By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Your Texas Rangers?
On March 13 a record sellout crowd of 12,014 packed Surprise Stadium for a meaningless yet energized World Series rematch against the San Francisco Giants. Though smack in the middle of the Arizona desert and basking in the glow of the most successful season in the franchise's 40-year history, the Texas Rangers soon felt drops of doubt raining upon spring training. Starting pitcher Tommy Hunter was lit up for seven runs in three innings. Center fielder Julio Borbon lost a fly ball in the sun for a two-run error. Shortstop Elvis Andrus threw wildly to the plate as another run scored. Some pitcher named Mark Hamburger came in to mop up an early 7-1 deficit. By the time the Giants capped an 11-8 thumping, the questions about the American League champions began blooming, cropping up like so many splendid yellow flowers on the green branches of the endless Palo Verde trees.
What if last year was a fluke?
"We're doing all we can not to be one of those one-hit wonders," general manager Jon Daniels said one day between the numerous games, scrimmages and workouts at the team's Surprise Recreation Campus about 45 minutes northwest of Phoenix. "What we accomplished last year was special. It's something that this organization will be proud of for a long time. But, look, a lot of teams have done it once. We don't want to just fade away and have nothing but memories of 2010. We're building this thing in hopes that we're competitive on a playoff level every year. But history says that's pretty difficult to achieve."
Certainly it would be irrational to correlate one exhibition game in March with what will play out in April, much less July or even October. But it wasn't just the loss to the Giants. Let's face it, since Nelson Cruz struck out swinging against San Francisco reliever Brian Wilson to end Game 5 of the World Series last November 1 at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington, the news has been more negative than positive. A team that raised its first AL pennant just five months ago hasn't spent the off-season in turmoil but certainly in upheaval, with more notable departures than arrivals.
When the Rangers open the 2011 season Friday in Arlington against the Boston Red Sox, they'll do so under the no-frills reign of team president/chief executive officer/dictator Nolan Ryan and without several key components from their historic 2010 pinnacle. Gone are pitching ace Cliff Lee, starting catcher Bengie Molina, designated hitter Vladimir Guerrero, hitting coach Clint Hurdle, television play-by-play voice Josh Lewin and CEO/managing general partner Chuck Greenberg. Long-time face of the franchise Michael Young is still a Ranger, but even his role and position have been tweaked and his tenure in Arlington endangered by an unsettling off-season in which he requested a trade after accusing management of being untruthful. Even last year's viral hand signals—the "claw" and "antlers"—were exchanged sparsely in Surprise.
"There's a little bit of a different feel," Young said in the clubhouse before a spring training game. "We've got to learn to deal with some success, something we've never had to do before. We've handled adversity, now can we handle the other side of it? It can be tough. We've got a great group of guys and our core is intact. But until you do something you're not real sure how you'll respond. It's a different situation for me, and for this team. But it's a good situation to be in for sure."
A year ago Ryan was boldly predicting 92 wins and a division championship. After initially calling for as many as 95 wins and a title for this team, by the time a sloppy, sporadic spring training was ending last weekend he was forced to temper his optimism.
"I'll be honest," Ryan told the media in Surprise last weekend. "My confidence level isn't as high today. That's because of the concerns I have for certain segments of the club."
The Rangers fanned on their attempt to land Lee or elite pitcher Zack Greinke, and the team enters the season with only two proven starting pitchers. They did sign All-Star third baseman Adrian Beltre, who they hope not only makes up for Guerrero's bat but also improves the team by shoving Young's limited defensive range to the bench. Still, World Series teams usually don't encounter so much change in the wake of their success. Absorbing alterations everywhere from owner to utility infielder might be enough to erode confidence, shake optimism and raise questions about the Rangers being another one-hit wonder.
"Don't worry about that one bit," says manager Ron Washington. "Is there a pressure to repeat? Of course. Have we undergone some changes? Yes. But we've been the hunters around here for a long time. It's nice to be the hunted for once."
Last year the Rangers overcame unprecedented adversity to achieve surreal success. A year ago in spring training Washington confirmed he had used cocaine the previous season. The team spent most of the season in bankruptcy and was purchased by an investment group fronted by Greenberg and Ryan in a late-night auction in the middle of the summer. A fan fell out of the upper deck of the ballpark and survived. A pitcher (Dustin Nippert) took a line drive off his temple and lived to throw again. Perhaps most shocking, the Rangers finally exceeded expectations, winning 90 games, the American League West Division, their first playoff series—against the Tampa Bay Rays in the Division Series—and vanquishing the New York Yankees in the ALCS to reach their first World Series.