By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Maybe going bankrupt is the best thing that's ever happened to the Texas Rangers. On the field, at least, 2010 is shaping up to be the team's best season since 1999, the last time the Rangers made the playoffs, when they were sent packing in the American League Division Series by the New York Yankees.
You might think the months of wrangling in the press and in federal court by hordes of lawyers and money men fighting over who gets paid how much in the bankrupt franchise's eventual auction and sale would filter down to the field and front office, causing the sorts of distractions that can kill the delicate balance between winning and losing. If that's the case, though, you'd be hard pressed to tell it on a steamy July afternoon at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington.
Inside a luxury suite at the park, Rangers general manager Jon Daniels is twirling and tickling his young son Lincoln above his head as he watches the roster he's built wrap up a series against the Baltimore Orioles in its final game before the All-Star break. Dressed casually in an untucked black short-sleeved shirt and blue jeans, Daniels embodies the serene demeanor, lighthearted attitude and blue-collar ambiance that radiates throughout his players' clubhouse as the Rangers sit perched atop the American League West.
Father and son watch southpaw C.J. Wilson struggle to throw strikes on this 96-degree day as the Rangers are on the verge of a four-game sweep at the hands of the team with baseball's worst record. It's a disappointing series, but Daniels keeps his cool. Sure, his team is up to its neck in the most arduous and convoluted bankruptcy fiasco in the history of professional sports. Yes, the Rangers have had to borrow $40 million from Major League Baseball just to meet payroll and other obligations. Added to those worries are a looming July 31 trade deadline and the team's need for some payroll flexibility to acquire players needed for a playoff run.
But today, Daniels has good reason to relax and enjoy the moment. Just 48 hours earlier, he landed the biggest name on the market, 2008 American League Cy Young Award winner Cliff Lee, snatching the pitcher from AL West division rivals the Seattle Mariners—and right out of the grip of the hated Yankees.
"I tell you what, in some ways it's been kinda fun," Daniels says of dealing with the financial constraints attached to the bankruptcy. "It's been challenging. It forces you to think about things a little differently."
Not only did Daniels score the No. 1 item on his shopping list, but by including rookie Justin Smoak—a switch-hitting first baseman coveted by the offensively challenged Mariners—at the last minute with a package of three minor-league prospects, he killed a deal that the Yankees had in place to acquire Lee in exchange for three of their minor leaguers. Here were the bankrupt Rangers outmaneuvering the Yankees, the team responsible for knocking Texas out of the playoffs in each of the three seasons they've been there.
As if stealing Lee from The Evil Empire weren't enough of a triumph for Daniels, who grew up in New York as a Mets fan, he managed to convince Mariners GM Jack Zduriencik to include $2.25 million in cash in the deal to help offset Lee's remaining $4.2 million salary for the rest of the season. And while three talented prospects were included with Smoak in the trade for Lee, Daniels balked at forfeiting any of the organization's most coveted young pitchers, such as Derek Holland, Tanner Scheppers or Martin Perez.
Although pitchers like Nolan Ryan, Gaylord Perry, Bert Blyleven, Kevin Brown and Kenny Rogers each had memorable seasons on the mound wearing a Rangers jersey, Daniels says Lee is the first legitimate staff ace in the prime of his career that the team's had at the top of its rotation since Ferguson Jenkins, who won 25 games for the Rangers in 1974.
"This is huge for our organization," third baseman Michael Young told the Dallas Observer shortly after a July 9 team meeting announcing the Lee trade. "JD's done an incredible job."
Back at the suite, the recent good news about Lee must have Daniels feeling magnanimous. While on the field below second baseman Ian Kinsler lines out with runners on first and second, blowing an opportunity to close the 3-1 deficit against the Orioles, Daniels mounts a defense of owner Tom Hicks, who in March 2009 defaulted on $525 million in loans owed by Hicks Sports Group LLC, the Hicks-owned parent company of the Rangers and Dallas Stars hockey team. The default was followed by Hicks (as opposed to the creditors) placing the Rangers into bankruptcy this May, and HSG now owes 40 lenders approximately $600 million in principal, unpaid interest and fees. The Stars are not yet in bankruptcy as HSG actively seeks potential buyers for the team.
Daniels describes himself as loyal by nature, so perhaps it's not surprising he's one of the few North Texas baseball fans with kind words for Hicks these days. Daniels says Hicks has always supported him and his staff, including building the Rangers' farm system into the No. 1 organization as ranked by Baseball America and ESPN. Hicks also supported trading away first baseman Mark Teixeira in 2007, which yielded 21-year-old shortstop Elvis Andrus and 22-year-old closer Neftali Feliz, both named to their first All-Star Game this season.