The clubhouse was nearly empty, save a few players who were milling about near their lockers, talking and reading and watching television. The strange thing was the knot of 20 or so reporters standing in the center of the room, gathered tightly together as though they were huddling for warmth. On the whole, the Dallas media can be a lot of things--annoying and timid and semi-capable--but let it never be said that they aren't good at finding the hot (or only) story in town and sucking the life out of it in the best traditions of pack journalism.
But credit where perhaps it's due: The Kansas City Royals and favorite castoff Juan Gonzalez were in town that day. Then, the journos would have been early anyway. One reporter told me that, a month ago when the Rangers were starting to get serious attention, there was probably double the number of media members around. Since then the routine has remained static. They stake out the place early and wait--a bunch of border guards hoping to pounce on whatever stupid drug mule happens to stick his head above the tall grass.
Mike Young isn't stupid, but he didn't peek around the corner, either. He was still five feet from his locker when he was captured by the masses. They must have smelled an ounce in his pocket. After the interrogation, I asked him if the attention was getting old or becoming a distraction.
"Not really," he said, perhaps not fully understanding the media crush to come once the Royals abandoned the visitors' locker room and the Yankees moved in. "I mean, this is what comes with winning. People pay attention. Sometimes people pay a lot of attention. Right now, I guess we're it, so you guys have to come out here. It's part of your job. It's part of our job. It's OK by me. Last year hardly anyone came out here, or at least there weren't as many of you. Now you guys have to pay attention."
Right, the good old days. I remember those, back when we could pretend baseball in these parts had died, and so long as we stopped by the Graveyard in Arlington every few months, the bosses were happy. Not now. Not anymore.
A year ago, things were the polar opposite. It was the players (or one player in particular) who cracked wise while the PR honcho was just happy to see a reporter from outside the beat-writer circle. So what the hell is going on out there? Happy players and ball-busting media relations directors? A corporate sponsor for the stadium? A club that's fighting to stay at the top of the standings instead of at the bottom and a media core that can't get enough? At one game I even saw a bunch of drunken females holding signs. A blonde had one that read, "Kenny's Barbie," while another girl brandished one that said, "Dellucci's Hoochie's." The season is some two months old now, and I still can't be sure if this is real or some parallel universe.
No doubt the reversal of fortune has been fun for everyone (perhaps Dellucci most of all), but I wonder if we're getting too carried away. During spring training I wrote a biting feature predicting another dismal season. When the sky has been dark gray and cloudy since before the millennium, you're pretty sure it's gonna continue to rain. (The cover image we used for that story featured rain clouds and A-Rod hanging over Tom Hicks' head. The Rangers love me.) Turns out I blew that completely, but I wasn't the only one.
But I'll say this for myself: I am one of the few who remain cautious. Most of the rest of my peers have bought this overhaul, but I'm not completely sold. Apart from Pimp My Ride, I'm not positive anyone can do that kind of serious, quick restoration on a beat-up jalopy. At the least, shouldn't we all slow our roll and just enjoy the ride, wherever it may take us? Because, looking back, they haven't put that much distance between themselves and bad baseball.
"I think that's fair," Young said. "I think we've always had potential, and people have known that. And we're playing well right now, but it's a long season. You know, we want to be playing well in September and October--that's what counts."
More than anything, that's true. Now that doesn't mean that we should discount their hot start. There's no denying that these Rangers have a terrific group of young hitters (they're hitting close to .290 as a team), and they've gotten a supreme effort from their pitchers. That crew, led by Kenny Rogers, is sixth in the AL in ERA. Which is fine--wonderful, even.
But I can't be the only one wondering, deep down, if this will last. Because there have been signs that this thing could go either way--good or bad, up or down. They're playing well this season, and good for them, but a few weeks ago they were playing a lot better. A few weeks ago they had the best record in baseball. Now, after a tough road trip and then coming home to scrap with the Royals and Yankees (they lost two to KC but won two against NYC), they're fighting with Oakland for runner-up status behind first-place Anaheim. They've also struggled a bit away from home (they're hitting some 40 points less on the road). So there should be some pause here, right? Because as recently as spring training the organization was cautioning us that it would take time to win consistently.
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"Hey, we're not going to evaluate this season purely on W's and L's," manager Buck Showalter said. "With these guys, there's such a sincerity and purity of heart in the way they go about it, and they want to do what's best for the Rangers. That's important."
Never thought I'd say this, but the Rangers and I appear to be on the same page. But you don't want to hear that. You want to buy postseason tickets immediately instead of wait patiently to see what transpires. A baseball fanatic friend of mine might be the worst offender. "Come on, man, the season is two months old already," he said. "You're behind the curve. They're good now."
It is two months old, I told him, but that also means there are four months remaining. That's a lot of games. Each year some team gets off to a quick start before the season's grind and the summer heat catch up. It happened to the Royals last year. It happens to the Mariners almost every year.
Point is, things change. They changed dramatically from last year to this year, but the script easily could flip again. Perhaps we'd all be well-served to get hold of ourselves and take a deep breath--it'll make the long road ahead that much easier.