Lamb's Chops

Mike check: After a bad 2000 season, Lamb says, "I let the distractions get to me."
Nick de la Torre

PORT CHARLOTTE, Florida--It felt different. Almost radically so. Same game, sure, but that's where the similarities ended for him and surely where the exigency began. It was all so fresh, so new--from the superior competition to the expansive crowds to the breadth of the media coverage. It was a lot to take in, a lot to process.

Maybe too much.

"[Last year] was an experience," says Texas Rangers third baseman Mike Lamb of his rookie season. "It took some getting used to. There was just a lot of things you don't see in the minors, like all the reporters in the clubhouse, and then you go to bat, and later that night you see yourself on TV. There was a lot of attention [on me]. I think that's when the reality set in for me, when I saw myself on TV."

A reality that ultimately caused the team to court Ken Caminiti, a former National League MVP at third. A reality that will likely send Lamb into minor league exile when the Rangers break camp Friday night. A reality that's cold, that's indoctrined Lamb into the compassionless decision-making style of pro sports.

A sobering reality.

"If you put Mike Lamb on a veteran ballclub last year, I don't think he gets exposed as much," says manager Johnny Oates. Sitting in a gray cloth chair at the head of an imitation-wood conference table in his spring training office in Port Charlotte, Florida, Oates folds both hands over a dark blue Rangers ballcap, leans back a bit and sighs audibly before continuing. "But we were thin last year, and we had to ask him to do some of the kinds of things that we might ask Raffy or Pudge to do. That's not fair. He needed some fixing, but there's no real time for instruction at the major league level."

He played catcher his senior year at Cal-State Fullerton before being selected by the Rangers in the seventh round of the '97 free agent draft. Shipped off to minor-league Pulaski almost immediately. Charlotte the year after that. Tulsa the year after that. Between 1999 and 2G, he saw action in just 16 games at Triple-A Oklahoma City, which was just enough time to unpack his gear, pack it again and make the three-hour trek down to Dallas.

It mattered little that he probably wasn't ready, that he, and by extension the organization, could have benefited by allowing him more time in the minors. Problem was, time was dreadfully short for Texas a year ago. Decisions had to be made. Tough decisions. Maybe, in retrospect, the wrong decisions.

General Manager Doug Melvin needed a third baseman, and none of the retreads you see passed around the circuit like so many college sluts were worth the trouble or the cash. They had a prospect they were high on, a guy whom they fully expected to develop, to see guarding the line and clubbing hits before too long. All of a sudden, though, "before too long" became "right now."

So they threw Lamb to the wolves, potential damage to his future be damned.

He struggled, of course. You didn't have to watch too many games, didn't have to make too many outings to the ballpark--with last year's 71-91 embarrassment, that was certainly a good thing--to figure that out. But what were they going to do? Fill out the lineup card but leave the "5" position vacant? Platoon players at an infield spot that demands consistency? Let you play? There simply weren't too many options.

Not that that alleviated any of Lamb's burden.

"I'm not going to make an excuse and say I was bad because I wasn't ready," he says truthfully, staring his inquisitor in the eye without resentment.

He became just the sixth Rangers rookie to start at third. Saw time in 138 games, most for a Texas newbie since Jeff Huson appeared in 145 in 1990. Batted a respectable .278, good for second all-time among the club's first-year guys. But he was lacking in the power categories (only six homers to complement 47 runs batted in), which is baseball's unforgivable sin for a sexy post usually manned by longball He-Men.

Still, his troubles were less about the absence of punch in his bat than they were about his troubles defending his patch of dirt on the infield's left side. The Rangers committed an appalling, league-leading 135 errors in 2000. Garo Yepremian booted fewer balls. Lamb accounted for 33 of those miscues, tying him with Anaheim's Troy Glaus for the most fumbles among major leaguers playing the corner. What's worse, of the 18 pros to have more than 200 total chances and play in excess of 100 games at third, Lamb's .913 fielding percentage was dead last.

When the season ended--as much a gift from the heavens to you and me as it was to the players--upgrading the position became a likely scenario. Caminiti was available. Had 242 career dongs, not to mention arms the size of small children and legs the size of small nations. Better yet, carried a .946 lifetime fielding percentage.

You could see the conclusion coming like headlights through a clear North Texas night. Caminiti was on his way in; Lamb was on his way to Oklahoma "this should not be called a" City.

"He needs to play every day, and we'll know where he is," Oates says, suggesting there'll be a chance, however remote, for Lamb to rejoin the team as the summer drones on. "Mike has been great about it. He's handled it extremely well, just the way you'd want a professional to handle it."

Indeed, the 25-year-old doesn't harbor any noticeable animosity. Understands that this is, ultimately, a business. Understands that the Rangers are playing for "now," and that he could be a part of "later"--the way it should have gone down in the first place. Understands it all, but doesn't have to necessarily like it.

"I don't fault them for trying to do what's best, but don't get me wrong," he says calmly. "I want to play. You'd be a fool not to want to pull that uniform on. I'm disappointed in myself. I feel I could have done better last year, and maybe when I was going bad I let the distractions get to me. But I'm a laid-back guy. I try not to get too worked up. It's going to be hard [to return to the minors], but I'll try to make the best of it and earn my way back."

Listening to him answer what must be difficult questions with aplomb--no small accomplishment considering introspection, for athletes, is rare--it's tough not to feel for him, to hope he doesn't get lost before he's truly found. Tough not to think he's getting screwed after being the company man.

But this is pro sports, and there's money to be made, or lost, and when you come right down to it, whether Lamb was wronged or not has nothing to do with the situation. It has to be like this if the Rangers want to contend this year. Caminiti's ready; Lamb isn't.

Fair or foul, that's the way it rolls.

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