SURPRISE, Arizona--The morning Arizona sun beams down and lets its presence be felt. It needs no help on that score--it's powerful enough to warm everyone below and tan the backs of their necks--but it's magnified nonetheless, made ever brighter as it bounces off the ridiculously large ring adorning John Hart's right hand.
The Rangers general manager is sitting in his golf cart along the first baseline of the team's main practice field. (You know it's his cart because "Hart" is stenciled on the front, lest you forget.) Encircling his personalized mini-vehicle is a knot of reporters, all of whom are peppering Hart with serious-sounding, baseball-related questions. What do you think about the Rangers' chances and what do you think about the pitching staff and what do you think about this or that? It's all very fascinating. More interesting, though, is the fact that Hart has stayed in one place long enough for all of them to interrogate him.
It is no secret that Hart has been largely vilified and singled out for everything that's gone wrong with the Rangers over the last few seasons--from dealing Alex Rodriguez to missing out on free agent slugger Carlos Delgado this off-season to, once again, not bolstering the team's starting pitching. And then there was the unfortunate dealing (or, actually, the lack thereof) with pitcher Kenny Rogers before spring training began. The staff ace wanted more money and more years added to his contract. The team said no, and who do you think caught the bulk of Rogers' wrath on behalf of the organization? For the media and many fans (and at least one player), Hart serves as the synthesis between boogeyman and devil, the monster for torch-carrying mobs everywhere to seek out and crucify in the name of all that's holy.
That doesn't mean that some of the disapproval and loathing hasn't been warranted, but the intensity of that distaste has increased appreciably in recent years to the point that it's far more common now to find someone who doesn't like Hart than someone who can even tolerate him. That wasn't always the case. In Cleveland, where he served as general manager before coming to Texas for the 2002 season, Hart had a much more pleasant relationship with the press, his team and fans. Here, things haven't gone quite as smoothly.
"I don't think it's been as easy here as it was for him in Cleveland," says Sandy Alomar Jr., a veteran backup catcher with the Rangers who served under Hart when both were with the Indians. "I think in Cleveland we won, and things went well, but it didn't start that way for him here. If you're judging him from last year to this year, then the team is going in the right direction, but I think sometimes the media doesn't look at it like that. The reason is, it's very hard to go about a relationship with the media once it hasn't gone well, and I think that has an effect on how fans see you. For players, we're judged by our performance on the field. That's what dictates how we're seen. But for GMs, if you come in with the reputation of being one of the best general managers in baseball and then things don't go so good, then people start saying that you're not the guy they thought you were. That can be hard to take."
As a result, there are people in the local media Hart still won't talk to, radio shows he won't appear on and newspaper reporters who rarely get a quote from him. At least that's the way it went down last season, and for much of this year's off-season, too. That, again, makes today's scene at batting practice awfully strange.
Here's Hart--shit-catcher for the greater Dallas-Fort Worth area--sitting in his golf cart answering questions, and he's enjoying it, or appears to be. The sheer brilliance of his smile is exceeded only by the glare from his ring (a home-plate-shaped gold and jewel-encrusted monstrosity that marks the American League Championship he won with the Indians a decade ago). He is affable and comfortable, even funny at times.
"It's like, gimme your tired, your poor," he says, trailing off on a thought that I wasn't around to catch from the beginning. "Ah, what's the end of it?" he asks. One of the reporters answers, filling in the blanks with "your huddled masses yearning to breathe free."
"Right," he deadpans from behind sunglasses and a white visor, "I knew you guys were smarter than me."
He laughs at that, and so does his audience. The whole scene lies in stark contrast to what was expected--a contentious, teeth-pulling episode with little information given and rancor traded liberally between both parties. Perhaps this is the new John Hart. Perhaps he decided to start anew and let the ill will fade. After all, in the past year, the man battled skin cancer, traded away arguably the game's biggest star and was nearly replaced by a man who then wound up out of baseball until a few weeks ago, to say nothing of the everyday baseball dealings of which he's been a part. You can fight on only so many fronts before all is lost, a lesson passed down from the history books to sports professionals everywhere. So maybe he wants to be a baseball man and forget about scrapping. That, or he's decided to pretend that he's cool with us to alleviate some of the pressure. Whatever the reason, there's something different about the man's approach.
Which isn't to say that he's without certain troubles and/or irritants. The Rangers still lack pitching. They failed to sign Delgado (which made a lot of people moan), and Rogers, for those who haven't heard, ain't happy. At all. Plus, the organization just raised ticket prices, which pissed off some of the fans--not that Hart had much to do with it and not that anyone absolved him of responsibility, either.
"I just don't know what the hell he's doing," one fan would say of Hart later in the week during the team's first spring training game against the Kansas City Royals. "They didn't spend any money in the off-season, and then they go and raise ticket prices."
Of course, that had more to do with owner Tom Hicks than Hart, but who cares about details and facts when the scapegoat has already been identified?
The hits keep coming from all positions, it would seem, but if the Rangers want to build on last year's surprising 89-win season, then they'll need Hart to do what he's doing now--somehow ignore all the distractions and the naysayers and the general negativity directed his way and focus on what's best for the organization.
"I never play golf during the spring," Hart says when asked if he'll participate in this afternoon's club-run golf outing, a way for the team's big-time supporters (that is, Hicks' rich friends) to meet the team's big-time players, coaches and front-office types. Hart might have played, despite what he says, but he's recovering from recent elbow surgery that repaired a damaged tendon. No golf, the doctor told him, for at least another three or four weeks. "Really, I don't play in the spring. Never. I'm here for baseball. There's too much work to do. I mean, I might sneak away on an off morning; maybe you pick an odd, off day and do that. But we do two-a-day workouts here, and I'm out here every day. To me, this is where my passion is. And the one thing I can still compete at, golf, I do really enjoy that, too, but this is what we're here for. This is a great time of year--the best time of year. You're looking at the hopes of what you've done during the winter. There's a sense of excitement and optimism about starting the season. This is what we do. The greatest days are when you get to play, and then the next step is coaching or managing, and I've had all of those. But the next step is probably in the job I'm in right now. I love it, but, then, that can be a Catch-22 sometimes, too."
He could have walked away from all this, from the bullshit and the disparaging remarks and the public scrutiny. He's 56 now and just a year removed from surgery that cut a malignant mole away from a spot near his left ear. At that point, who needs extra drama? He could have gone and played golf exclusively--early tee times, a few drinks after the round, easy days. Sounds good in theory, because he loves golf, and he almost did that, nearly left the profession of which he's been a part for most of his adult life to head off in another direction and not look back. But how could he do that when he was still looking forward?
That's what everyone expected to happen last season--for him to retire and make way for then-Assistant General Manager Grady Fuson to move up. Before the year had even begun, people wondered aloud about when Fuson would officially take over, and it really was a question of "when" not "if" in nearly everyone's mind. By the All-Star break, Hart was beginning to believe that was the best course of action, to step aside and prove the forecasts correct.
"You know, this is a long story, and I don't think that, necessarily, going into it is a great thing," says Hart, alluding to what several sources contend was an acrimonious relationship with Fuson. "But I can say in all candor that, at the All-Star break, I made it clear to Tom that I was prepared to go."
Sometime thereafter, though, things changed. Hart and Hicks talked and talked and talked some more. Manager Buck Showalter, a friend and advocate of Hart, chimed in, too, about wanting Hart to stay, which made Hart think that maybe he didn't want to leave after all. Suddenly, golf and semi-retirement didn't look so attractive. Before anyone could see it coming, Hicks flip-flopped and decided to extend Hart's contract and keep him installed as GM.
"Tom came to me about two weeks after the All-Star break and told me he wanted me to stay, that he appreciated my position but that he wanted me to stay," Hart recalls. "I thought about it, thought it through myself, gave myself a good heart-to-heart, and it worked for me. It wasn't a huge deal made out of it for me; we just did it. And I think as we went through the winter, I talked to Tom about giving Buck an extension and some things starting to develop. I think that Buck's comfort level was increased if I was going to be here, and the staff that we have that came over either with me or with Buck, it was like a family here, and that was important to me. Made the decision to extend for two years and we left it at that. I think it gave a lot of people here, more than me, a comfort level that was important."
Comfort for some of them, perhaps. Comfort for Fuson--the declared heir and a guy who was credited with several trades on behalf of Hart and the Rangers--um, not quite. Fuson left the organization shortly thereafter (described in wire reports as the result of being "squeezed out in a power play with manager Buck Showalter and general manager John Hart"). Fuson was out of baseball until this March when the San Diego Padres tapped him to be a special assistant to the team's general manager. Fuson left bitter and quickly after Hart's unexpected resigning, which gave media and fans everywhere all the material they needed to launch into more conversations about why Hart is a self-serving ass. Despite the fact that Fuson was a largely unknown commodity, most everyone in North Texas eagerly anticipated the day he replaced Hart.
"As for Hart, I give him low grades," one longtime baseball insider told me. "The core of this team is talent from the [former Rangers General Manager Doug] Melvin era: Blalock, Young, Teixeira, Mench, Nix, Cordero. Hart left Cleveland because new ownership was going to cut the payroll. Hart convinced Hicks that with more money spent, the Rangers could contend in 2002. Melvin and job candidate Dave Dombrowski told Hicks the opposite, and he did not want to hear that. As you know, Hart has made a series of bad free-agent signings. Grady Fuson ran the draft before being forced out, so he gets the credit if those players succeed. Showalter is now the de facto general manager. That was why Showalter pulled the power play on Fuson. Had Fuson come in, he would have lessened Showalter's power. Hart is content to play golf and let Showalter make decisions."
That's a commonly held theory here in Arizona among those who have followed the Rangers in recent seasons--that while Hart is frequently assailed for his decisions, he really isn't the guy who should be lambasted, because he isn't actually in charge. (The Rangers, as an organization, refuse to lend any credence to that notion; from top to bottom, everyone, including Showalter, said Hart was the principal decision maker.) Showalter, some say, is the man who controls nearly every facet of the club's operations, but if that's the case, then why beat Hart up so often? Why bother to tar and feather the guy if he's nothing but a front for Showalter and Hicks? Why not just write him off as a half-bright sycophant and move on?
The whole mind-set is illogical, because you can hate the man for screwing things up or you can hate the man for not doing anything, but you can't hate him for both; he can't be simultaneously culpable and irrelevant.
That doesn't mean people shouldn't take shots at him, because some of it is legit. The potential Alex Rodriguez-to-Boston deal (before he was traded to New York) was a crudely handled joke for the way it was on, then off, then on and ultimately off again. Hart rightly bore the brunt of people's ire for the way the team mishandled that one, for letting media types learn of the prospective deal before it could be finalized (which, in turn, may have accelerated the disintegration). And when the Carlos Delgado negotiations broke down this winter, Hart should have been front and center explaining why it didn't, or wouldn't, work--and he was, but his explanation was, at best, lame.
"[Delgado] is a quality individual, but we want to continue to be committed with our young players and development plan," Hart told The Dallas Morning News when the negotiation broke down. "We have a first baseman in Mark Teixeira and other young players that we do not want to disrupt with potential position changes."
Which is fine, but only if you believe that money had nothing to do with it. The Rangers offered Delgado at least $4 million less than the Marlins, who were also willing to let Delgado play first base. (Never underestimate the combined power of a player's ego and greed.) Florida did what was needed; Texas didn't. In the end, that's what it comes down to: Either you get it done or you don't--everything else is an excuse.
Those kinds of things have been said by several journos in the area (myself included), which explains why Hart still eyes us at times the way a child does a stranger--with suspicion. But no one is considered by the Rangers to be quite as incendiary as Randy Galloway. The Fort Worth Star-Telegram columnist and ESPN radio show host is, unquestionably and with good reason, the face of the D-FW sports media, so his relationship with the general manager speaks, in part, to the press corps' overall dynamic with Hart (and how some fans perceive the GM). At last check, it's a lot like the rapport between the Lebanese and the Syrians--while the two parties have tried to coexist at times, it continues to feel as though they're moments away from all-out war.
"My dealings with Hart? I have none," Galloway says in his distinctive, engaging Grand Prairie drawl. Hart, meanwhile, told an ESPN television reporter on a national broadcast that he never pays "attention to anything Randy Galloway has to say."
"There's never been a Rangers GM that I haven't had a relationship with that I would say was at least good to fair, and that's going back to '72," Galloway continues. "This is the first one that I would say is a bad relationship, and when he was hired I didn't expect that. And I'll say this: The decision not to talk to him is not John Hart's; it's mine. Early on, when things were going bad, I think that's when you judge someone--on what they're doing and then how they conduct themselves. And that first year, things were going really bad, really awful--it was almost a fantasy it was so awful. How can you be so bad that almost every decision you make turns out to be wrong? So I said some of that.
"Now [Cowboys owner] Jerry [Jones] has been so mad at me for the things that I've said that he's stopped talking to me for days, but the lines of communication were never completely cut off. With John, he didn't return my phone calls. So my attitude was bleep him. What do I need that for? With Hart, his incompetence is exceeded only by his arrogance. Any criticism of Hicks, he finds it personal, and Hart has taken that same approach. You know how personal I've been with Hart? I call him the empty golf shirt. That's it. Because I think he's better at golf than he has been at baseball."
Maybe. But there's something to be said for the fact that it looks as though Hart and Hicks have learned from their mistakes by not continuing to overpay as they once did. (The Rangers, with a salary in the mid-$50 million range, rank in the middle of the pack in the majors.) If it's true that Hart encouraged Hicks to take a run at winning a few years ago by building around A-Rod with some quick-fix older players, then at least he eventually realized that strategy wasn't going to work, stripped the club down and started over with his young guns. That idea clearly has been more tenable, because those young guns are straight shooters, not blanks. He may not have brought those players to Texas, but he's left them alone instead of trading his sacred cows for magic beans. Yet you rarely hear anyone trumpet him for that. As he said, he is often damned no matter what he does or doesn't do.
"The first year, things didn't work out well," Hart admits. "The organization had to define itself and figure out where it wanted to go. We still had Pudge [Rodriguez] and Raffy [Palmeiro] and Alex and a lot of pieces in place where Tom was committed, and we tried to take a quick run and see if we could maybe jump-start this thing. And when things didn't work out--we certainly didn't make some great signings, but I don't think we had the right dynamic in place at the time. The criticism, at the time, was certainly deserved. It didn't bother me, no; that's part of the game.
"But at some point, I think, it did get a bit personal. In my mind, what I did--and I've been doing this a long time--I considered the sources of where the criticism was coming from and deemed that it was personal to me, to Tom and ultimately it was affecting the Rangers. So I did close a lot of people out--I mean, what do they need to talk to me for? We concentrated on what we needed to do internally. Just because I wasn't overly approachable or accessible to some of the media didn't mean that we weren't doing a ton of stuff internally. We realized that it wasn't going to be a quick fix, either. We knew internally what we wanted to do, and it took a better turn last year.
"But I think the die was cast. I was never gonna be a popular figure in Texas, which was a shame, really. I had a good relationship with the media in Cleveland--I was approachable and accessible. But that's OK. My biggest thing was that it was beginning to affect the Rangers. And I think when we traded Alex, it really reached a crescendo where people were saying that we were going to lose 100 games, and a lot of people who haven't broken a sweat in 30 years thought they had it figured out pretty well. But surprise, surprise. It doesn't bother me. I realize now that there's never going to be a fondness for me."
John Hart has a problem--despite his denial about it being a problem. In specific: Kenny Rogers isn't talking, and he's not talking about why he's not talking. Which is fun, but only if you're a glutton for condescension.
"Nope," the staff's No. 1 pitcher says when asked if he has a minute to talk. He gives this answer frequently now, and over the course of a week repeatedly denied the Dallas Observer's request for an interview. Now, though, he's dressing by his locker, pulling on long blue socks, which has his full attention. He doesn't bother to look up or acknowledge my presence, just stares down at his socks--the ballplayer's way of knocking you down a notch without exerting the effort. "Don't have time."
He does, in fact, have time, but only if you're the right kind of person--namely Evan Grant, the beat writer from The Dallas Morning News. Aside from an Associated Press reporter, Grant is the only scribe in Surprise to score the biggest Rangers interview of spring training--an audience with Rogers, the 40-something All-Star pitcher turned curmudgeon. In place of professionalism, Rogers has become cantankerous, posting a sticker on his locker in plain view that pretty much sums up his current position:
"My Shitty Attitude Is None Of Your F#&%ing Business."
Right. Got it.
Rogers, it would seem, is still hot over the way things unfolded (or didn't) for him in the off-season. A few months ago, Rogers, who went 18-9 last year and won his third Gold Glove in five seasons, had a private conversation with Hicks in which he asked for more money. On this, both parties agree. It is the only thing on which they agree.
The dispute stems from whether Rogers--who is in the final season of a two-year $6 million deal--threatened to walk out and retire if more money and/or more years weren't added to his contract. (None of that came to pass--the Rangers denied his request and Rogers reported to camp on time.) Rogers, through his interview with Grant, denied it went down like that. He said he never issued an ultimatum with an "I'll quit and screw you as a result" kicker. The Rangers, through a piece written by T.R. Sullivan in the Star-T (the first story to detail the private conversation thanks to a leak from within the organization), say otherwise--which is what pissed Rogers off and is why he isn't talking to the vast majority of the media here. In fact, Rogers was so livid that, when a reporter working for a different outfit called him on his cell phone shortly after the Star-T piece ran, Rogers allegedly threatened to kick his ass and called him a "motherfucker." (Again, Rogers declined comment.)
This isn't the first time that Rogers and the Rangers have had a falling-out. Despite the fact that Rogers is one of the longest-tenured Rangers in club history, he lashed out at them last season following the A-Rod trade, criticizing Hart for dealing one of the game's best and saying that it wasn't "what I signed on for."
As with anything else, there are two sides to this story. Somewhere in the middle is the truth. Or maybe the truth is forever lost, deleted and replaced with the selective memories of the parties in question. It's become a lot like that game we played as children--whisper down the lane. You line a bunch of people up in a row. The first person whispers a word into the ear of the guy sitting next to him--apple, let's say. By the time it reaches the person sitting at the end of the line, it's been twisted and reworked--maybe by accident, perhaps by design--so that it doesn't come out apple at all, but something radically different.
That has people around here wondering something else: What if the team leaked the retirement story as a pre-emptive strike, as a big fat fuck-you to the pitcher and his dervish of an agent, Scott Boras? (Boras also declined to talk to the Observer. When reached on his cell phone, he followed the Kenny Rogers blueprint for PR tact, saying: "I don't know who gave you this number, but don't you ever call it again." Then he hung up.) It's plausible that it wasn't an accidental leak but rather a masterful, Machiavellian attempt to control the spin on the part of the Rangers--get out in front, make Rogers look like the bad guy. If that's the case, it would make Hart a sort of baseball Lyndon Johnson. (Johnson, as lore and the History Channel have it, once told his aides to leak a story to the press saying that one of his opponents was a pig fucker or something similarly vile. His aides bristled, pointing out to LBJ that it was a lie. "I know that," Johnson supposedly said, "but let's make the bastard deny it.") However it unfolded, public opinion was overwhelmingly in the team's favor on not caving to the Old Man's contract demands.
But beyond that, regardless of who said what and to what end, isn't this a supreme distraction for the club on the whole? And if the team and Hart created that distraction in an effort to shape public opinion, shouldn't they get crucified for it?
"No--because it didn't happen that way," Hart says. "There's been a lot made that, well, we've got to go out and spend money. At some point you do go out and make a decision based on what's best for the organization.
"Listen, I think we're all in unison. We said a ton of good things about Kenny before we made this decision--Kenny's a great guy; he's in great shape; he's left-handed; he represents the franchise well. But from a business standpoint, 10 days before spring training, to say we're going to make a big commitment, we just didn't see that as the right thing to do for the Rangers. Players understand it's a business. The club understands the business. We are a baseball group--we pull for our players; we care about our players; we try to do everything first-class. But at some point you do have to make decisions that may not be popular with a player or players. You can't always make everyone happy. If you do it professionally and do it the right way, that makes it easier.
"Hey, at some point Kenny might go out there and win 18 games and then we'll be at his door, and he might parlay that into more money. Shoot, I don't know. I don't see it as being an issue."
For what it's worth (and the hunch is that it's not worth much), the players are saying the same things that Hart is saying--that the Rogers situation isn't a situation at all. That is, every single player I asked about it said there's been no internal disruption whatsoever, which is eerily consistent of them--the kind of on-message agreement rarely displayed by professional sports organizations. Actually, the only outfit that offers a good parallel to the Rangers' PR-conscious consistency is the Bush White House. So, yeah, that's frightening--because when you have a bunch of people singing the same song, that usually means there's something they're fudging or something they don't want you to know.
The team's collective attempt to be opaque aside, it's reasonable to believe that the clubhouse chemistry has been affected by the Rogers "non-issue" issue, and that's not something that Hart or these Rangers need. For Texas to improve on last season's improbable success, in order for them to be in the playoff hunt at the end of the year the way they were in 2004, the Rangers are going to need a lot of things to break just right. That doesn't mean they are incapable of overcoming adversity. It just means that it would be easier for them to reach their destination if they weren't, themselves, setting up roadblocks before the trip even begins.
Now, if the Rangers equal or exceed last year's 89 wins, it will have everything to do with their everyday lineup (particularly the outstanding young infield) and precious little to do with the pitching staff (which is still alarming as far as the starters are concerned) and their off-season additions (of which, aside from outfielder Richard Hidalgo, there weren't many/any of merit).
"I think the off-season went OK," says shortstop Michael Young, who was one of the more outspoken Rangers about his desire to see Delgado land in Texas. "The thing is, with players, we never want to be satisfied. We always want to be moving forward. At the time, I said that I thought Delgado would fit well, because there's no question he hits a ton. But then, if he did come here, we might have run into problems about where everyone would play. So the way it went down, it wasn't bad."
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Adds outfielder Kevin Mench: "John Hart and Tom Hicks didn't go out and spend money like everyone in the media was screaming for them to do, but they found pieces to come in and fill holes. That's important. The Yankees and Braves and teams like that spend a lot of money, but if you look at their organizations, they build around youth from within first and then fill in with other guys. I think that's what we're trying to do here. A lot of us have played together for a long time, and we're gaining experience."
Kinda sounds like what Young was getting at, doesn't it? Whether it was orchestrated public relations or whether Young and Mench and the rest of the boys agree with Hart and Hicks and Showalter is anyone's guess. But know this: After a week of spring training, it's evident that they've found a common chord, and they're all singing it together.
"It's always been, always--24 hours a day, seven days a week--what's best for the Rangers," Hart says. "That's our approach here, and we want everyone to understand it. People outside the organization, we want them to understand that, too. And we approached other GMs that way; we approached agents that way. Since we traded Alex, we've been building for the future and building a foundation for where we want to go. And maybe some people want to deal with me, and maybe they don't. Maybe some people don't like me. People are always going to say things about you--that's part of the job. But, shoot, I think that's every year and every general manager. It's a fragile business. Who knows, right? If I do something wrong, I could be gone."
John Boy, you might not want to say that so loudly--there are people lurking about who would be terribly excited by that prospect.