Here's the pitch

On September 20, Texas Rangers president and general partner Tom Schieffer sat behind the home team's first-base dugout at the Ballpark in Arlington and smiled.

The Rangers were losing to the Anaheim Angels, but the thick summer air that blankets the metroplex was beginning to lift ever so slightly, and the stands were filled with 38,902 men, women, and children cheering every run, every strike, every out as though they meant a damned thing.

As he looked around him, Schieffer--wearing a Rangers logo on his crisp white shirt, looking like a bank president on vacation--wore the countenance of a man very much satisfied with what he saw.

No matter that the Rangers had faded in the days after the All-Star Break; no matter that last year's Red October was turning into this year's dead October.

Schieffer wore a look of contentment, no doubt, because he and fellow general partner Edward "Rusty" Rose had somehow managed to convince 2,945,244 people to come out to the Ballpark in Arlington in 1997 to watch the Texas Rangers lose.

Hell, you'd grin, too if you got rich by failing.
Till now, Schieffer has had the easiest job in baseball. Texas Rangers fans have let him off easy. We have never complained and never stayed away. We have rewarded mediocrity year after lousy year. We have cheered multimillion-dollar fiascos and endured minor-league disasters. We helped pay for the Ballpark in Arlington, then filled its seats day after sweltering, winless day.

And for our kindness and patience, Tom Schieffer would like to say: Thanks, now stick 'em up.

In the middle of a post-season no one in Texas cared about, Schieffer quietly announced that ticket prices at the Ballpark were once again going up an average of 20 percent per seat--raising lower box seats from $20 to $25 and upper club boxes from $24 to $30, and increasing the home-run porch and bleacher seats by two bucks. (Which is about what it costs to see a game at Cleveland's Jacobs Field and Florida's Pro Player Stadium.)

Schieffer insisted that if the Rangers were going to keep pace with the other top teams in the league--teams that are overpaying for free agents and signing unproven rookies for millions of unearned dollars--they needed to raise ticket prices to cover ballooning payrolls that threaten the very existence of Major League Baseball.

"I think our fans want us to try and put a better team on the field," he said by way of explanation and apology. "We thought we had to do it."

After all, the Florida Marlins bought a World Series with almost $89 million in talent, not to mention several familiar faces. If it was disheartening to watch the Rangers slide headlong into third place a year after taking the West, it was sickening to see a handful of ex-Ranger pitchers--Kevin Brown, Dennis Cook, Ed Vosberg, and Robb Nen--take the World Series from the Cleveland Indians.

The Marlins have been collecting ex-Rangers pitchers like trading cards: On July 17, 1993, Nen, selected by the Rangers in the 32nd round of the 1987 free-agent draft, was traded to the Marlins for the superior talents of Chris Carpenter--who lasted one year in Arlington, where he posted a 6-6 record and an enormous earned-run average of 4.75. In Florida, Nen has become a remarkable closer, throwing a fastball so quick even God can't see it.

Kevin Brown, who now has one of the lowest ERAs in the majors, went to Florida two years later as a free agent: Rangers management didn't want to sign the staff ace, who'd won 78 games and lost 64 during his tenure with Texas, because they considered him a troublemaker. Cook, a nine-year journeyman who played with five teams before joining the Rangers in a trade with the Indians in 1995, pitched a career-high 60 games for Texas the following year--only to be lost to free agency in the off-season.

When asked if it was painful to behold so many former Rangers help win a Series, general manager Doug Melvin just shrugs. "Yes," he says, but then hastens to add that he wasn't here when the Rangers let Brown and Nen go.

But if that wasn't unbearable enough, October also brought Melvin's confirmation that he has indeed mentioned Juan Gonzalez's name when talking to other teams, including the New York Mets, about trade possibilities.

So let's see. Ticket and parking increase. Marlins win World Series with Rangers pitching. Gonzalez could be traded.

Hey, what comes after strike three?
Melvin tells the Observer that by the time the Rangers tally this season's payroll, it likely will add up to $57 million--or $6 million more than the team planned on spending at the beginning of the season--which places the Rangers among the top eight spenders in the league. That means the Rangers doled out $21 million more in 1997 to be worse than they were in 1996, when the team finally got into the post-season after 25 years in Arlington. Imagine what happens next year, when the payroll leaps to $60 or $70 mill. They might come in fifth! And there are only four teams in the division!

"Spending money doesn't guarantee you're going to win, but you do have to compete," Melvin says. "It's getting to the point where it's like a corner store trying to compete with a supermarket."

It's getting harder every day to be a Rangers fan. Management overpays for damaged goods, gives away the bargain players, then tells us we haven't forked over enough cash to buy a winner. The Rangers should have learned long ago they can't buy a win.

Last year, Will Clark collected a hunk of his $5.6 million paycheck from the bench. Clark, whose five-year contract expires at the end of the 1998 season, did post an impressive .326 batting average--yet he also drove in a meager 51 runs, which averages out to $111,000 per RBI. Clark also played in only 110 of the season's 162 games, forcing reserve Lee Stevens to fill the void with his astonishing 74 runs batted in and 21 home runs. Stevens cost the Rangers a whopping $230,000.

Then there's Rusty Greer--undoubtedly the most invaluable man on the team, as consistent a player as there is in all the majors--who made a paltry $358,333 last season and managed to play in all but five games. More to the point, he averaged one hit every three at-bats and brought 87 men across the plate to score.

"We live in a very unpredictable business," Melvin says. "If you look at the history of long-term contracts, it shows you very seldom get the full value of those contracts because a player gets injured, gets old, or had already reached the downside of his career."

In recent years, the Rangers' heroes have been players brought in for pennies on the dollar, young men who were born or old men who were born again underneath an Arlington summer sky. Last year, Kevin Elster's 99 RBIs and stellar fielding at shortstop helped lead the Rangers to its first post-season berth. Before going to San Francisco in the off-season, Darryl Hamilton played like a one-man outfield; Damon Buford, who replaced Hamilton in center field, collected $225,000, and made only three errors in 1997.

And Fernando Tatis, the 22-year-old third baseman called up from the minors after Dean Palmer was traded to Kansas City this summer, drove in 29 runs in 60 games--and committed only seven errors while learning on the job.

And don't forget veteran reliever Mike Henneman, whose 31 saves in '96 tied him for third most in team history. One can't help but note that John Wetteland, last year's World Series MVP who made $4.5 million in '97 after coming to Texas from the New York Yankees, also had 31 saves this year. What a bargain.

"No one player or no two players can make a team," says Melvin, who must now pay $43 million over five years to one player, catcher Ivan Rodriguez. "Even though their salaries are high for the individual, you sometimes lose sight of the team concept. That becomes a problem."

The Rangers have one of the worst farm systems in the major leagues; there are only a few decent young pitchers in Oklahoma City and Tulsa, and they won't even be ready for the majors for a couple of years. But this team has proven time and again it's the best farm system for the rest of the majors. Every year, it seems, some former Ranger is throwing harder and hitting farther than he did while in Arlington.

Texas has released more good players in the last eight years than it's had on its roster at one time since then. To Sammy Sosa (a superstar with the Chicago Cubs), Darryl Hamilton (San Francisco Giants), Rafael Palmeiro (Baltimore Orioles), Mike Stanton (New York Yankees), Jamie Moyer (Seattle Mariners), even John Cangelosi (Florida), Arlington was a pitstop on the way to somewhere far better.

Of course, most every team in the majors could make the same claim. When players can enter free agency after a mere two years and 100 days in the majors, few stay with the same teams for long; they would rather try their luck on the open market than re-sign with a team looking to keep their price down.

On top of that, teams that want to win now instead of tomorrow often ditch promising young talent for a proven winner, someone who can get you to the playoffs this season--till his arm goes out or his bat dies next year. Too many times the Rangers have given away the keys to the kingdom (Ron Darling, Walt Terrell, Sammy Sosa, Wilson Alvarez) for the key to the men's room (Lee Mazzilli and Harold Baines).

"Everybody wants to win so rapidly, so quickly, we always think that one free-agent signing is going to get you over the hump," Melvin says. "If only every club had the patience to stay with their original pitchers or had the money to keep them. The problem is they become arbitration-eligible or free agents too quickly."

So far, this year's list of free agents is a fairly pitiful one, filled with broken-down retreads whose better days were years ago (former Ranger Julio Franco, who must be nearing 70 by now, and Minnesota's Paul Molitor) and ex-superstars looking to cash in before they check out (including Anaheim's Ricky Henderson, once the most feared base stealer in the league). There are a few pitchers out there that the Rangers might be interested in--Daryl Kile of the Houston Astros is one, as is former Ranger Wilson Alvarez--but Melvin finds before him a list of guys he's seen, and passed on, before.

"After a while you look at that list and don't get overly excited anymore," he says. "You also recognize that one player doesn't necessarily make the difference."

If the Rangers can't buy a winner, they most certainly will try to trade for one, which is where Gonzalez comes into play. Were Gonzalez to go to the New York Mets, it most likely would be for a combination of players that would include at least one starting pitcher (perhaps Jason Isringhausen or Bobby Jones) and a shortstop to replace Benji Gil, who's got holes in both hands.

But the fact is, the 28-year-old home run-hitting right fielder could go anywhere in the offseason. For that matter--Melvin says with resignation creeping into his voice--just about anyone on the Rangers could be traded at any time to any team. Until the league institutes a salary cap and does away with guaranteed contracts that force teams to pay disabled millionaires in full, players are as dispensable as jock straps.

"I think every club has to keep their ears open to everything," Melvin says. "You can go back in the history of any sport, and some of the greatest Hall of Fame players have been traded--from Wayne Gretzky to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to Shaquille O'Neal to Babe Ruth.

"I don't know if there's anybody that you could ever say is untouchable," he adds. "I'm from Canada, and Wayne Gretzky being traded from Edmonton to Los Angeles was an all-time low for that sport. It was like putting the flag at half-mast. But that's the way it is today."

Melvin knows that if he unloads Gonzalez in the off-season, he will have a full-scale revolt on his hands...for about a month. Rangers fans are the most forgiving in all of baseball, after all; who can forget the furor over the Jose Canseco trade for Otis Nixon...or, for that matter, who can remember?

Juan very well could be gone next year, or he might hit 62 homers for Texas. And Pudge could crap out, as he did after signing his monster deal, or win his seventh straight Golden Glove. And the Rangers could win the Series or finish, once more, behind Seattle.

Only one thing is for certain: Losing, like winning, comes with a high price tag in professional sports, and you, Rangers fan, have only just begun to pay.


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