he says confidently. "He's 20 years old, and he's gonna make mistakes, but over time, in short order, we believe he's going to be an asset to the organization and help us win games."
The fans seemed as impressed as they were appeased.
The Young drama provides a close look at the radical change in philosophy that Daniels has recently brought to the organization. After becoming baseball's youngest GM at 28, Daniels sought to trade his way to the top by pulling the trigger on three major deals in his first year to acquire veterans, along with handing out a $60 million contract to Millwood.
He also made sure to keep Michael Young in Arlington long-term when he signed him to a five-year, $80 million contract extension in March 2007. But just two months into the '07 season, Texas was 19-35, and Daniels met with owner Tom Hicks, promoting an entirely new strategy of rebuilding the team by developing talent from within its farm system and dealing away key veterans at the trade deadline to jumpstart the process.
Young was as miffed about the sea change then as he is now. "I've been through rebuilding, and I'm not receptive to it in any way, shape or form," Young told the Dallas Observer in July 2007. "I don't want to be patient. I want to win now."
Since Young joined the Rangers in 2001, the team has traded away superstars Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira and Soriano and allowed fan favorites Ivan "Pudge" Rodriguez and Gary Matthews Jr. to sign elsewhere as free agents.