Doctors took Rudy Jaramillo's cancer.
They couldn't touch his charisma.
On a glorious spring training afternoon in Mesa, Arizona, baseball's best hitting coach walks into Hohokam Stadium and is immediately mobbed.
Chicago Cubs and former Texas Rangers slugger Alfonso Soriano, who last year hit 46 homers and 41 doubles, dances up to Jaramillo with a "Papa Rudy!" greeting and a plea for a CliffsNotes session.
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Cubs manager Lou Pinella, he of the 1,519 major-league victories, watches intently as Jaramillo demonstrates a common hitch in spring swings. And new Ranger Sammy Sosa, with a fifth-most 588 career homers, listens and nods as Jaramillo urges him to stand closer to home plate.
"Everyone loves Rudy," Sosa says. "He's one of the reasons I'm excited to be playing baseball again."
Chatting in the visitors' dugout before a Cubs-Rangers exhibition sure to be forgotten long before Friday's home opener against the Boston Red Sox, it's apparent that the surgeons didn't monkey with Jaramillo's confidence either.
"I've been studying the baseball swing for 20 years, and I'm one of the best in the game," Jaramillo says behind wrap-around shades and between sips of water. "I've got the players' trust and respect. I win them over. They listen to me. The results speak for themselves."
For years the Rangers have explained inflated batting averages and abundant home runs in Arlington by the wind currents tied to their VIP restaurant, The Gold Club. All they really had to do is credit Jaramillo, the gold standard.
"There's not a better hitting instructor out there," says shortstop Michael Young, who won the American League batting title in '05. "Every guy in our clubhouse knows we're lucky to have him."
Jaramillo thrives by customizing philosophies to fit individuals, like the toe-tap mechanism that helped Young evolve from a gnat-powered rookie into last year's All-Star Game MVP. The guy coaxed 99 RBIs out of Kevin Elster, for crying out loud; who doubts his talents?
Jaramillo, 56, has been with the Rangers 13 years, the only coach to survive more than eight straight seasons. Drafted by the Rangers in '73 out of Sunset High School and the University of Texas, Jaramillo spent four seasons as a mediocre minor-league outfielder. Deciding, like a lot of us, that ultimately it's easier to analyze than actualize, he began coaching.
In the future, a manager. For now, a magician.
"Someday, maybe," says Jaramillo, who last fall interviewed to be the Rangers' manager but removed his name before Ron Washington was hired. "But right now this is what I do best, this is what I love. We've always been known as a hitting team, and I don't want that to stop. I think this could be one of our best."
Promise: If these Rangers surpass the slugging of previous Texas lineups, they will win their first AL West division championship since '99.
Jaramillo has coached three home-run kings, two RBI leaders, a batting champ and three MVPs. His '05 stable set a major-league record for home runs at home, and the '06 group was the first to boast four players with 40-plus doubles.
For 11 consecutive seasons the Rangers have scored at least 800 runs, making Jaramillo the metroplex's all-time best position coach, just ahead of former Cowboys kicking coach Steve Hoffman, Mavs free-throw coach Gary Boren and Mike Modano's dating coordinator. Seems like every time you looked up the last four seasons the Rangers were hitting three homers and winning 11-2. Problem was, when you weren't looking, they were losing 3-2, going 82-94 in one-run games under Buck Showalter.
Jaramillo is baseball's longest-tenured hitting coach, already in the Texas Sports Hall of Fame and owner of a Ph.D. in sports' most advanced curriculum: Hitting a round ball with a round bat. Consistently. Viciously. But that's not enough for him.
"I want to be a part of finally bringing a World Series to Texas," Jaramillo says.
Darting around a division crown and dusting off the Fall Classic bunting come late October are different animals, especially for a franchise with exactly one playoff game win in 35 seasons. Last year the Rangers bored us with an 80-82 season.
But if Jaramillo can whip cancer in two months, anything's possible.
Since his father and grandfather suffered prostate problems, Jaramillo gets regular six-month checkups. Sure enough, following a clean exam in the fall of '05, his next visit revealed two microscopic areas of malignancy. He had surgery last March during spring training but was back on the bench by Memorial Day. Subsequent tests have been cancer-free. (Ironically, the second-best offensive coach in the history of Dallas sports, the Mavs' Don Nelson, also developed prostate cancer. Get tested, Norv Turner.)
"If I hadn't gotten the tests I would've been in bad shape, so I look at the whole thing as a positive," Jaramillo says. "It made me mentally stronger. I always loved what I did, but I think I appreciate the chance to teach baseball even more."
Moribund under Showalter's micromanaging, the clubhouse has been rekindled by Washington's enthusiasm. If spring training attitude equated to regular season aptitude, the Rangers would be looking at 110-52. Unfortunately, pitching counts.
Because the Rangers have never really even flirted with a Cy Young winner, their momentous slugging has amounted to so many spindly bugs sprouting from grass this time of the year. Extremely plentiful. Temporarily interesting. But, in the end, wholly insignificant. The Rangers, owners of baseball's longest streak without a trip to the League Championship Series, are annually a bunch of April fools, optimistically committed to homering their way to the post-season.
Texas will get run production from the bats of Young, Sosa, Mark Teixeira, Hank Blalock and maybe even 39-year-old centerfielder Kenny Lofton. With an edict from Washington for more steals, sacrifices and hit-and-runs leading to more manufactured runs, the offense might indeed be more potent than ever.
But, as usual, there are doubts smack dab in the middle of the diamond. Can Kevin Millwood remain consistent? Can Vicente Padilla remain sane? Is Brandon McCarthy as good as John Danks? Is Eric Gagne capable of regaining his unhittable stuff as a closer?
"Most important thing we need to do is have our pitchers throw strikes," Washington says. "Make the other team hit the ball and earn their runs. Because I know Rudy is going to have us scoring runs. That ain't a worry."
Says Jaramillo, "I love this lineup. With the pitching we've added, I think we're close. Real close."
Come cancer or shutout, Jaramillo's mood never slumps.
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