It's June in Dallas--a horrible combination. The weather is hot and sticky. The bars are crowded. Bastard children with no one to school them run wild in the streets. And, of course, the Texas Rangers are performing their annual rendition of Dead Men Walking. Makes you wish you were somewhere else, doesn't it?
Already the Rangers are well under .500, not to mention double-digit games behind the first-place Seattle Mariners. If any of this comes as a surprise to you, stop reading this column immediately, buy a television, tune it to ESPN, then smash it over your empty head.
The real shocker would have been if this crew had waited until, say, July to junk the season and plan for next year. Not that they'd own up to any of that. These guys are on the comeback trail, you understand. That's what they all say. That's why my ears hurt.
Athletes are a lot of things, but they don't tend to be forthright. Most of them would rather tongue kiss Madeleine Albright than talk on the level. Maybe it stems from self-delusion. And who can argue? Living a lie is often easier than coping with reality. (In my world, I deserve being a columnist, and I'm good at it.)
But when you're experienced, when you're seasoned like me, you learn to decipher their codespeak. This, then, is your first lesson. Pay attention.
"Yeah, it's a big hole that we've dug for ourselves, but we can't think about the hole," Alex Rodriguez says. He's standing in front of his locker, looking typically dapper. His hair was recently highlighted with blond tufts; very 'N Sync. I hope he starts singing while doing the running man. Now that would be worth the price of a game ticket. "I think Seattle is playing phenomenal. It feels like we've been saying that for the last three years. They have a dominant team built on pitching and defense, and that's what it takes. But you can't really worry about what Seattle and Oakland are doing--they're running away from the division. What we have to do is get back into the winning column."
On the surface, kind of an innocuous quote. In that, it's a lot like the pickup basketball games I play in at Tietze Park. Take a quick glance, and everything looks about right. Examine the details, though, and you're sure to find something is slightly amiss--the squatty Cuban-Italian fool who can't shoot (hello), for example, or the guy wearing jeans and cowboy boots.
There are something like 252 million reasons why A-Rod is loath to come out and directly blast this moribund organization. He has to veil his shots, lest he look petty and ungrateful. In this particular instance, he lauds his former club, the Mariners, as a model of baseball excellence. They have sound pitching and defense and have played well over the past three years. The translation, naturally, is the tacit implication that he's been stuck in suck-town for the past three seasons, a dreary existence where pitching and defense are rumors, if not complete unknowns.
See what he did there? He indicted the Rangers, but he didn't do so overtly. Get it? So cunning, so wry. I swear, if I ever meet a ballplayer who isn't bright, even Machiavellian, I will be stunned. Stunned, I tell you.
Regardless of the tempered language, what we have here is what we always have around this time: an exercise in short-timing. The season is less than half complete, but this team is finished. Everyone knows it. You know it, too. Compared with this point last season--and it's not as though last year was stellar--the Rangers are averaging close to 3,500 fewer fans per game. And why not? Why go to the ballpark when you can spend your cash on loose women and liquor? You still come away with an empty feeling in the end, but at least you get some bang for your buck.
Either way, we're all left looking toward the future. Really, that's all anyone can do at this point, because the present is mighty screwed. Why? Well, the defense is better, they can still hit, so...what do you think the answer is? The pitching, or lack thereof.
"Oh, I dunno, I think you can look around the clubhouse and point to a lot of things that aren't going right," second baseman Mike Young says. "Everyone is quick to blame the pitching staff; everyone immediately says, 'Oh, the pitching is holding them back,' but we had plenty of chances to score runs, and we couldn't get it done."
True enough, but when your pitching staff is in a constant state of flux, and when it ranks--take a wild guess here--dead last in team ERA, it's a little tougher to keep pace with the opposition. I don't want to spend a lot of time lambasting the pitching; just thinking about it gives me a terrible headache (I have no idea how Buck Showalter copes on a daily basis). But if the Rangers are really going to plan for the future, they need to start with the pitching. No one should be safe. Hell, they might want to scrap the lot of them and hold open auditions--they couldn't do much worse. Except for Chan Ho Park. They ought to keep him around just so the medical staff has something to do on the regular.
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But maybe it's not as bleak as all that. This is a team that's polarized in terms of talent. On the one end, you have the putrid pitching. On the other, you have some promising position players; some young guys and some old heads that make for a fine mix. Much to everyone's surprise, Young has proven to be one of the better second basemen in the league, and Hank Blalock and Carl Everett are near the top of nearly every statistical category that matters. Throw in A-Rod, who's arguably the league's best player, and Mark Teixeira, who figures to be a star, and what you have is the makings of a very good lineup.
Yes, on paper, a few seasons from now, perhaps this team will contend. Perhaps. It's a small consolation, but it's June; when you're talking Texas baseball in June, you take what you can get.
"When you have those frustrating days, you look at the Mike Youngs, the Teixeiras, the Hank Blalocks of this clubhouse and you have a sense of optimism," Rodriguez says, actually meaning that he's close to slitting his wrists. "You just hope that management will build this team around pitching and defense and use Seattle and the Yankees as a role model to turn this thing around."
Wow. That's twice A-Rod mentioned the Mariners. He must be getting really tired of all this losing. Maybe he even wishes he was in Seattle right now. Which makes two of us.