SURPRISE, Arizona--Across the way, just beyond the cart path and behind the cheap rope that separates royalty from the serfs--that is, players and personnel from fans and media--former Rangers great Jim Sundberg stands on the calisthenics field and smiles broadly. Both arms are outstretched, as though he's being measured by an invisible tailor. One hand is holding a bat, and the other is empty.
As he beckons a Dallas scribe to his side, he says, loud enough for everyone to hear, that the weather is ideal. And it is. It's just before 10 a.m. The wind whips lightly from the north. The partly cloudy Arizona sky offers just enough sunlight to move the temperature into the low 60s.
"Is this perfect for baseball or what?" Sundberg asks. "I wish it would stay like this forever. But I think it's supposed to rain tomorrow."
Whether he knows it or not, his weather report is an apt description of Rangers baseball--brilliant forecast in early March, but it never manages to hold. Gray days always lie ahead.
It is, it would appear, the same old story this year, especially considering that owner Tom Hicks has suddenly become frugal. The Rangers finished 25 games out of first place last year, which was somehow an improvement from the previous season when they were a ridiculous 31 games back. When it comes to baseball in North Texas, progress comes slowly--if at all.
The team says the change this season is in the approach. There will be no quick fix, no attempt to buy a pennant by going the route of the Florida Marlins or the Arizona Diamondbacks from a few years ago. Those teams were loose with their cash, and it worked for them. But the blueprint was either poorly applied or totally misread by the Rangers, who dropped huge sums on guys like Alex Rodriguez and Juan Gonzalez only to watch their boys continually lock down last place in the standings. (But you can't always forget your mistakes. Some are forever with you, bad houseguests who refuse to pick up after themselves. I checked Chan Ho Park's locker--there's shit everywhere.)
"I think this club sort of resembles the 2001 Mariners," says Jeff Nelson, another off-season addition. He's a relief pitcher, and a good one. But who cares about that? The important thing to remember is that if you ever need to stomp a grounds crew member, he's your man. I like to think of him as multitalented that way. "We had lost A-Rod, and everyone was looking past us. But we had a lot of talented young guys and some older ones like me and Edgar [Martinez] and some other guys who could help point the way. The best part here is that I was watching TV the other night, and they were doing predictions on the AL West, and they just did the top three teams, or what they thought would be the top three teams. No one is really looking for the Rangers to do anything. We have nothing to lose."
Well, nothing but a lot more baseball games and what little self-respect they have left. But I should be careful. I learned the hard way that iconoclasts aren't welcome around here, and sometimes they're beaten bloody with fungo bats. Either way, this whole thing is shaping up to be an ugly mess for the Rangers, for the fans, for everyone.
The days of bad investments--or any substantial investments at all--are over. The "big-ticket items" are for other clubs now. This organization seems ready to build around young players and a smattering of vets, instead of the other way around. A-Rod and Gonzalez are gone, and so is Rafael Palmeiro. They signed pitcher Kenny Rogers (again) and added outfielder Brian Jordan and designated hitter Brad Fullmer. You're forgiven if, like me, you lack confidence in these moves.
But hey, it's not all bad news. Take solace in this: By shuffling the roster, the Rangers managed to trim their payroll to around $60 mil, which is a whole lot less than last year's near-triple-digit payout. If they lose, or rather when they lose, at least they'll lose on the cheap.
Perhaps I'm being overly pessimistic. It happens. In this case, I don't think it's negativity so much as it is reality.
On the plane ride to Arizona, the guy sitting to my right was talking about the Rangers and how trading A-Rod destroyed the only reason for sane people to head to the Ballpark in Arlington on a 105-degree August day. It was a hard point with which to argue, even though it came from the same mouth that said, in a twangy drawl: "This is the first time I've flown. I've been to all 50 states, though. Drove to all of 'em."
Ignoring that, the A-Rod departure is unquestionably the biggest bone of contention for Rangers fans (to choke on). Who can blame them? Particularly after Hicks told the fans there was no way he would trade his star. He even helped broker the ruse that appointed the former shortstop team captain. Circumstances changed, that's true, but some humility or even an apology to fans was probably in order after Hicks and the Rangers did the deal they said would never come.
The trade, duplicitous or not, was destined to happen, even before the badly botched flirtation with Boston made it a necessity to send him somewhere, anywhere. There were plenty of rumors about Rodriguez and his act wearing thin. One day he was said to be arguing with his teammates; the next he wasn't talking to his manager. (Buck Showalter denies harboring any resentment. Or even having any to harbor in the first place. When asked if the buzz about having a contentious relationship with A-Rod was overblown, he bristled. "Right," he said, shooting me an uncomfortable glare, "it was.")
The whole saga was a beating, an annoying national story. Every time I turned on the television or the radio or picked up a newspaper, I was confronted by the trade and the fallout and the speculation. Especially the speculation. Qualifications didn't matter; if the pundits had heard of A-Rod, or anyone named Alex for that matter, and were vaguely familiar with the concept of baseball, they broke down the deal and tried to look serious doing it. There was so much analysis, I ran out of legal pads and had to start scribbling notes on scrap paper. It reached a nadir when Kelly Ripa, looking very hot but equally dumb, glanced at a picture of A-Rod in his Rangers uniform and then declared to the TV audience that "he sure looks like a winner to me."
Amazing. He was part of three straight teams with abysmal records. His salary strangled the life out of the organization for years to come. To boot, he could be a pretentious prick at times, an amateur politician who mugged for the cameras when the lights were on but refused to talk to The Dallas Morning News because of a petty beef with columnist Gerry Fraley. A-Rod's skin, though flawless, was also thin.
"He's a phony," one local reporter told me before spring training. "Everybody thinks he's this great guy, but he wants what's best for Alex, and that's all."
Well, he got it. He took his .298 average, 47 home runs, 118 RBIs and his MVP trophy and made off for Gotham. In exchange, the Rangers got second baseman Alfonso Soriano (.290, 38 homers, 91 RBIs; also 19 errors). Oh, and a player to be named later. You can't forget the player to be named later.
"A-Rod is so happy with this trade," ESPN's Tim Kurkjian reported shortly after the deal was done. "If they put him in right field, he'd be fine--just so long as he gets to be on a winning team."
I can see the SportsCentury episode now. A-Rod, dapper in pinstripes, pouring champagne over Derek Jeter's head, laughing and smiling with a championship ring bling-blinging from his finger. It's almost too much to take.
The FAQ around Rangers camp, then, is whether Texas is better off without him. There's no simple answer. In the long run, it's probably best that they moved on. A-Rod's specter was omnipresent, and more than one player told me they expect it to be easier for the young guys to develop their talent and identities without him and the attendant hype.
But it seems that it's awfully hard to get better by subtracting the league MVP. It wasn't the safe play, and the Rangers made people talk in the process, both of which are to their credit. But that doesn't mean it'll work out. The situation feels reminiscent of Al Gore's endorsement of Howard Dean shortly before the Iowa caucuses--impending doom disguised as a bold move. The bleak truth, at least from the view afforded in Surprise, is that the trade was pretty great for the Yankees, but it doesn't look so fantastic for the rest of baseball, and certainly not for the Rangers (except that it gives them more money to spend in the future).
"Make no mistake about it," general manager John Hart began frankly, "we're getting a good player, a good kid, but he's not Alex Rodriguez."
What he didn't say, at least not blatantly, is that you're stuck now. Those of you who still count yourselves among the number of disaffected Rangers fans will be held hostage by a team that might be worse than it was last year but won't be as entertaining. No A-Rod, no Raffy, no Gonzo, no Carl "I'll punch you in the head so you better shut up" Everett. No fun.
"I sure enjoyed watching Alex play--the fans did, too," Hicks said following the trade. The great thing about that news conference was that the Rangers also announced the re-signing of third baseman Hank Blalock. It was classic redirection, the same stuff used and loved by Jerry Jones. What big trade? Who's talking about that? Don't you know we've signed William Hung of American Idol fame to sing our national anthem? Get your f-ing priorities in order. "I think we'll all look back fondly and say we had three years watching him."
Yeah, 'cause that makes up for the constant losing and abandoned hope. Makes you warm inside, too.
Buck Showalter is standing next to me, just behind home plate. His hands are where they almost always are--in his back pockets--and he spits tobacco juice at the same spot on the grass with remarkable accuracy. He's watching Mark Teixeira in the batter's box while simultaneously answering my questions. It's going well. At least it was.
As I set in on him about the woeful pitching, the bond on my front tooth--the one that cosmetically covers a chip and a gap--comes loose and almost chokes me. I manage to fish it out of my mouth, while Showalter looks on, and deposit it in my pocket. The manager has a curious look on his face--he's either amused or confused.
Before I can figure out which one, I'm saved by a slender, short Japanese man who interrupts us. Politely. Showalter embraces the man warmly. His name is Akira Ogi, a legendary manager in the Japanese baseball league and a friend of Showalter's. With the translator in tow, Showalter drags Ogi over to meet John Hart, who is talking to a throng of reporters a few feet away.
"Excuse me," Showalter says. "But I want to introduce you to someone. His name is Akira Ogi, and he was a great manager in Japan. Any time his team would win, the headline in the newspapers would read 'Ogi Magic.'"
Without pause, Hart adds: "Around here, we're looking for some Buck Magic."
Hart was trying to be funny. What he probably didn't realize was that his words were a backhanded indictment of this club.
They'll all tell you they want to win. That's natural. But the Rangers will sacrifice winning now in favor of going with younger players who can grow into their roles. It's the formula used by the Oakland A's and the Minnesota Twins to great success. It's a good idea, but it's also a slow process and far from guaranteed.
"People bring up the experience factor, but we have a lot of guys who have already gotten their feet wet," Showalter says. "That helps. I think we have a lot of guys who are gonna pop--get to that next level, whatever it might be for them. Developing young guys, bringing along talent--that's a two- or three-year prop for most guys and especially pitchers, and shame on us if we don't have the guts to go down that road. Stay the course. Walk the walk."
Fight the fight. Remember the Alamo.
True, they have some talented young players, but it's likely going to take time before you see that ability translated into wins. Even then it may not happen.
If there is going to be improvement this season, it will be in the infield, one of the best in the game, regardless of age. Teixeira played well as a rookie (.259, 26 homers, 84 RBIs a year ago) and figures to man first base. Mike Young, formerly the second baseman, moves over to shortstop now that A-Rod is gone. He's an excellent fielder--he was second in Gold Glove voting--and had a .306 average, which was tops among second basemen in the AL. Blalock, an all-star last season with impressive numbers (.300, 29 homers, 90 RBIs), will be at third.
Alfonso Soriano, whom the Rangers affectionately call Sori, will play second base. If he sticks around. There have been rumors circulating that Texas was looking to deal him to the Mets.
"That's absurd," Hart says, almost spitting. "It's a fabrication. I'm not responding to this. It's beyond belief what's out there."
Right, because trading the team's best player couldn't happen. Not on this team. Not after the GM huffs and puffs and swears it won't.
If Soriano is here long enough, he could make a significant contribution with his bat and his legs. He had 35 steals last year, by far the most among these Rangers. Showalter says he'd like to run more this year, or at least keep his options open. But managers always say that in spring training.
"The offense has been good at one thing especially: scoring runs," says Showalter, whose outfield will be decidedly less stable than his infield. On any given day, you're likely to see a new combination of David Dellucci, Kevin Mench, Brian Jordan and Laynce Nix, and possibly Ramon Nivar. (Brad Fullmer, if you were wondering, will serve as the designated hitter--partly because he's skilled with a bat, partly because he's terrible with a glove.) "It's been good; it's hard to knock it. But, as a manager, it's nice to have potential in the lineup if, late in a game, you need to run rather than waiting on some fat-ass guy--shouldn't say 'fat ass'; power hitter--to get a big hit off the relief pitcher.
"Now the speed doesn't always show up in runs. You'll see it first to third and first to home. I call it speed under way. That's what it is; that's what we have. It makes a big difference. We have six or seven guys who aren't burners--they don't have plus speed--but they can definitely run.
"These guys have a chance to grow now. It's already happened. You see guys more at ease now because they're not worried about stepping on anyone's toes. That's good. I want them to be themselves. And we don't want to use our inexperience as an excuse to get our brains beat out. That's the last thing we want to do. But no one is going to take pity on us."
I'm going to need confirmation on this, but the theory here is that Chan Ho Park and Larry Allen are somehow related. Park has ended his relationship with the media; no one has been able to get him to say more than a word or two. In that, he's adopted Allen's philosophy: If they ask you for an interview, grunt or shake your head no, then walk to the other side of the room.
If you're into sociological observations, then you'd love the dance with Chan Ho. Each day, a different reporter saunters over to his locker. They always approach with confidence, determined to get him to talk. Invariably, they return defeated and muttering something that sounds similar to one of Al Pacino's famous lines from The Godfather II: "He's dead to me now."
From Chan Ho's perspective, it's hard to criticize the guy for avoiding the media. Or anyone, for that matter. That he even goes outside is remarkable considering his well-documented troubles. It's impossible to under-emphasize how significant and damaging his slipups have been to the Rangers. Two years ago he signed a five-year, $65 million contract, which, considering his stats, is so outlandish that it borders on the ineffable. Since joining the Rangers he's 10-11 with a 6.06 ERA. He's been on the disabled list three times, including missing most of the second half last season because of back pain. In seven starts during the '03 campaign, he was 1-3 with a monster 7.58 ERA.
Were it any other team, or if he were a bullpen guy, or if he weren't walking around with such an overstuffed wallet, maybe the idea of Chan Ho in a Rangers uniform wouldn't be so excruciating. Problem is the Texas Rangers are forever in need of pitching. (I hear David Clyde is available...just a suggestion.) And so, somehow, if Park can drag his tired ass out onto the mound without breaking a nail, he'll be featured in the starting rotation, likely playing the No. 2 role to Kenny Rogers, "Staff Ace."
That says everything you need to know about Rangers pitching--the 107-year-old Gambler as the likely opening-day starter, followed by a too-rich Korean hypochondriac.
"If Chan Ho is healthy, and Kenny is healthy, they'll probably be in the rotation," Showalter says, leaning back in his chair in the clubhouse conference room. Before he continues, he takes off his apple-red Rangers cap and puts his hands on his matted hair. "I wouldn't assume anything. We want competition around here. And that's a dangerous word--assume. I'm not gonna sit here on March whatever and say here's our rotation and I'm confident it won't change. These guys need the competition. If someone has a problem with competition during spring training, they're gonna have it during the season."
The rest of the rotation will be filled out by any number of players. Leading the list of candidates are former Cleveland Indians pitcher Ricardo Rodriguez (who was 3-9 with a 5.73 ERA last year) and Colby Lewis, whom the organization is high on (5-1, 3.02 with Oklahoma last year). After that, it's a sour mash of the untalented and semi-capable ranging from Joaquin Benoit to R.A. Dickey to Mickey Callaway--at least one of whom, I'm pretty sure, recently lived under Interstate 30. Then, this is hardly news. That the Rangers need pitching is one of the oldest sports axioms, along the lines of "Shaq can't shoot free throws" and "the Eagles will blow it in the playoffs."
If the Rangers can somehow get six innings out of their starters--they can only get better after once again finishing with the worst staff ERA in the Majors last year--the bullpen might be able to lend an assist. Maybe. Nelson is a capable setup man, and Francisco Cordero, who saved 15 games last year, could be worse. But the Rangers will need a significant contribution from Jeff Zimmerman, who missed two years because of elbow surgery.
"Look around," Nelson says. "It's no secret what's going to have to happen for us to win. The lineup we have, some of the hitters, we have some real talent here, some good power. Soriano isn't a player to be named later--he's a potential 40-40 guy. I don't think we're going to have any problem there.
"It all depends on the pitching. If the starters can stay healthy, with probably the deepest bullpen they've ever had here, a lot of good things could happen. It boils down to pitching."
I think I have the answer. What they need are more guys like Erick Burke. In the first spring training game against the Royals, Burke struck out Garth Brooks (yeah, that Garth Brooks). Did it on three strikes, swinging, and then gave a little fist pump as though he'd just won a decisive September contest. Gotta love spring training.
Off to the right, through the glass partition that separates the scorer's box from the press box, I can hear Gregg Elkin. He's the new PR dervish for the Rangers. He held the same position with the Mavericks but made the move to baseball when longtime Rangers spin-master John Blake was promoted.
"This might be the best-attended game in exhibition history," Elkin tells the scribes, or at least those of us who are listening. The intra-squad game is three innings old, but that's three innings too long if you ask most of the writers, many of whom have a glazed look in their eyes.
Elkin is right about the turnout. There are maybe 200 people here, and they're loud. What Elkin mentioned in passing is that the fans were bused in from nearby West Point Elementary. It was the kind of tactic that Nixon and his former press secretary, Ron Ziegler, used to employ--pay a bunch of union workers to turn out, hand them signs and then double or triple the attendance figure before telling the media something on the order of "this is the best-attended rally... ev-er."
Right. In fairness, Elkin was kidding. To his credit, he disseminates information with humor, and he's good at his job. Not so with some others in the Rangers' employ.
There are, as usual, issues with this club. They're not all as glaring or oft-discussed as the team's poor pitching, but they could be equally ruinous. Aside from Elkin, few in Rangers management seem interested in good public relations, and fewer still are adept at it. Elkin gets paid for it, but that hardly excuses the rest of them. The problem is endemic, and it starts at the top with a disdain for fans and the media, sometimes covert, sometimes not.
Hicks is the worst offender. Following the A-Rod trade, someone asked the owner if ticket holders--chiefly those who bought in after the "he's not going anywhere" comment by Hicks--would be given a refund. "There won't be any refunds," Hicks said, sounding like Paul Dooley in Breaking Away. "Of course not." It would have been less offensive for him to roll around in a pile of hundreds while screaming, "Fuck you, suckers!"
The real stink of it is, at the same news conference, Hicks promised the fans that he'd "put money back into the payroll." Hmm, not yet. Not really. (Various team figureheads keep promising me it takes time. Whatever.) They threw a five-year, $15.2 million deal at Blalock, as well they should, but that's been about it. They had a chance to lock down Young, a solid second baseman last year and an exemplary person, but they didn't. Instead, they signed him to a one-year deal worth $450,000--barely more than the $300,000 league minimum. Now that was partly the result of baseball's bureaucracy and semi-complicated rules that you have to have players signed by certain dates, but they easily could have tendered Young a better deal if they so wished.
If you're winning, or even sniffing improvement, that can be a slippery way to conduct your affairs. But when you're dreadful, it's best not to insult your fan base with shameful bait-and-switch strategy or outright lies. (Even if you're cutting payroll to make the team more attractive for a sale, as some have suggested.) They ought to be careful with their words, or at least conscious of the way they handle themselves, because it reflects on the team, and the team doesn't need its image to grow any darker.
I doubt anyone has mentioned this to the players, who periodically enjoy rolling their eyes whenever they're asked to talk about life after A-Rod. Surely they want to move forward, but if they're this put-out in March, how frustrated do you think they'll get in August in some outpost like New York or Boston? Because the topic isn't going away--not for a while.
The clubhouse PR snafus aren't solely the players' domain. Hell, they aren't even the most egregious offenders. (Even though guys like Blalock would rather snort lines of boric acid than talk to the press. Someone asked him about that, if he enjoyed talking to us. "Talking to you guys? Yeah, not really." At least he's honest.)
Last year in spring training, Showalter had a very kiss-kiss relationship with the media. This year, he's been a bit more snippy, which is no big deal for most of us because it passes. But no one, not even Fort Worth Star-Telegram renegade Randy Galloway, has gotten it as bad as DMN beat writer Evan Grant. Half the time he asks Showalter questions, the manager gets unnecessarily argumentative or blows Grant off. That implies Grant is doing something right, and he is, but that doesn't make his job any easier. (Grant can sometimes pick at the manager, too, or argue semantics or minutiae, but in terms of their relationship, he gets far more than he gives.)
The worst case: The other day, on the practice field behind the clubhouse, Grant asked Showalter about Rafael Palmeiro. The former Ranger is now playing for the Orioles, and he had many things to say about his old club and manager, none of which were nice. Showalter refused to comment and walked away in a huff. Later, according to someone close to the organization, the manager pulled Grant aside and brought him into a coaches' meeting, ostensibly to smooth things over. Grant asked the same question. Showalter answered it. But this time, it was GM John Hart who jumped all over Grant, attacking him in front of the captive audience and "motherfucker"-ing him. Whatever the backstory there (Grant wouldn't talk about it, and the Rangers, through Elkin, declined comment), and regardless of the DMN's shortcomings--and there are a lot--it's just bad business to make an enemy of the area's most powerful media outlet. (Unless you work for the Dallas Observer, where it's considered a job well done.) The daily paper is not only how most fans get their Rangers news, but it also sets the agenda for what the radio talk shows discuss on most days. More simply: Handling the situation that way was asking for trouble.
If these were individual, isolated incidents, it wouldn't be so bad. But taken on the whole, it speaks to something bigger. Either the Rangers are oblivious to their missteps (which I doubt) and how they poorly portray the organization, or, more likely, they simply don't think they can screw up enough to keep you away from the park. Maybe they're right. On the first day of individual sales, the club sold the second most tickets in its history (though that easily could be attributed to any number of variables, including more games with the Yankees or interest in series with Houston or St. Louis or such).
Granted, the team has made some strides. They're pretty good--not great--with signing autographs, and they've done some things for the community. But they haven't done nearly enough--not for a last-place team. They need to understand that, until they win, they have to make every effort.
The best move the Rangers have made on the marketing/relations front was allowing a group of 15 loyal fans to attend a scrimmage earlier this week. Security wasn't thrilled about the idea because of a lack of park attendants and insurance concerns, but the Rangers made it happen anyway. The group--led by Cal and Shirley Kost, whom everyone calls "the Cookie Lady" because she bakes for the Rangers--was thrilled. They just wanted to watch their boys; it made their day.
That bit of benevolence was manufactured by Showalter. (He may not like some reporters at times, but he loves the Cookie Lady.) Good thing, too. I doubt the owner would have gone for it. Had it been brought to Hicks' attention, the hunch here is that he might have turned old Cal and Shirley upside down and shaken the loose change out of them.
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