Texas Rangers Spring Training Clouded with Awkward Spat with Iconic Captain Michael Young.
Cliff Lee left.
Zach Greinke never arrived.
Neither Vladimir Guerrero nor Bengie Molina were invited back.
But the biggest, most unlikely conundrum for your Texas Rangers this off-season: Michael Young is still here. That is, unless somebody misplaced the Claw or the Antlers, too?
To say the least, this hasn't been a spiffy winter for the defending American League champions. Yes, they signed third baseman Adrian Beltre, acquired veteran hitter Mike Napoli, agreed to a contract extension with American League Most Valuable Player Josh Hamilton and are putting the finishing touches on a grand new scoreboard out in Arlington. But as the Rangers open spring training this week in Surprise, Arizona—yes, already—they have no legitimate No. 1 pitching ace and, just as important, their long-time face of the franchise is unhappy to the point of demanding a trade.
Young, the Rangers' all-time hits leader, made the media rounds last week, saying he's been "misled" and "manipulated" concerning his dwindling role on the team and the front office's pursuit of a trade involving him.
"I've been backed into a corner," Young said.
Admits Rangers owner Chuck Greenberg, "Right now, no one looks good in this situation."
And you thought Super Bowl XLV was a clustereff. What's going on across the street at Rangers Ballpark is even uglier. Problem is, it's difficult deciding who to root for in this impasse.
I blame the Rangers. I also blame Young.
Let's face it, Young is 34 with declining skills and an inflated contract (he's scheduled to make $16 million in each of the next three seasons). Let's also not forget that for a decade he's been a great player, an even better teammate and the go-to guy for the Rangers. Whether it was explaining another losing season in the 2000s or speaking to the Rotary Club because Alex Rodriguez refused, the solution has always been Young. That's why last October was so special, watching him finally experience some joy as a Ranger in the playoffs and even in the World Series.
Like I said, it's complicated.
It's never comfortable witnessing our heroes being put out to pasture. Bill Parcells cut Emmitt Smith in 2003. Mark Cuban saved money in 2005 by releasing Michael Finley. The Dallas Stars and general manager Joe Nieuwendyk shoved Mike Modano out the door last summer. And, of course, these same Rangers forced an awkward split in 2002 when general manager Doug Melvin decided Pudge Rodriguez had nothing left and failed to re-sign him.
First of all, Young should shut up and play, lest he become another Greg Ellis. The Dallas Cowboys' good-guy defensive captain for years would make a Pro Bowl, only to spend the following off-season bitching about a minimized role, position change or out-of-whack contract. Second of all, the Rangers should treat Young with more respect.
When the Rangers were flirting with 100 losses rather than a World Series appearance, Young was the feel-good foundation of superior people and better days. He became Texas' starting second baseman in 2001, only to graciously move to shortstop in 2004 when A-Rod was traded to the Yankees and the Rangers' management was too wimpy (unlike the Washington Nationals) to make Alfonso Soriano move to the outfield. Despite winning a batting title and a gold glove, Young again was asked by the Rangers to switch positions in 2009, this time to third base to make room for hot-shot shortstop Elvis Andrus. Young initially balked, even briefly and publicly pondered a trade before showing up for spring training and returning to his role as clubhouse chairman.
Last year, despite a drop in his batting average and his range and reflexes in the field, Young made it to the playoffs after 1,508 regular season games. When he hit a homer to help the Rangers beat the Tampa Bay Rays in Game 2 of the American League Division Series, it was one of the franchise's all-time redemptive highlights.
But now? Realizing that Young had become a defensive liability at third base, the Rangers appropriately upgraded the position by signing Beltre. The result: Young's role diminished, moving him to designated hitter and maybe some spot duty in the infield. Then the Rangers, after failed pursuits of veteran designated hitters such as Jim Thome and Lance Berkman, traded for Napoli, a right-handed hitter penciled in for designated hitter and maybe some spot duty at first base.
Suddenly, the math didn't add up. The centerpiece for so long, Young overnight was a square peg.
Manager Ron Washington continued to shrug off the roster additions, telling fans at the Rangers' winter carnival that "Michael Young is the straw that stirs the Rangers." And, at least publicly, Greenberg and general manager Jon Daniels repeated that they had no intentions of trading Young and that he maintained a vital role in the team's 2011 plans.
Somewhere between Beltre and Napoli, however, Young went from "anything for the team" to "get me the hell outta here." He won't provide real evidence of lying by Daniels, and that's a shame because it would make it much easier to support him. Until he does, the GM gets shielded by simply implying that he's doing anything and everything to make the Rangers a better team this season.
In a conference call last week, Daniels suggested that Young had a recent change of heart, prompting the trade request. In response, Young called his boss a liar.
"The suggestion that I had a change of heart and asked for a trade is a manipulation of the truth," he said. "I asked for a trade because I've been misled and manipulated and I'm sick of it."
Per his contract, there are eight teams Young would be willing to be traded to. None of them, however, is a perfect fit. Especially considering that now the Rangers have no leverage and teams are hoping to save big in a fire sale. In 2009 Young blew his stack momentarily but arrived in Surprise and caused nary a ripple of trouble throughout the season. I expect him to do the same this week. Why?
Because the Rangers are a better team with him on it. I've perused the roster up and down and can't for the life of me pinpoint a successor to Young's consistent, calm clubhouse leadership. And because Young, at his core, is a guy who wants to win a World Series with his team. Spotlight or not.
When a divorce has been threatened, of course, reconciliation is never easy. But there are solutions. Mostly, Young will be this team's part-time designated hitter with fill-in duty at second, shortstop and third base. Wouldn't hurt if he'd learn to shag some fly balls in the outfield, either. Considering the fragility of players such as Ian Kinsler, Josh Hamilton and Nelson Cruz, a healthy Young will get his at-bats somewhere.
At a press conference last week trumpeting his new deal, even Hamilton's excitement was neutered.
"It's definitely a concern, because we all want him here," he said. "You think about his leadership and how long he's been with this organization and just think about him not being here, it's kind of hard to think about."
Sports constantly remind us not to fall in love with our players. But with Michael Young, it's too late.
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