Journeymen of summer

Todd Zeile personifies the Rangers' lack of personality. But in a really good way.
Brad Newton

Whatever you do in this life, don't go looking for answers in a locker room. They just aren't there. You won't find them lying beneath the damp towels or the dirty jocks or the discarded clichés. You won't find them hanging in a locker next to silk shirts and jars of muscle-building supplements. There are no answers in the baseball players' clubhouse, only the same-ol'-same-ol's doled out on a daily basis. Fact is, if you're a ballplayer, what are you going to say today that you didn't yesterday or last month or won't tell some beat writer tomorrow? After all, man, you're just taking it one game at a time.

So when relief pitcher Tim Crabtree throws a genuine piece of insight your way during a casual -- meaning, ya-got-58-seconds-man-then-I-gotta-go -- conversation, it comes as a shock to the system. Standing at his locker after last Thursday's loss to the Detroit Tigers, the right-handed pitcher with the 3.00 ERA (third best on the pitching staff, behind too-good-to-be-true Jeff Zimmerman and Mike Venafro) was mentioning how the Rangers aren't really a team built upon the miracle swings of superstar bats. But the most interesting thing about what he said was what he didn't say: the name Juan Gonzalez.

"You look at our team," Crabtree said, "and you look at Raffy [Palmeiro] and Pudge [Rodriguez] for the most part as guys you have that stand out, guys you need to be successful day in and day out to have a chance. Those are the only two guys on our team who are pretty big, dominating, contributing forces. Everyone else is just a consistent player."

The man makes a good point: Palmeiro, the prodigal son returneth, is easily the hero of a ballclub in need of one. The man could throw his bat at a pitcher and still drive in the winning run, as he did Monday against the Cleveland Indians, swollen knee and all. And Rodriguez is Yogi Berra and Johnny Bench combined: As of Tuesday, his 28 home runs -- seven better than last year's career-high total, with 43 games yet to play -- puts him three behind Palmeiro's team-leading total. Gonzalez has only 27, with 96 runs batted in; it's doubtful he will get anywhere near last year's mark of 45 homers and league-leading 157 RBI. Maybe his pants are too tight.

Yet the reason the Texas Rangers of 1999 are possibly the best Texas Rangers team ever -- this club is on pace to win 95 to 97 games, besting 1977's mark of 94 wins -- is not because of superstars, though Palmeiro and Rodriguez are both deserving of the American League Most Valuable Player Award. Rather, this team is defined by the men Crabtree speaks of with respect: Jeff Zimmerman, Todd Zeile, Roberto Kelly, Esteban Loaiza, Lee Stevens, Mike Venafro -- the team's nearly anonymous heroes, its construction workers in baseball caps. They're the carpenters building the cathedral, carrying the bricks and installing the stained glass. The only problem is, no one ever celebrates the men who build the temples. They only marvel at the finished product.

Perhaps that's why attendance at the Ballpark is shockingly low, down to nearly 27,000 a night, even though this team has the third-best record in baseball. Against Detroit last week, the Ballpark felt hollow; you haven't seen that many empty seats since a regular-season Mavericks game. Even losing teams of years past would draw well beyond 30,000. Perhaps they're staying away in droves this year because fans come out to root their larger-than-life heroes -- the home-run kings, the throw-'em-out kid. They don't come to cheer the journeymen of summer.

When you get down to it, this team has the disposition of an accounting seminar. You'll never open the paper and see a barbarous quote from Luis Alicea or Roberto Kelly. And this team's so-called superstars apparently confuse a microphone with a rabies vaccine needle. The closest you'll get is some cranky retort from Mark McLemore, who's quick to point out when a reporter gets his facts crooked. Everyone else offers the variation on a theme: "We're winning because of our bullpen," which really means, "Our starting pitchers are lucky to last four innings." Tough to get excited about a team of mutes. Maybe that's why owner Tom Hicks and president Jim Lites have turned up the rock and roll at the Ballpark -- so you can't hear the silence.

Of course, this summer's unbearable string of 100-plus-degree days plays a role in the diminishing turnout; no doubt many fans prefer watching their team in air-conditioned comfort on television to driving to Arlington and marinating in their own sweat for three hours. Eric Nadel, the longtime voice of the Rangers, is convinced all those stories about low attendance miss the point: "They never talk about how every single game is on TV," he points out. "That's all there is to it." Those in the Major League offices who devised this season's calendar must surely have it out for Texas, giving the team a mere eight home games in June and 17 games during the miserable month of August. They must think Tom Hicks owns the weather as well.  

It's also possible that fans are staying away because this is a team without much personality -- not without character, but without characters. Gonzalez remains the most unheralded superstar of his generation because he uses only two words when talking, on rare occasion, to the media: hoppy and sited, the source of much amusement on The Ticket. This, despite the fact that when you talk to him one-on-one, Gonzalez can be thoughtful and articulate. Worse, Gonzalez seems determined to undermine his own marketability by treating the game as though it were beneath him, something to do during his summer vacation. He sits out the All-Star Game, doesn't play in the Hall of Fame Game because of baggy pants, pulls himself out of the lineup with a phantom injury -- and then wonders why the hometown crowd boos him when he half-hustles to a routine fly ball. It's called tough love, Igor.

And where was the hoopla surrounding Rodriguez's becoming the first catcher in the history of Major League baseball to hit 20 home runs and steal 20 bases in a single season last Saturday? We heard all about Tony Gwynn and Wade Boggs' race to 3,000 career hits; Lord knows there was plenty written about Mark McGwire's 500th homer, including a few sonatas and several one-act plays. But plenty of other men have accomplished those feats. No catcher in history has done what Pudge did during the Rangers' loss to the Chicago White Sox.

Then there's Palmeiro, who, despite beginning the season on a bum leg, has driven in 31 home runs and 103 RBIs with such graceful ease, you barely notice him at all. He's among the most reliable and productive ballplayers of this decade -- it's likely he will surpass the 350 home-run mark well before the end of the season -- and among the least celebrated. Maybe he ought to attack a fan or spit in an umpire's face or father several children out of wedlock. Then, he'd be a superstar.

The local press has desperately tried to generate some excitement around this team. Jeff Zimmerman's Little Orphan Annie tale -- no team wanted him, save the Rangers -- has been told a dozen times. Most recently, the Dallas Morning News offered his wife's perspective; next week, it's the same story from the family dog's point of view. Todd Zeile's story ranks a close second: The man has played for seven teams since 1995, getting traded more often than a baseball card. Last season alone he was a Los Angeles Dodger, a Florida Marlin, and a Ranger. Now, he's among the most reliable players in the game.

But no one personifies this year's Rangers more than Lee Stevens, the backup first baseman who has already appeared in 109 games, in part because of Palmeiro's and Mike Simms' injuries. During spring training, it was hinted that Stevens would be a bane to this team, hampered by his longstanding inability to hit left-handed pitching. At presstime, he was hitting .338 against lefties, having driven in 20 RBIs.

Stevens, like Zimmerman, is a reject who has found a home in Arlington -- a 13-year veteran only now learning how to play the game. Earlier this year, Stevens talked about his disastrous years in the majors, after being drafted in the first round by the then-California Angels in June 1986. From '86 to '90, he played solely in the minors -- first with Salem, then in Palm Springs and Midland and Edmonton. From '90 to '93, he went up and down like a yo-yo, playing most of his games in Edmonton and only occasionally getting his shot with the big club: 67 games in 1990, 18 in 1991, 106 in 1992. In January 1993, he got traded to the Montreal Expos; two months later, he was shipped to Toronto -- and never played a single game for the team, instead getting sent down to Syracuse.

On November 16, 1993 -- 22 days after being re-signed by the Angels -- Lee Stevens found himself without a job, a never-was at the age of 26. He was out of pro ball -- and, by then, out of the country, having signed with Kintetsu in the Japanese league. When he returned in 1996, he called every team in the majors, all of whom gave him the thanks-but-no-thanks brush-off. All but one -- the Texas Rangers, who put him in Oklahoma City. Stevens was so giddy at the prospect of getting paid to play ball, he told his wife Kim he was "just going to have fun this summer, because I don't care where I play." One-hundred-seventeen games and 32 home runs later, Lee Stevens never again saw the minor leagues (one rehab stint last season notwithstanding).  

"I've come further the last five years then I did the first nine years of my career, growing as a player and as a person," he says. " I'm able to accomplish that because I don't go out there and try to be a superstar. I just try to surprise 'em by going out there and doing my job quietly. There's no pressure on me. It's guys like Juan and Pudge and Rusty that guys expect miracles out of. I just try to stay behind the scenes and do my job."

These days, on this team, that's more than enough. It's everything.

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