Justin Thompson was supposed to be the Rangers ace. Instead, hes the team albatross.
Justin Thompson was supposed to be the Rangers ace. Instead, hes the team albatross.

Fools Rush In

It's just another day. Another long day. Already, that's the way it feels. Nearly everyone trudges through the motions--a battalion of zombies watching the clock tick painfully slowly. Hours before game time, reporters mill about. They poke around a locker room that feels more like a funeral parlor than a major-league clubhouse. It's only May. By August the team will be forced to ban shoelaces and sharp objects. One local beat writer, as responsible for some of the tension as he is aware of it, wanders over to Pudge Rodriguez's locker. He does so quietly, like a sniper picking out a good place to lie in the brush.

Rodriguez, unaware of his hunter, goes about his business. Then he looks up, and whatever smile he was nurturing vanishes instantly. The Rangers' catcher shoots both his arms out straight, the way a child might to say, It was so big. Except this isn't what Pudge is trying to convey. The exasperated look on his face says something else, something worse. Something like, "Again? You've come to bother me about this again?"

Incredulously, he fields a few questions the way he might an errant ball in the dirt--with contempt--before the reporter slinks off, hands in pockets. (We may be animals, but even animals are aware of their stink.) This is how it's been, how it will go. The positives are long forgotten, orphaned in Port Charlotte. Only the struggles remain, and this, however unpleasant or crazed, is the primary byproduct.

If you haven't heard, if you were out on the land hunting possum with your daddy, the word is that Pudge is being shopped. Him and everyone not named Alex Rodriguez. Maybe Ivan could just change his first name. More likely, he'll suffer through the rumors and heartache.

We all know why the Rangers lie unconscious and bloodied in the AL West basement--an 80-year-old with cataracts the size of Titleists can see it plainly--and none of us has been shy recently about sharing our opinions on rescue. They need pitchers, damn it, so have general manager Doug Melvin get some. And a pack of smokes, too. Naturally, none of us has stopped to consider the viability here. Or the ramifications.

"Pitching is risky," Melvin says. "You can go and scout the best pitchers in the world, but they still need to be able to get people out. Finding good pitchers is tough."

He should know. The man's been looking for hurlers since Allan Quatermain went searching for the Lost City of Gold. But this is no bad Hollywood movie. This is The Real, and a scary, cautionary tale to boot. One with which you're already well acquainted.

Two years ago, when the Boys in Blue wore red and wins weren't seen as infrequently as distant relatives, the Rangers were faced with a similar, albeit different, dilemma. The question was how to pay Pudge and Juan Gonzalez. The answer then, as several feel it should be now, was to trade one for pitching and other concerns. It's all coming back to you now, I'm sure. For further jogging of a dormant memory, you need only glance to the outfield during batting practice. There, you'll see Justin Thompson, the pitcher lost to myriad injuries, long-tossing his career away. Thompson--not Frank Catalanotto, not Gabe Kapler nor Francisco Cordero--was the integral part of the Gonzalez trade to the Detroit Tigers. The can't-miss kid, destined to unfurl countless victories from his able left hand.

Made some sense then. Makes a lot less now. Today, Thompson is equal parts hindsight and foreshadowing--serving as both reminder of all that's gone wrong in the past few seasons and warning of what unpleasant fortunes might still lie ahead.

"Being here but not being able to play has absolutely killed me," says Thompson, who hasn't pitched in the majors since...uh...hold on a second. It's around here somewhere. I think Reagan was in office. "Right now, I can give nothing to the team. Nothing but support. I can be a cheerleader. That's it."

At 28, and with a left shoulder problem that's plagued him since arriving from Detroit, Thompson is relegated to never-ending rehab. He throws from 105 feet each day. Lifts weights. Runs. The hope, he says in an easy drawl while standing beside his neatly pressed game jersey--the one he never uses--is to return sometime after the All-Star break.

For this, the Rangers traded one of the game's more masterful hitters.

History, as I'm sure you've heard, can be a vengeful bitch. It hates when you duplicate mistakes. It makes you pay something terrible. That is the obvious concern here. There can be no doubt, no debate, that this team is screwed. Any hopes of making the postseason should have been ditched a while back, swapped for the voluminous drum of detergent it will take to clean this incredible mess. Changes--other than dismissing a skipper who had overstayed his welcome and usefulness--need to be made. There's no choice. But there should be pause.

"From a GM standpoint, the way we're going, we have to listen to any offer," Melvin candidly noted during a recent interview on KTCK-AM (1310). "We're looking for pitching, and if someone wants to overwhelm us, that's fine. But we don't have any specific plans to trade Pudge."

Tom Hicks, team owner and impatient sugar daddy, "confirmed" that statement in a recent press conference. Take it for what it's worth--a transparent attempt at crowd control. They want to cow you, the fans, so you don't riot like European soccer goons. Don't be fooled: If the Rangers see a trade they think will help, No. 7 won't be here any longer. It may not come during the season. They might wait until all the commotion has died, but it's still possible, and it will linger. Now, if a team comes offering frankincense, myrrh and Randy Johnson, that's one thing. To send one of the club's, and baseball's, best players away for a bushel of "sure-things," though, is quite another. It's called Bad Karma. (See media guide: Thompson, J.)

No, for the horrible PR disaster that would surely ensue if Pudge were shipped elsewhere, you need something proven. And if you haven't taken inventory lately, accredited pitchers are as rare as the Manus Island Tree Snail, so getting one will require larceny, at the least. The task will be difficult. Not impossible, but difficult, so what is needed are sound decisions rather than rash knee-jerks. If that means dismantling the club or dishing Pudge in the right situation in order to rebuild, then so be it. Provided, that is, the Rangers don't repeat prior, egregious mistakes. Provided they don't trade in their limo for, essentially, a dream and a lifetime bus pass.

"Y'all keep asking us what's wrong, but we don't know," Thompson offers, clutching a piece of paper that must surely be a DART ticket. "I mean, look around. With the names we have, it just doesn't make sense."

Well, doesn't it?


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