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Positive reinforcement

Scratching heads: Rangers general manager Doug Melvin ponders what to do next with his ballclub.
Brad Newton

I'm not from 'round here, y'all. Don't speak with a drawl. Don't wear a big hat or boots or nut-hugger jeans. Don't drink Shiner, whatever that is. Definitely--underscore, boldface, italics, capitals--don't listen to country music.

So maybe I just don't get it. Maybe I'm too dense, too East Coast, too stuck in my ways to acclimate myself to a climate warmer in both geography and disposition. "Southern hospitality" and positive thinking are about as foreign to me as good cheesesteaks are to you.

Full disclosure, then. I'm a Philly kid, reared in an abrasive, hostile environment where the intolerance of the press toward underachieving teams is trumped only by fans' impatience for a winner. Being both a fan and a reporter, I tend to be as skeptical as they come, which is probably why I've been baffled since I moseyed into town. Confused by the Texas Rangers, their fans, and their front office. Specifically, confounded by the upbeat temperament. (By the way, if it'll make you feel better, as this column unfolds feel free to poke fun at my hometown, its occasional inferiority complex, 17-years-and-counting championship drought, or frequent lack of decorum--e.g., the unfortunate cheering at Michael Irvin's life-threatening injury at Veteran's Stadium--as an exaction of revenge.)

Here's the thing: Throughout a large chunk of June, the Texas Rangers were mired in a long series of ridiculous losses, a succession of blown saves and unwanted whiffs that manager Johnny Oates and party were all too happy to dismiss as aberrational. At one point, the club dropped 10 of 11 over a star-crossed stretch. Really, things don't look much better these days. Really, they look rather bleak.

Not so, I'm told. Just a few miles down I-30, the boys in the clubhouse are unfailingly upbeat. I suppose the sun shines brighter deep in the heart of Texas than in the City of Brotherly Love.

"We dug ourselves a little hole, but we're a very talented team," says transient center fielder Gabe Kapler, smiling brightly. "We're a different team than that losing streak would indicate. We're not that club. We have plenty of good players; now we're working into a position to get back on track."

It's one thing for players to speak that way. I mean, what did you expect to come from his mouth? "Well, we really stunk the joint out for a while. In fact, know what? Tell Dougie they should trade my ass and the rest of these bums, too." It's what players do. They turn into Johnny Mercer and sing "Accentuate the Positive." They cling to their hopes for a winning streak the way a child clutches a blanky.

What's a little more disheartening, or at least it should be to Texas fans, is how Oates and general manager Doug Melvin are approaching the situation. When the bottom first started to fall out on the defending A.L. West champs, when they began to lose by the slimmest of margins and then the most grotesque, Oates publicly promised heads would roll. Through angered, narrowed eyes, he vowed jobs were at stake, but weeks later things remain pretty much the same at The Ballpark.

Only Mark Clark, possessor of a 3-4 record and abhorrent 8.59 ERA in eight starts, lost his spot in the rotation, banished to the bullpen in favor of Matt Perisho. Of the position players, only right fielder Dave Martinez was annexed--he was acquired in a three-way trade with Chicago and Florida--which is kind of like trying to fix a nearly flat tire with a wad of Bazooka. He's hitting a paltry .238 with two homers and five RBIs since the deal.

Look up and down the roster, from starters to scrubs, bullpen to bench, and you wonder why that is. Why house a bunch of cats barely worth their milk? Aside from a few usual suspects--Ivan Rodriguez and Rafael Palmeiro, who are, despite some recent struggles by the latter, putting up their customary power numbers, combining for 42 homers and 118 RBIs as of Tuesday--and a few complements, David Segui (.341 avg.) and Luis Alicea (.325 avg.), what do you have here? In the rotation, you have Kenny Rogers (7-5, 4.12 ERA), who has been serviceable as the team's No. 1 starter. In the lineup, and just to be charitable, you could throw in "resurgent" outfielders Gabe Kapler, who's hitting .296 since returning from a strained hip flexor but just .236 with four home runs and 15 RBI overall, and Rusty Greer, who's upped his average to .273 but has only one homer and 18 RBIs.

Aside from that? You have a bevy of pros sorely underproducing for their grandiose salaries. You have a pitching staff with a 5.34 team ERA, 26th of 30 in the majors, manned by Darren Oliver (2-4, 6.66 ERA) and Clark, who are each making well over $4 million, Esteban Loaiza (4-5, 5.53 ERA), who's making in excess of $2 million, and Jeff Zimmerman (1-4, 7.05 ERA), Mike Venafro (1-0, 4.91 ERA), and Tim Crabtree (1-5, 6.45 ERA), who are all garnering checks for services not rendered. Even Rick Helling, who started the year strongly and probably could have picked up a few more wins with added run support, has lost six consecutive starts--not decisions, starts.  

It doesn't get much better at the plate, where the Rangers somehow lead the American League in batting with a .291 average despite the subpar seasons of guys like shortstop Royce Clayton (.230 avg., 12 HR, 35 RBI, $4 million-plus) and outfielder Chad Curtis (.240 avg., 7 HR, 28 RBI, $2 million). But leading the league in batting doesn't help you much when you're also tops in grounding into double plays with 86. That's 10 more than the next-closest club.

Keep in mind the stats were as of Tuesday, and the performances of some have been hindered by injuries: Greer missed a number of games because of myriad ailments, and Oliver was recently placed on the disabled list with shoulder troubles. But, when you get right to it, most of these guys have served only to help consume losses and bloat the payroll.

"In baseball, you have contracts or roster restrictions that prevent you from just going out there and making a bunch of moves," explains Melvin. "It's just not as easy as it sounds. It's not rotisserie league.

"And if the players aren't doing well, there's not a large market for players who aren't doing well. People say, 'Well trade this guy or trade that guy.' When guys aren't going well, there's not a large market for them. So, you're sort of stuck a lot of times."

True, but these days you have only to look at New Yawk and the Boss to know expectancy and a large billfold are the only prerequisites to sustained postseason success. Perhaps news from the East simply doesn't make it this far. My hunch is Pony Express doesn't have an Atlantic-Coast branch, but whatever.

While I fruitlessly search for hoagies and Yuengling Lager, the fans I've tried to discuss this with invariably defend the Rangers. The reaction is usually something along the lines of, "Why can't you just leave those poor boys alone?" or "They're trying" or, my favorite, "They'll turn it around."

To clarify, I'm not trying to condemn them for lack of effort, because you see the struggling hitters taking extra batting practice, and you see the hurting hurlers working with pitching coach Dick Bosman. But in the Bigs, effort and attitude go only so far. No matter how widely they grin, they have a lot of work cut out for them. A lot. To their credit, they don't deny it.

Instead, the blinders in Arlington are reserved to ignore the distinct possibility that all the losing may have finished off the Rangers before the All-Star break. Again, all the losing, at least from here, apparently morphed onetime penthouse occupants into A.L. West doormen.

Yes, it's a long season, and, yes, the team could go on a winning streak. And, yes, Jennifer Lopez could very well leave Puffy for me.

Now, some reality. If you listen closely, you can hear the clock tick-tick-ticking, the calendar pages flip-flip-flipping. As of Tuesday, the boys had three teams ahead of them and were 9 1/2 games out of first place.

The longer this goes on, the longer players they expect to produce sit idly by scratching themselves with manicured fingers, the sooner Melvin will have to use a NASA telescope to catch a fleeting glimpse of first-place Oakland's mustard-yellow, pea-green uniforms.

Still...

"There's no panic," Melvin insists while running his hand through once chestnut-brown hair now besieged by touches of gray. "The interest is to put some wins together with this club. We won 18 games in May without Rusty Greer or Gabe Kapler, so we should be able to put some wins together and show that we're somewhat like the club we were in May. If we wouldn't have gone 18-10 in May, maybe I'd have some doubt. But when you win like that, it gives me reason to believe there are more good months ahead."

Of course, there's no mention of April's molasses-slow, 9-15 start. To the boys, the sun must linger somewhere behind all those ominous, coal-colored storm clouds. It must.

"After all," Melvin reminds, "[a few weeks ago] people approached me wanting to write articles about us being in first place."

He continues forward with mustached grin, attempting to fight the good fight. You all do. You're all so optimistic, so Ned Flanders-like. You don't give up. You forge ahead. Everyone in the clubhouse says the right things, has the right attitude, that I-won't-get-mugged-walking-down-the-street-with-a-fist-full-of-$20s 'tude. It's rosy and happy and cheery.  

And probably naive.

As much as I wish I could skew my thinking, as much as I want to link arms with you, sing "Kumbaya" by a campfire over roasted marshmallows, and find something positive to chat about--like those snazzy uniforms--I can't. Not me.

Too many years of negative conditioning, I guess.

In Philly--and in most cities not attempting to disguise an identity crisis and vast prairies with a few moderately tall buildings and a host of pretentious nightclubs--the bandwagon would have emptied out a few tumbleweeds back. Hell, they probably would have hung the wagoner in effigy just to make a point.

Who knows, maybe the Rangers are right, maybe the naysayers and few media disbelievers are just ignorant and impatient. Maybe they'll get this thing turned around, ascend the A.L. West ladder, win a fourth division crown in five years and shove the trophy right up my pessimistic Philly ass.

If they do, good for them--except for the last part.

Frankly, I don't see it happening. Thankfully, I think, my sphincter is safe. Too many games, too many teams. Too late in the season, too few productive players. Attitude, contrary to the Rangers' slogan, isn't everything.

Or maybe it is. Maybe I just don't get it. No, on second thought, I definitely don't get it.

But like I said, I'm not from 'round here, y'all.


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