The Texas Rangers stink and, fittingly, general manager Jon Daniels feels like raw fish.
"I put our name on the list," Daniels says as I arrive for lunch at Las Colinas' Blue Fish restaurant. "Should just be a few minutes."
Cool. Wait. I mean...huh?
You're telling me the Rangers' No. 1 decision-maker can't snap his fingers, circumvent a waiting list and finagle the joint's primo table? A 20-something power broker we're counting on to take down the American League can't bully his way into a Japanese sushi bar?
"Probably could," Daniels says sheepishly. "Maybe I'd try it if we were in first place. But not these days."
And so we wait. Only five minutes, but we wait. While one of us chats calmly on his cell phone, the other learns that although Daniels may not have experience under his belt or skins on his wall, he does possess two qualities vital in leading the Rangers out of eternal mediocrity: Perspective. Patience.
"He's an intelligent, knowledgeable, brilliant baseball mind," says Rangers owner Tom Hicks, who last month rewarded Daniels a contract extension despite baseball's worst record. "My opinion of JD hasn't wavered."
Perhaps it should've. Because Daniels is certainly culpable for this Rangers season meandering toward a whimpering end like the 35 before—without a sniff of the World Series.
It is Daniels who got the job in 2005 as a 28-year-old Doogie Wowser, armed with an Ivy League education, an uncanny knack for crunching numbers and a promise to maneuver the Rangers like never before. It is Daniels who gave fat contracts to Nos. 1 and 2 pitchers Kevin Millwood and Vicente Padilla, only to watch them go a combined 9-15 with an ERA around 6.50. It is Daniels who traded away Highland Park product Chris Young, only to cringe at him becoming an All-Star and leading baseball's starters with a 2.00 ERA. It is Daniels who acquired Brad Wilkerson, only to shrug when a recent three-homer game that raised his batting average to .230 was neutralized two nights later by a four-strikeout pratfall. And it is Daniels who hired manager Ron Washington, only to see the bubbly optimist feud with players, fume about shoddy fundamentals and field one of the worst teams in baseball.
It is Daniels who built this team. This team that a year ago was tied for the AL West division lead at the All-Star break, but this year needed a hot, wet June to sneak within an embarrassing 15 games of the first-place Los Angeles Angels.
"I expected us to compete for a division title, but after the hole we dug the odds are clearly stacked against us," Daniels concedes while perusing the menu of undercooked, overpriced Asian delicacies. "I'll take my share of the blame. I deserve it." They would criticize. But they don't recognize.
Despite wearing a black golf shirt emblazoned with the Rangers logo, Daniels goes wholly unnoticed by a lunch-time crowd more concerned with Sake than sucky. Not once during our 90-minute summit is Daniels identified, much less approached.
Comforted by glasses of iced tea and water, we pick through a lead-off bowl of edamame, nonchalantly eliminating the salted, steamed green soy beans in much the same obscure environment in which the Rangers are dawdling through another forgettable season.
"It happens," Daniels says of getting recognized. "But only about one-third of the time."
The anonymity is probably best, because the failures of Daniels' baseball team are all too familiar.
One of these days the Rangers will break the Déjà Boo. One of these days, they'll finish better than third in their four-team division. One of these days (and for the first time in their 36-year history), they'll advance to the League Championship Series. One of these days they'll stop shrinking like Michelle Wie against the big boys and halt the relentless losses that long ago coagulated into one giant defeat.
Today, however, is not the day.
The Rangers had a representative at this week's All-Star Game in San Francisco—shortstop Michael Young—only because league rules mandate at least one player per team. They last saw .500 on April 13, bottomed out at 23-42, had an unprecedented starting pitching ERA of 6.92 through 65 games and didn't register a winning road trip until July.
"I think we were all fooled in spring training," Hicks says. "I'm not sure I understand what's happened yet. It's like we caught the flu and we can't get rid of it. We've had some tough injuries, and now we've got guys playing who are essentially minor leaguers. I'm very disappointed this year.
Scariest part? Most of Daniels' off-season signings have worked.
Entering the break, the GM's top three free-agent risks were rewarding him with surprising results. Sammy Sosa, after a year out of baseball, had 63 RBIs, ninth-most in the AL. Center fielder Kenny Lofton, who turned 40 in May, was hitting .301 with 20 stolen bases, and surgically re-booted closer Eric Gagne boasted 12 saves and a microscopic 1.32 ERA. But instead of leading Texas into a pennant race, these off-season acquisitions have been devalued into tradable commodities for younger prospects as Daniels begins the team's latest, greatest rebuilding project with an expected flurry of deals before the July 31 deadline.
"Those three guys needed to work out for things to really go right for us," Daniels says. "But it hasn't been enough. The first two months our only consistent area was the bullpen. The guys we counted on to hit didn't hit, we didn't field and our starting pitching didn't give us a chance in a lot of games. I don't know which problem came first—the chicken or the egg—but obviously a lot of things have gone wrong that we didn't anticipate."
Given lucrative contracts last winter, Padilla has been either horrible or hurt, Young has been ho-hum and Washington and his sunny disposition haven't meant shit to a team besieged by pitching woes, infield injuries and thin skin.
The rookie skipper had to apologize to the team for calling out catcher Gerald Laird in the dugout during a game and later engaged in a private spat with first baseman Mark Teixeira for ignoring a take sign. Though both incidents undermined Washington's bravado as the ultimate players' coach, Daniels views neither as more than potholes on the road to managerial maturity.
"Early on I don't think he got a fair shake from the media," Daniels said of his manager. "Some of the stuff that was written and said was extremely premature and short-sighted. I actually think he handled those situations well. They aren't red flags at all. Honestly, he handled them perfectly."
In a wacko season in which the Rangers' humbling highlights have included celebrating the 600th career homer of a guy (Sosa) who belted only 2 percent of his dingers in Texas, inducting a modest .305 lifetime hitter (Rusty Greer) into their Hall of Fame and touting the fact that Washington has yet to be ejected from a game, now arrives this. Teixeira gets hurt, Hank Blalock gets hurt and Ian Kinsler gets hurt. Three-fourths of the infield—long considered Texas' strength—is on the disabled list and...the Rangers start playing their best baseball of the season?
Without rhyme or reason, no-name backups have tried to salvage the season. With unlikely contributions from spring training afterthoughts such as Ramon Vazquez, Desi Relaford, Travis Metcalf, Adam Melhuse and Marlon Byrd, Texas recently played 10 consecutive games against the three AL division leaders and promptly went 6-4. Over the last month they've won 15 of 23 games, six of seven series and, if only for a moment during a marathon, looked like a bona fide Major League Baseball outfit.
Even for a Cornell grad like Daniels, there's not an easy explanation.
"If you would've told me we'd be playing with those guys and more than staying afloat," he says, "that would have been a pretty big leap of faith for me to believe it."
Though Daniels jokes that "I'm not sure they're even aware of it," the Rangers are 12-7 since his contract extension. Kameron Loe went to the minors and came back closer to Derek Lowe. Young started hitting. Jamey Wright actually pitched beyond the fifth inning. And, sooner than later, Teixeira, Blalock and Kinsler will return.
Only Zonk, those two nuns and a clubhouse naively clinging to a colossal comeback believe the Rangers will play meaningful games after the break. But hey, Scooter Libby avoided jail time, that bullshit "Um-buh-rell-uh" song gets radio air time and the first-pitch temperature for Rangers-Angels on July 5 was a remarkable 77, so anything's possible.
"It'll take a miracle," Laird says. "But it's a weird game. Let's stay hot for two months and maybe we can make it interesting in September."
The Rangers must sweep the three post-break games this weekend in Anaheim. Anything less, and this season immediately dissolves into next season.
Says Wilkerson, "Stranger things have happened."
It's not easy to hoodwink a guy who was taking subways to a Manhattan prep school at age 13, surviving two muggings and a near-fatal car crash before he was 21 and catapulting himself into a Major League Baseball career at a time when the rest of us were still paying off college loans.
"Are you at all interested in this?" Daniels asks, pointing his chopsticks in the general direction of a spiny lump of soft-shell crab. "It's really good...but I'll gladly eat it."
"How about you?" I retort, trying unsuccessfully to sucker him into a two-for-one trade just for the hell of it. "You scared of these jalapeño rolls?"
"Nope," he says, engulfing the crab after a swift dip through the wasabi and soy sauce.
No negotiation. No fanfare. No nonsense. No regret. Of course, Jon Daniels was always an old soul.
"Very focused and determined," says his wife, Robyn. "From the moment I met him."
The oldest son of Mark and Mindy, he indeed seems alien. Or at least a product of the kind of special, upgraded gene pool formed only by a school headmaster father and a mom who teaches at the Lexington School for the Deaf in New York. While at 11 most of us were certain only about the existence of cooties and the existential significance of Nintendo, Jon boy was out becoming a man.
He was gifted and talented all right, but for Daniels it was acumen over athleticism. He played a little basketball and idolized Gary Carter, Lenny Dykstra and Dwight Gooden while holding down catcher and third base in the Bayside neighborhood of Queens. His detour to enlightenment arrived promptly in the sixth grade. Of the 2,500 academically elite New York students chosen to take the entrance exam to prestigious Hunter College High School in '89, Daniels was one of only 230 to pass.
"No way, I didn't want to go," Daniels says. "It was in Manhattan, in a different school, away from my neighborhood and my friends. But Dad told me, 'I won't make a lot of decisions for you, but this is one of them.' He said I could thank him later. And eventually I did."
After two years riding what he jokingly calls "the short bus," Jon was left to endure his own daily commute from the family's upper-middle-class apartment in Queens to the heart of New York City. The one-hour, 20-minute trip included a bus jaunt and treks on three subways, including the infamous No. 7 train.
He was 13.
"It makes you grow up, whether you're ready or not," he says. "Some of the things you see in the city and how you have to navigate problems, it makes you aware of your surroundings and turns you into a very analytical observer."
Twice Daniels was mugged, including once when a gang of six teens followed him and his buddy into a deli, pulled a knife and stole their combined $20 while the shop owner looked the other way.
"There were some moments, but the good thing was it got me out of my comfort zone," Daniels says. "While some of my friends had never left Queens, I was getting to interact with kids from all five boroughs, getting introduced to all sorts of cultures."
Death tiptoed a little closer during the fierce Nor'easter of '98. Traveling from a job interview in Boston back to his home at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, Daniels' light blue '86 Camry came upon a massive pileup. As he sat pondering a route around the wreckage, a group of people frantically waved at him from the embankment. Scrambling through the snowdrifts to safety, Jon watched his car get totaled by an 18-wheeler careening out of control on the icy road just 60 seconds later.
"At the time I wasn't a deep enough thinker to assess what it all meant," Daniels says. "I just knew I needed a ride home."
A couple drove Jon to a nearby Denny's, where his buddies picked him up. He eventually upgraded to an '87 silver Sentra hatchback his friends mockingly referred to as "the DeLorean," graduated from Cornell with an applied economics and management degree only geeks and geniuses can appreciate, got the job in Boston, met a girl and, you guessed it, lived happily ever after.
"He was always a workaholic, but a lot of his time was spent on his second job, his fantasy baseball team," Robyn says. "I never thought 'what a dork,' but it didn't take me long to realize he was downplaying how into sports he was."
Oh yeah. Baseball.
While Daniels yawned away his days at Allied Domecq, then the parent company of Dunkin' Donuts and Baskin-Robbins, his Cornell roommate A.J. Preller landed an internship with the Philadelphia Phillies. Relying on a unique perspective gleaned alongside Daniels in Cornell classes like Arbitration in Sport, Preller immediately impressed the Phillies, even winning the organization's fantasy league. All the while he was prodding his buddy's inherent interest in baseball.
"We always talked about his job," Daniels remembers. "Never mine."
Daniels began tagging along to weekend Major League games and owners' meetings with Preller, who quickly advanced to a job in baseball's front office. Jon met Colorado Rockies assistant GM Josh Byrnes, who offered him an internship. Leaving a $40,000 job for a six-month gig paying $275 a week was never easier. Or smarter. Because the temporary gig led to a job offer with the Rangers as then-GM John Hart's baseball operations assistant. On New Year's Day 2002, Daniels lugged his thin résumé and thick head of hair to Texas intent on transforming old dogs with his new tricks.
"Looking back we knew Texas was the beginning of something," Robyn says. "We just never dreamed it would come to this point so quickly."
Three years later—at 28 and without having ever orchestrated a draft or engineered a trade—Daniels replaced Hart, becoming the least experienced executive in baseball history.
His rocket rise began at the '01 winter meetings when Daniels first bumped into Hart. The Rangers' GM, inspired by the league's vogue trend of hiring young, creative, stats-oriented geeks, sought to infuse his organization with fresh perspective. And Daniels knocked his socks off.
"When I met him I immediately thought, 'This is exactly what I'm looking for,'" Hart said upon hiring Daniels. "I didn't interview anyone else. He had the right combination with his intelligence, work ethic and ability to relate to people. Jon is a very cool customer. He's not a headstrong guy. He's not a guy who thinks he invented the game."
Daniels soared up the flow chart, through operations assistant to director of baseball operations and assistant to the general manager until Hart, frustrated by the team's 311-337 record during a four-year tenure besieged by big contracts on old veterans and the albatross signing of Chan Ho Park, resigned.
Without hesitation, Hicks had his replacement. And without a real game plan or motivational lifelong dream, Daniels, the kid who carefully navigated one of the world's nastiest cities before puberty, had a GM job before 30.
Keith Grant debuted as a Mavericks teenage ball boy in the '80s and eventually rose to GM Donnie Nelson's right-hand man. And there's little doubt that the Jones boys—Stephen and Jerry Jr.—will ascend to the Cowboys' throne when Jerry finally retires. But never in the Dallas area or the world of sports has a kid climbed so far, so fast up the executive ladder.
"There was a learning curve," Daniels says. "But I'm totally comfortable now."
While Hart showed his face about as regularly as Punxsutawney Phil, Daniels—with Preller serving as his international scouting director and daily sounding board—has affixed accountability to the organization. Though born five years after the Rangers arrived in Arlington and young enough to be the 55-year-old Washington's son, he's exhibited the talent to conduct positive transactions, the testicles to pull the trigger on risky deals and the temperament to admit when he's wrong. Guided in part by 35-year-old assistant GM Thad Levine, senior consultant Hart and Preller, whom he helped land a job in the organization in '04 after a stint with the Los Angeles Dodgers, he's able to talk current events with players his age in the morning and in the afternoon negotiate with 68-year-old Phillies GM Pat Gillick.
The kid whose taste matriculated from eggplant parmesan to sashimi tuna. The guy who resembles The Sopranos' "Christopher." The punch line whose name is only temporarily Jon, until he reaches puberty and the "h" fully develops. The boss they call "JD."
They're all growed up.
As in married to Robyn in '03, driving a Yukon, living near the Four Seasons Resort in the posh part of Irving, turning 30 on August 24 and, most telling, becoming a father to a boy named Lincoln back in January.
"I'm still the guy who learned to love sushi when one of my friends worked as a waiter and brought home leftovers," Daniels says. "Still pretty intense; I wear my feelings because I care so much. But with Lincoln it makes it easier to keep the focus on the big picture. He takes the edge off the tough losses."
Says Robyn: "He keeps things in perspective now. Sometimes he even relaxes."
A good umpire always cleans his plate, but this is ridiculous. Suddenly, Jon Daniels is channeling Joey Chestnut, the world's hot dog-eating champ. My lunch date isn't exactly scarfing 66 hot dogs in 12 minutes, but he is sending me to the showers and calling for a closer—himself.
"I'm going to pick at that if he's done," Daniels says to our waitress, eyeing the remaining two California rolls.
"Fine," I say. "Call yourself out of the bullpen."
It's not the messes Daniels has made in his first two seasons that will define his Rangers legacy, it's the way he cleans them up in the next two weeks.
When he traded Young and Adrian Gonzalez to the San Diego Padres for Adam Eaton and Akinori Otsuka in January 2006—with just four months on the job—the training wheels came off, the honeymoon abruptly ended and the skepticism about Daniels' age escalated into criticism about his actions.
Neither the swapping of Alfonso Soriano for Wilkerson, Francisco Cordero and Kevin Mench for Nelson Cruz and Carlos Lee, nor John Danks for Brandon McCarthy appears headed for Daniels' win column. Cordero leads baseball in saves for the Milwaukee Brewers, Cruz is back in the minors, Danks has five wins for the Chicago White Sox and Wilkerson strikes out more than Lindsay Lohan at a Relient K concert.
In Arlington, home of the worst franchise in professional sports, they're accustomed to losing. There have been just 14 winning seasons since 1972, a cumulative record 193 under .500 and consistent success only in the dot race in the bottom of the 6th inning.
Losing they can take. It's the premature jettisoning of a local pitching talent like Young that really irks fans. And Daniels. "It's really the only deal you can say is one-sided," admits Daniels, who watched Eaton pitch only 65 innings last season because of a pre-existing finger injury. "We underestimated Chris, and Adam never got healthy."
But before we trash Daniels as the quintessential bean counter who compares unfavorably to trendy, nerdy wunderkind GMs like Brian Cashman (Yankees), Theo Epstein (Red Sox) and Mark Shapiro (Indians). Before we lament firing Doug Melvin (Brewers) or not hiring Dave Dombrowski (Tigers). Before we judge a newbie after just 22 months, consider this:
The Los Angeles Clippers have owned an NBA lottery draft pick in 18 of the past 21 years and parlayed them into just four playoff berths. Elgin Baylor is a horrible GM. Jon Daniels isn't. Yet.
"I'm going conservative and saying he's been average at best," says Greg Williams, co-host of KTCK 1310 AM The Ticket's baseball heavy afternoon show Hardline. "A lot of his trades have been disasters, but at the time we were all ecstatic about them. He doesn't have the benefit of hindsight like we do. Besides, his biggest stories are yet to be written."
With this season deader than Rafael Palmeiro's marketability, a philosophy at least temporarily geared toward rebuilding for 2009 and the unrestricted trade deadline approaching, Daniels is charged with overseeing a subtle fire sale. On the block are veterans Lofton, Sosa, Gagne, Otsuka and even Teixeira, whose contract expires next season. In return, Hicks and fans demand pitching, youth and, most of all, hope.
Prospects, not patches.
Says Daniels: "I'm willing to listen to anything that will improve our team."
He must accomplish this impossible task—winning at the Major League level while simultaneously amassing sustainable talent in the minors—under irrational constraints. Cuts in the scouting department, a pedestrian budget despite playing in the nation's fifth-largest market, a pissed-off Michael Young (better known as the face of the franchise) and a farm system ranked 28th out of 30 by Baseball America are all conspiring against Daniels.
"There's a certain amount of propaganda to those rankings, but at best the Rangers are middle of the pack," says long-time fan Jamey Newberg, founder of the must-read Rangers minor-league manifesto, The Newberg Report. "Their rebuilding plan is the correct plan, but the problem is it's the same plan they've been giving only lip service to for years."
Says Daniels of his organizational talent, "With our recent draft and some of the moves we've already made, if we do nothing else we'll make a pretty dramatic climb in the rankings next year. And we're not finished."
Young, who signed an $85 million contract extension last winter partly because of Texas' supposed commitment to win now, bristles at the rebuilding. Like a lot of us, he's lost track of where one reconstruction ends and another begins. Sensing his displeasure, Daniels met with Young on the recent road trip in Detroit.
"It was productive in that I got a chance to tell him how I feel," Young says sternly in front of his locker before last Thursday night's 5-1 loss to the first-place Angels at soggy Rangers Ballpark. "I understand we have two different job descriptions, but I've been through rebuilding and I'm not receptive to it in any way, shape or form. I don't want to be patient. I want to win now. Today. If we're trying to sell rebuilding to the fans, they shouldn't be patient either."
Uh-oh. Eschewing self-preservation, in last month's draft Daniels—at the time without a contract beyond '08—drafted a slew of high-school pitchers he might not survive to see pitch in Texas. But better for the franchise, goes the timeless thinking, to land a No. 1 pitcher in three years than a No. 3 pitcher in one year.
This, of course, is an about-face from last winter when Daniels coveted McCarthy over Danks because he was a year older, more experienced and better suited to help the Rangers win right stinkin' now.
"I told Michael we were implementing a five-year plan toward stability and a one-year plan toward winning, running concurrently," Daniels says. "I purposely avoid the word rebuilding."
But Hicks doesn't. With his team dragging a league-worst 26-43 record on June 19, he flip-flopped philosophies, awarded his GM a $650,000 extension and hedged his bet by making it only one year. It's going to get worse before it gets better, and Daniels knows it. By sabermetrics, carbon dating, some secret function on the new iPhone or just acquired intuition, he knows it.
Though he refuses to pinpoint a time line, the blueprint calls for blossom in 2009.
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By then both Millwood and Padilla will be in contract years, financially motivated into solid seasons. McCarthy should be dependable by then. Loe could be a star. Who knows what will happen to pitchers Robinson Tejeda, Thomas Diamond and Edinson Volquez? Or even recent 17-year-old first-round draft pick Blake Bevean, he of the 98 mph fastball and the 110 mph cockiness. In theory, come '09 Jason Botts, Taylor Teagarden, Johnny Whittleman and John Mayberry Jr. will be doing the clutch hitting and Kasey Kiker and Eric Hurley the quality pitching. Who knows? Maybe imminent Twins free agent and area resident Torii Hunter will be roaming center field and, though he'll need an extension on his expiring '08 contract, perhaps Washington will still be around to manage it all.
"Can't control 2009 or even 2008," Washington says. "I'm only worried about 2007. They haven't put that 'x' by our name telling us we're eliminated. So we're going to keep playing our schedule and see what happens."
Says Daniels before excusing himself first for the bathroom, then the door, "Our results are disappointing. For that I take full responsibility."
But unlike Jon Daniels' 2007 Texas Rangers, his career and his lunch aren't cooked.