The lights are off here, creating a fitting, all-encompassing gloom. No one fills the seats or hawks the hot dogs or slugs the beers. No one occupies the dugouts or sends baseballs screaming into the fall air or makes diving catches on neatly groomed grass. It's empty and quiet now--almost eerily so. The Ballpark is dead, and will be for the next six months.
Then again, it's been dead for the last six months.
So the disaster, the big, huge stinker of a season for the Rangers has finally, mercifully, stumbled to a halt. You can almost see Johnny Oates and Doug Melvin kneeling together somewhere, praying like two teenagers drunk for the first time.
God, if you get us out of this, we swear we'll never trade for Dave Martinez again.
How different this scene is from a year ago, when Texas was bending over for its annual spanking courtesy of the hated New Yawkas. But that was OK by you. At least the Rangers made the postseason. At least they won their third division championship in four years. Who knew they wouldn't capture another this season?
Admit it, you got comfortable. You expected them to win again this year because, prior to this Chernobyl reenactment, they'd marched to eight winning campaigns in the previous 11 seasons. They'd made you forget about summers past when losing was as predictable as the parched heat. They made you think this would go on forever, that baseball was as indigenous to this area as Walker, Texas Ranger and the abomination that is Texadelphia.
It seems the GM fell for it, too. Became complacent, Melvin did. Ditto his field general.
Now, how can I possibly indict them after everything that's happened this season? How can I criticize a team that lost everyone from Ruben Mateo to Pudge to Pete the Peanut vendor due to injury? Easy. I'm from Philly.
Beyond that, though, there's something fundamentally amiss about how the organization is handling this team. A team that finishes more than 20 games out of first, a team that is 20 games under .500, a team that just struggled to its most dreadful performance since 1988 isn't that bad solely due to injuries. Injuries are part of the demise, sure, but to label them the whole reason, the only reason, is simply naïve.
"Injuries happen to everybody," Royce Clayton says. Normally jovial, the shortstop, who hit a lackluster .242, looks understandably weary sitting there, alone, by his locker. "Good teams just overcome that and persevere. We didn't do that. This has just been hard on everybody."
As it should have been. Fact is, your Rangers (71 wins) were only slightly less pathetic than the A.L.'s worst teams, Tampa Bay (69 wins) and Minnesota (70 wins). That should send large, scarlet-colored flags shooting up the Ballpark flagpole. You'd think it would work Melvin, Oates, and some of the players into a lather, because in sports, particularly baseball, knee-jerk reactions are as commonplace as farmer tans--e.g., the probable dismissals of Montreal's Felipe Alou and Arizona's Buck Showalter.
Now here's the funny part. No one in the provincial existence known as Rangersland seems to be worried. Not Melvin or Oates or any of the players. Owner Tom Hicks has said publicly that Melvin will return. Melvin has said publicly that Oates will return. And no one has said anything, publicly or off the record, about "reorganizing" a roster that finished with the second-most errors and the worst ERA in baseball.
Everyone knows this wasn't acceptable, this season, but no one is sweating it because it appears no one has been, or will be, branded the fall guy--and don't give me Dick Bosman, the team's pitching coach who was much maligned and recently released. His firing won't make the waves the front office should be looking for, or even the ripples. If they expect a turnaround by exiling Bosman, they shouldn't hold their breath. Discarding a single coach rarely has significant impact. To shake things up, you'd have to dump the entire coaching staff, as Mets manager Bobby Valentine was forced to do to keep his job last year. Such action would be an unnecessary, even irrational, decision in this case.
No, the Rangers brass needs to pick on someone who will turn heads, but, so far, it doesn't appear they will. What I want to know is, why isn't everyone on the lookout for pink slips? Because this mess, as my mother used to scold theatrically, didn't make itself, so shouldn't someone be held accountable?
Recently, the Rangers announced their attendance figures. Said they drew more than 2.8 million fans, up more than 28,000 from a year ago. Said it was the fourth time in the last five years they've hit the 2.8-mil mark. Not bad. Maybe, since they're not being forced to pinch pennies, the Rangers aren't looking to pinch jobs, either.
"This will be an important off-season for us," counters Oates, surrounded by a knot of reporters significantly smaller in size than the group that hounded him only a few months ago. "Will Ruben Mateo be ready? Will Justin Thompson be ready? Or Pudge? It's impossible to know what direction we'll go. Doug [Melvin] has a lot of irons in the fire; who knows what direction we'll go?
"I'm very excited about [Doug] Davis and [Ryan] Glynn. There's potential there. That's two of the bright spots this season. But as one famous manager once said, potential gets you fired."
Now, I'm not advocating wholesale changes in management. I don't even think Oates should be fired. On the contrary, I think the Rangers should be commended for sticking with him because there isn't enough loyalty in sports.
But I do subscribe to a sense of urgency in these situations; a little pressure to snap everyone to it, as it were. So where's the immediacy? Where are the furrowed brows and the worried words, the fear of getting canned? How come no one's scared? If there were any real bridges in this city, I'd expect to see someone from Arlington perched on one.
Alas, that's not the case here. Far from it, actually.
"This is a unique situation, because there just aren't any answers," Oates says softly. "We're all in the same boat here. Even the manager. We all have to earn our stripes. We all have to earn our rope."
Meanwhile, other skippers are being hung by theirs. The bloodletting in baseball already has begun, with Cincinnati, Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh making managerial changes. By the time you read this, Los Angeles and Baltimore, to name just a couple, might have done the same. It's simply the nature of the beast. And while I don't think Oates is as bad as some do, he didn't win 85 games, as Showalter did, and he isn't deemed a baseball god for his situational knowledge, as Alou is. And yet Oates won't be among those thumbing the Sunday paper employment section. So, again, I wonder, why isn't anyone freaked out? I mean, come on, at least bite your nails or develop a nervous twitch.
This is baseball; something, anything, is supposed to happen. Hell, this is America. Pointing an accusatory finger, branding a scapegoat--and, again, Bosman doesn't quite do the trick--is practically a birthright. If I'm Hicks, I'm laying the smackdown on the whole lot of them, because I'm not paying them to look pretty and gorge on the postgame buffet. If I'm Hicks, I'm pulling Melvin into my office and threatening his job if things don't turn around early next season. I'll force him to give the same sermon to Oates, and so on down the line. I'm looking to overhaul the starting pitching, except Helling, and purge nearly the entire bullpen. It's time to consider the Rangers' young prospects to replace the error-prone middle infield, which swooned late in the season. As for an outfield that was in disarray from jump, no one should be safe: Ricky Ledee didn't look any better here than he did in New York or Cleveland; Chad Curtis and Gabe Kapler are, at best, average hitters who lack consistent pop; Rusty Greer, though solid in the field, is simply overrated.
The hope would be to frighten my crew straight. But I'm not Hicks or Melvin. The Rangers are apparently content to do it their way, which is to do nothing at all--at least not yet. So, if they're not going to ax the GM, and they're not going to ax the manager, and they're not going to make radical adjustments to a roster so obviously in shambles, then what? Is this broken club going to magically mend itself? And if they're not making moves in the not-too-distant future, then when?
If the Rangers are planning to reclaim their perch atop the AL West anytime soon, something serious has to happen.
The lights won't be off forever, you know.
As an aside, albeit a belated one, something's been weighing on me recently. In the aftermath of the 49ers-Cowboys game, a slew of columns admonishing San Fran wideout Terrell Owens appeared. Scribes took shots at the receiver for embodying everything that is now "wrong with sports."
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I say bullshit. I say he jazzed up an otherwise pitiful matchup between two pitiful teams. He made the NFL, which can be stale and rehearsed at times, feel fresh and exciting again--the way it felt when you were young, before any kind of celebration was thwarted by the commissioner's office as a matter of principle.
Of course, it was more than just a beautiful bit of showmanship; it was another kick to the side of a now-decaying franchise. To stand at midfield, on the beloved star, arms wide, head back, was to spit in the eye of every Cowboy, of every fan. Simply put, it took balls--and contempt. The same type of disdain, in fact, that the Boys of yesteryear used to hold for their opponents.
Now, things are different. Now, they win neither. The bully has become the bullied.
And Terrell Owens is my new hero for pointing it out in style.