Shortstop Alex Rodriguez is the most sought-after Ranger at spring training, and his teammates say the focus on him helps take some of the media spotlight off of them.
Shortstop Alex Rodriguez is the most sought-after Ranger at spring training, and his teammates say the focus on him helps take some of the media spotlight off of them.

The A-Team

PORT CHARLOTTE, Florida--It's early morning in Charlotte County. A brilliant Florida sun peaks from atop the stadium's right-field grandstand, causing rows of empty, metal bleachers to glisten. The temperature creeps toward 70 degrees. The Executive Office, which lies adjacent to the Texas bullpen, and the team's indoor batting cages, which are just beyond that, begin to fill with Rangers. The faint crack of wooden bats against batting-practice balls can be heard in the distance.

Staff members hustle here and there, brooming leftover hotdog wrappers and wax-paper beer cups off the concrete floor beneath the stands. A gentle wind blows in from left field, making the flag near the 410-foot mark in center and the palm trees that spot the landscape dance. A few grounds crew members groom the infield dirt in anticipation of a doubleheader while cars on Veteran's Highway, a major thoroughfare that serves as the gateway to the Rangers spring-training home, whiz by.

Mostly, though, it's quiet and calm here, which probably has less to do with time of day than it does with geography. Port Charlotte is a sleepy place, good for naps and baseball and not much else. Explains why this particular part of South Florida is so appealing to locals, most of whom look as though they're headed to Denture Expo 2001.

At the moment, Johnny Oates is taking full advantage of the morning hush. He's dutifully wearing out a subpath along the field's white-gravel warning track--a walk that's equal parts exercise and contemplation. Dressed in a blue Rangers pullover and short red Rangers shorts, white socks and whiter tennis shoes, he walks back and forth, starting behind home plate, working along the field's outer edge, and finishing in dead center. He does this with decided purpose, retracing the oblong half-circle he's created a good many times, and always with a military-style about-face at each turning point.

Just as he settles into the routine, it's disrupted. An early comer, standing behind the visitor's dugout, greets the manager as he passes by. (A manager who, incidentally, could be a fitness instructor when his baseball days are over, judging by the sweat he's worked up. Of course, someone will have to get him to ditch the short shorts he favors because who wants to hire an old trainer in hot pants?) Oates, in turn, warmly greets the early comer, throwing a courteous wave and flashing that familiar, mustachioed smirk.

"Hey," he offers before chuckling at something his new friend says and then continuing his workout.

The pleasantry is a break in character for Oates, who generally comes off as a hardass--an intelligent, thoughtful man, but a hardass nonetheless.

Maybe that's unfair. Perhaps that evaluation of Oates, 55, is too colored by the tint of last season, in which a 71-91 record (the club's worst mark in a full campaign since INXS ruled the charts) left most of the Rangers in bad moods. It certainly ignores spring training's prevailing theme, one of cheeriness and high expectations for these Rangers and this manager, a consensus that has left everyone more affable than you might expect.

It was clear that things had to change somehow, clear what owner Tom Hicks desired and demanded when he opened his checkbook to hire all these baseball mercenaries. Four fresh veteran faces will mark the starting lineup--Randy Velarde, Alex Rodriguez, Andres Galarraga, and Ken Caminiti. It's a new approach to old goals--another division championship and an appearance, already long overdue, in the World Series--an approach that has everyone around these parts thinking that marked improvement from 2000 is inevitable.

No arguments here. Well, somewhat of an argument. Just because they've made important additions doesn't mean there aren't serious concerns--the pitching staff, the leadoff spot, the hounding A-Rod endures--that could end up morphing into insurmountable dilemmas somewhere down the road.

Therein lies the operative question: Will the Texas Rangers blow through the American League West on their way to loftier points, or will the season more closely mirror my experience in Florida--one tiring, daunting, throw-your-hands-up beatdown after another?

I should have known the trip was doomed from jump, but in case you haven't heard, I'm not all that bright, and I have this uncanny knack for missing what's staring me right in the face. Not a good trait on the résumé for a reporter who works at a publication called the Observer, but what are you gonna do?

It was dark through the tiny windows, but frequent flashes of bold lightning, like the heavens were taking pictures, and a bumpy ride told us all we really wanted to know about the storm brewing outside. As the plane jumped--fluttering, first, a few hundred feet up, then right, then dropping like a cement block in water--already-annoying children squealed louder. There were two of them, bouncing around the plane unattended, mashing Play-Doh on their trays and the floor, screaming for their disinterested parents to "watch," repeatedly poking the unfortunate couple in front of them, and generally running amok.

"Not only am I going to die on this death trap," I told the guy sitting next to me, "but I'm gonna have to listen to those little terrors the whole way to Hell."

After the bumpiest, loudest, most Excedrin-needing two-hour plane ride in the annals of flight, Shitbird 1098 finally touched down, an hour behind schedule, in Fort Myers.

For the rest of the week, I'd be wishing it had never left Big D.

A lot's been made of the pitching staff, or the lack thereof. You know this if you follow the Rangers. You know this if you live in Dallas or own a television or read the papers. You know this if you read the recent column that quoted an American League scout as opining, "They have no chance of winning with that pitching." You pretty much know this if you have a pulse or, considering the amount of attention the hurlers have gotten, even if you don't.

"The criticism is just part of it; it comes with the job," says Rick Helling, standing by his locker, arms folded, biceps bulging through a sleeveless black shirt. Helling, who is 52-34 with a 4.58 ERA since returning from a short stint with the Marlins four years ago, has been one of the few Rangers pitchers in recent years productive and durable enough not to draw serious ire from pundits. "That's the media's job, to figure out what the problems are or what they think are the problems. You get used to it. Unless you're an Atlanta Brave or a New York Yankee, you never have enough pitching. And with the changes we've made in our lineup, with the magnitude of the moves, who else are you going to look at?"

Sure. Makes sense. Top to bottom, the Rangers appear pretty damn formidable at the plate. The plan is to lead off with Rusty Greer, who despite having just 29 stolen bases in seven seasons has a gaudy on-base percentage (.392). That's important for a leadoff man. Get him on base, maybe move him over with new second baseman Velarde, who will likely hit in the two hole, and then bludgeon the opposition with power. Beat them to death with strong strokes from the middle of the lineup, from A-Rod and Ivan "Pudge" Rodriguez, from Rafael Palmeiro and Galarraga and Caminiti (who, as I'm typing this, just rocked a three-run dong over the right-field fence and into the media parking lot for his first homer of spring training. It probably hit my rental car.). And if Gabe Kapler and Ruben Mateo--remember him?--can contribute, too, well, so much the better.

"Our lineup is incredibly impressive," Kapler says without exaggeration. "I haven't seen anything like it. Again, I haven't been around the game that long, but it's hard to think of a lineup this strong off the top of my head. I think we're going to give pitchers a lot of trouble."

With more than 1,300 home runs between them, the muscle of the order should provide enough power to rival TXU. Should keep the ballpark's scoreboard operators plenty busy.

It's the Rangers' contention--some believe it's more the Rangers' wishful notion--that the new faces will also shore up a defense that last year stopped balls the way an Advil stops Ebola. Texas butchered enough plays defensively to be credited with the worst fielding percentage in the AL (.977) and the circuit's most errors (135).

Stick a blind man in leg irons out there with Chinese finger cuffs on his hands, and I'm guessing he'd do a bit better. That's probably an overstatement, but it's not much of one.

"Defensively, we weren't sound last year," Helling says truthfully. "Everybody knows that if you improve your defense, you improve your pitching. They're linked. Everybody looks at the guys we got in the off-season and talks about how good they are with a bat; everybody knows what guys like Alex [Rodriguez] and Ken [Caminiti] can do at the plate. But they're great out in the field, too. And I think a guy who gets overlooked a lot of the time is Randy [Velarde]. As an opposing player, I always had a lot of respect for him as a second baseman, but I didn't know how good he really was until I went and checked out his stats and then saw him play a little bit. And you watch him and A-Rod out there together, and they make it look easy. You look at some of the double-play teams in the majors, and they're working to turn a double play. The guys who are really good are the guys who make it look easy, and they do that. And they haven't been playing together for more than a few weeks now, so you can imagine how good it'll look midway through the season."

Whether that helps a staff that had an abominable 5.52 ERA (worst in the majors, how'd you guess?) become more respectable isn't necessarily as inevitable a conclusion as Helling and Oates might like to believe. The best indication of Texas' displeasure with last year's staff comes from the dismissal of maligned pitching coach Dick Bosman, a friend of Oates who was nevertheless replaced by former bullpen coach Larry Hardy. At the top of the rotation, the Rangers have no clear-cut No. 1 (Helling and Kenny Rogers--13-13 last season with a 4.55 ERA--are more like two No. 2s). At the back, they have two unproven young bucks in Ryan Glynn and Doug Davis (combined 12 wins in 29 starts). In the middle, it's a shaky, if not opprobrious No. 3 in often-injured Darren Oliver (2-9, 7.42 ERA), who, Oates believes, might have as much to do with the Rangers pennant hopes as either one of the Rodriguezes.

"Mechanically--number one, he was injured--but mechanically, he just couldn't get the ball to go where he wanted it to go last year," Oates says with his identifying singsong twang. "First, though, we had to get him healthy. But mechanically, he had a bow in his back that was leading his weight toward third. He's worked on that. I've said since the [winter] that he could be the biggest key to our ballclub...getting production from Darren could be the biggest key."

The Rangers think they have a few problems? Huh. Try this: I've been free-balling it in a five-times-too-big bathing suit straight outta Wal-Mart for the last two days. And I think I'm getting a rash from the "Easywear T" that I picked up to complete my radiant ensemble. I could be wrong, but I'm pretty sure the rigors of recording a save pale in comparison to worrying over a might-be fungus. Either way, sportswriters aren't usually snappy dressers to begin with, but right now, I could trump any of these slobs and their outlandish fashion faux pas.

American Airlines, you see, lost my luggage.

Soon after we arrived at Fort Myers Airport, the planeload of us waited for our luggage at Belt 4 in the baggage-claim area. Then the luggage ran out. There were 30 of us left.

"What do you mean there aren't any more bags?" we all bitched in exasperated unison. The attendant just stood there, gawking blankly at the impatient mob that had encircled her.

We were summarily invited to file a complaint at American's ticket counter. When the lot of us arrived at the desk, no one was there to bear the brunt of our reproach. Surprise, surprise. After half an hour or so of discussing with my fellow malcontents how to best dismember the next airline rep to walk by, our friend from the baggage-claim area finally showed. Alone. She wasn't in too much of a hurry. Took one or two of us at a time, then disappeared through a dark blue door near the conveyor belt where she did God knows what for 10-minute stretches. This maddening cycle went on for quite a while until, finally, it was my turn. Grinning and joking, thinking, moronically, that my charm would make her want to find my bags faster, I described what I'd lost, where I'd be staying, and for how long. She blinked. I asked what to do next. She blinked. I inquired as to how long it should take to rectify the situation. She blinked. Then, just when I was beginning to think she was mute, she assured me it would be taken care of by tomorrow or the next day. Or, at the latest, the day after that. Probably.

The pitching staff's "could-be" success--or failure, depending on how it all goes down--hardly begins and ends with Oliver's left hand or with the starters. It rides on improved relief pitching, too. Witness: The Rangers mustered only three complete games in 2000, leaving the bullpen overused and ragged. A bullpen that is now anchored by Tim Crabtree, who may be the most scrutinized Ranger this spring. With John Wetteland gone, holed up in New Mexico rehabbing an ailing back, Crabtree becomes the closer, even though he's never been labeled one before. It's a significant challenge for a 31-year-old with five saves to his credit.

For the record, Oates and general manager Doug Melvin have publicly expressed their commitment to Crabtree. Oates almost goes out of his way to tell packs of reporters that he has "a great deal of confidence in Tim." Probably does. Today. In spring training. Where games don't count. But what about down the road? In June? If he struggles? At that point, he'll likely have as much job security as my dotcom counterparts, most of whom are now panhandling on street corners. Or worse, working for alternative weeklies.

"He's got good stuff," says one American League scout. "But I'm not sure if he'll be able to handle the stress of being the closer. It's a tough role. A lot of guys can't do it; they don't have the wherewithal. It's a concern."

I'm relieved to hear this. Not because I wish the ballclub ill--unlike the Cowboys, who could all come down with horribly painful venereal diseases without any sympathy from this writer. Nay, because of that whole misery and company thing.

Alamo Rent A Car wasn't much better.

The bonehead who was "helping me" was either new or had an extra chromosome. With every question he asked me--license, credit card, destination--he became increasingly confused, enough so that he had to retreat into the back for reinforcements. The manager materialized, taking over for Bonehead, who by now was sufficiently aggravated by the "no-good computers." Fine, I thought, someone who knows how to tame the machines. Not really. The manager told me there was no reservation for a "Gonzalez." Told me they'd treat me like a walkup. Told me the only car they had was a station wagon.

I started having flashbacks to my high school days. I couldn't afford a car back then, so I borrowed my mom's ride when my buddies couldn't, or wouldn't, come get me--a white '91 Ford Taurus wagon with rust streaks and no tape deck. My friends and I dubbed it the Loser Cruiser. As you can imagine, it went over big with the hunnies. Eunuchs got better results.

No way, I told the manager. This b.s. has got to stop. I pleaded. I begged. I did everything but throw myself down on the floor to do the Curly Shuffle. He blinked.

Eventually he relented, sending me off in a midsize Mitsubishi that was supposed to go to some now-unlucky woman. I think he was worried I'd soil the waiting area if I didn't get my way. He was right.

If you ask folks around here, most of the scouts and reporters will tell you that the everyday lineup is set. Aside from the occasional Scott Sheldon, Frank Catalanotto insertions and barring injury, it's likely there won't be too many personnel changes during the season.

That's if you ask the scouts and reporters. Or Oates or Melvin. Or just about any of the players. Any of the players, except for Chad Curtis.

"He's in his own world," one scout says during lunch in the media room, bits of turkey sandwich and mayo smearing the corners of his mouth, before tapping his noggin and adding, "The guy has problems."

It's no secret that Curtis isn't exactly the clubhouse coolguy. Ostracized or simply ignored by scores of Rangers, he doesn't tend to sit around playing cards and talking about the hot piece of cooze who was looking for autographs outside. Last year, Curtis, who can be vocal about his strict religious beliefs, had a well-publicized falling-out with then-shortstop Royce Clayton.

But like him or not, Curtis carries a supreme belief in his abilities, an attitude that hovers somewhere between deserved confidence and misplaced arrogance. Maybe the chip on his brawny shoulders stems from being a runt of a guy--the diminutive outfielder is generously listed at 5-foot-10 in the media guide, creative measurement that would put my short ass at, what, 7-1? Perhaps it was instilled in him during his childhood, or after he slipped to the 45th round of the '89 draft. Or it could come from nurturing a career that's spanned six teams in nine years. Whatever, he hardly wants for self-assurance or drive.

Example: Despite the Rangers agreeing to terms with Greer on a three-year contract worth up to $29 million and essentially gift-wrapping for him the leadoff spot in pretty pink paper, bow included, Curtis trained liked a loon during the winter to supplant Greer at the top of the order.

"The way I evaluate the situation is, I want things to happen for the good of the team, and I don't want to put my individual goals first," Curtis says standing by his locker. He has a short-cropped, armed-forces haircut and a soft, almost inaudible voice. "I think Rusty is a good player, too, and I think he'll do fine out there. But as a professional, my off-season was geared toward winning a starting job and leading off. That's what I'm here to do."

This isn't mere conjecture. Not some banal cliché trotted out to tell this strangely dressed, rash-scratching reporter that he's not going out quietly. He believes this. (I used to believe Super Friends on Saturday mornings was dramatic genius.)

Delusions or no, Curtis did a lot of work in the off-season when most reserves in similar situations would have cracked another beer and flipped over to the Spice channel. Did a lot of specific sprint training he hopes will give him a quicker step in the outfield and greater foot speed on the basepaths.

"It was high-speed, high-intensity work," Curtis explains. "I think I really benefited from it."

Against the visiting Twins in a snore-bore of a game, he shows it, ranging from left center field to the left-field line to track down a dying pop fly. Not bad, I think, and wonder if he'll prove everyone wrong this time the way he's been doing for most of his career. (He must have proved something to still be kicking around the majors). The thought sticks with me enough to ask the slovenly, aforementioned scout about the odds of Curtis usurping the top slot.

"His realistic chances of being a starting leadoff hitter for this club?" he snorts rhetorically. "Not good. Probably about the same as you or me nailing a celebrity."

You can joke, I say with a glance that could melt paint from the wall. I don't tell him that my computer wallpaper is a picture of Alyssa Milano. And, sticking with that train of thought, I'm rooting for Curtis.

It took 45 thirsty minutes to reach my hotel in Port Charlotte, and I arrived desperately in need of a cold brew. Or five. The desk clerk told me of some sports bar that's "always hopping." I should have known. The "always hopping" sports bar was a white-trash pool hall with three TVs the size of freezer bags, a horde of men who must have been Hee-Haw rejects, and a few girls who looked as if they'd recently been smacked in the face with a sack of nickels. One of them was my bartender.

"Whaddaya have, gorgeous?" the thirtysomething in tight acid-washed jeans asked, flirting by flashing a hockey player's toothless smile.

I ordered a Sam Adams. She delivered it and shuffled off. It was a miracle that her pants didn't tear in the process. That's about when I noticed something drowning at the bottom of my drink. I figured it was probably one of her Lee Press-On Nails. Either that or she liked me and it was a key to her trailer park.

Draining my beer, unidentified substance and all, I paid and headed for the door, calling it a craptacular night.

It's the middle of the week--I think. Who can tell? I left my day planner and my watch in my as-of-yet unrecovered bags--and the Rangers are rolling right along, working pitchers and extras into whatever situation they can, trying to find out what they don't know about some of the lesser cast members.

Alex Rodriguez is not one of them. Rodriguez is a known, and valued, commodity. The 25-year-old shortstop is one of the game's elite when in uniform, and just about as good as it gets when he's not. He has a .308 career batting average. He's swiped 133 bases, too. Over the last three years, he's ripped more than 40 homers and 110 RBIs in each season. He's won numerous awards. Speaks Spanish. Donates tickets to the Boys & Girls Clubs. Has a movie star's looks, your neighbor's politeness. Doesn't walk on water, but, if you asked, he'd probably try.

Hicks heaped $252 million on him--digits he should probably wear on his jersey instead of No. 3 considering how much the contract has been talked about--to entice the fly into his trap. Now he's here, and everyone loves him. Make that nearly everyone. For A-Rod, the trouble lies not in smacking hits or gobbling up ground balls or winning over his teammates or favoring his manager, but in satisfying an often insatiable media and fan base, a portion of which looks at the Seattle import as evil incarnate. His contract delivered a deathblow to the game, is the tired, pious refrain. I'd like to see any of them turn down that kind of money so they could do something in the spirit of "baseball's best interests." Wouldn't happen. But that won't stop them from nagging him.

They're everywhere down here, the press, poking their nose in, following him around with cameras and tape recorders, wondering aloud how he could do "this," whatever that is, to our pastime. The detracting fans attack with commensurate zeal. During a game a few days ago, Rodriguez walked up to the plate, tugged on his shirt sleeve, and dug into the batter's box. The crowd cheered for a good long while and then, as the claps and hooting tailed off, one fan screamed loud enough for everyone to hear: "You ruined baseball." The Target answered by driving a home run over the right center-field fence, just above the "Johnny's Be Good Diner & Pub" sign. It was hard to tell which blow had greater impact.

"We're going to hear a lot of that this summer," Oates says.

Rodriguez is no fool. He knows as much, but can that make it any more palatable? Who wants to hear that kind of criticism in his own back yard, be it the spring training yard or the digs in Arlington?

"That's just part of the game," Rodriguez says without rancor, an indifferent look spread across a well-tanned visage. "There's really nothing you can do."

It's not all negative attention. The majority of the reporters here just want a story, a little taste of a man you know nearly as well as we do. Problem is, while many of the intentions are innocuous, A-Rod is besieged by interview requests. "He's gotten hundreds [of requests]," says John Blake, the team's media relations master, "at least."

Earlier today, 60 Minutes came calling. Or maybe it was 60 Minutes II. I'm not sure. I asked one of the ballpark staff guys--a nice man with a dark brown caterpillar mustache and a Texas hat; name was Keith--if he knew who the lady with the gray/blond hair, the one talking on the steps of the Rangers dugout with A-Rod, worked for. He didn't. Didn't seem to care either. Keith and most of the Port Charlotters have this perpetually glum appearance these days. An appearance that does little to hide their aggravation. They're distraught that Hicks is going to move spring training to some place called Surprise, Arizona, either next year or, latest, the year thereafter. It's just not right, Keith says. What's this town going to do once the Rangers leave for good?

"The Rangers mean a lot to Port Charlotte," he says with a whisper usually reserved for wakes. "Think about all the money they bring in to the restaurants and hotels. Where are we going to make up that kind of money?"

A plaque on the second floor of the Rangers Executive Office here confirms the team's economic impact on the county. Last year, in what was likely a brown-nosing attempt to endear themselves to the organization, the county's Board of Commissioners passed "Rangers Day." The framed parchment says so. Also says the Rangers account, yearly, for "$6 million in expenditures and visitors." A good chunk that likely will be forever lost.

But there's nothing Keith can do. Nothing any of them can do except watch the unidentified reporter asking Rodriguez questions and enjoy the little time they have left with their favorite, now traitorous, team.

Rodriguez doesn't seem to be overly enjoying these on-the-record chats. Has this apathetic face that more or less says, ho hum--but it's a courteous ho hum. That's OK by most of the players. Just having the media darling in the general vicinity takes the heat off. Last year, they would have been the ones answering stupid questions. This year? This year, A-Rod serves as other-worldly shortstop and baby sitter to scribes.

"Last year, I spent a lot of time with reporters," Kapler says while munching on an apple. If it's possible, the man's muscles got bigger since last I saw him. He must have done extra curls during the winter because veins pop from his biceps like McDonald's-sized straws. Took up yoga, too. Where I'm from, yoga is for girls and old men. I don't tell him this for fear that a fight will break out and I'll be forced repeatedly to hit his fist with my eye. "There were a lot more distractions. But A-Rod is great. He takes a lot of the pressure off of us, off of guys like Pudge. He's the center of attention, so the rest of us have more time to ourselves. It's been a good thing for us, and he's handled it well."

That he has. As well as any man who has to sneak away in order to guarantee himself a little privacy in the bathroom. Next week's cheeky Dallas Morning News headline: Charmin or No-Frills? A-Rod's Choice!

Called American Airlines early the next morning. They told me they located all of our bags the night before. They were sitting on the tarmac at DFW, waiting to be loaded. Good thing no one got around to it. Clothing is highly overrated. Then they told me that DFW no longer had our bags, that they'd been forwarded to Fort Myers. What a relief, I said. Not quite, they said. The bags had been shipped to Fort Myers, but, uh, Fort Myers couldn't find them at the moment. Try back tonight, they said, around midnight.

With only a few hours to spare until I was due at Charlotte County Stadium, I hurried off to Wal-Mart in a quest for some holdover duds--the only place within miles of my hotel to find clothes, according to a considerate woman. Called my editor first, just to make sure the paper would reimburse me for the clothing. I think he said yes, but it was hard to tell. He was laughing too hard. I hate him.

I'd never shopped at Wal-Mart before. It was an experience, one that made me almost wish the plane had gone down. If we had crashed, at least I'd have been spared the various "Whaddaya going to the beach or somethin'?" comments from the jokers at the ballpark. I didn't want to buy a bathing suit, but it was the only pair of shorts the store had that didn't look like it came from the Richard Simmons Fancy Pants Line. And the T-shirt I picked up? It looked innocent enough, but it may as well have been dipped in a virulent strain of Anthrax with the awful, flesh-eating itch it gave me.

That was all a few days ago. The airline ultimately got around to delivering my luggage--ending the bathing suit/nasty-ass shirt experiment--and I found a better sports bar with a semicute waitress and a couple of good-sized televisions. I don't ask for much. But I do wish it was a little quieter in my room. A few hours earlier, I figured things were starting to go my way. I said this out loud. I should have kept my big mouth shut.

A pipe under the floor, close to the door, which is right near the bathroom, must have broken. That's what the hotel maintenance guy tells me. He's currently five feet away, sucking up water with the world's loudest wet-dry vac. Water that spilled out onto the blue-green carpet, forming an instant, makeshift river near my bed. If I had a boat and two of every animal, I'd be set.

I asked the front desk for a new room. No vacancies, they said. You're stuck with what you've got. But we'll send up a dehumidifier right away. Probably.

There's a corner in the clubhouse here that sees more action than the Gaza Strip. The young guys call it the "Hall of Fame" section. Their jerseys hang, one next to the other--from left to right, it's Pudge's No. 7, A-Rod's No. 3, Caminiti's No. 41, Galarraga's No. 14 and Palmeiro's No. 25. Right now, the big five sit in front of their cubbies, joking and generally having a good time. Pudge is in the middle of being stretched out on the floor. A-Rod is fooling with Cat. Caminiti and Raffy are chuckling.

Whether this crew--so at ease with each other, so plainly glad to be united--will be able to maintain this type of disposition as the season approaches, whether they'll be able to exercise influence over the other 20 players who will make the club, whether their impact will be sufficient enough to drive the Rangers to an AL pennant, is what everyone is so eager to determine. And, unfortunately for those seeking the answers, what may not be ultimately decidable until September. Or until the first six-game losing streak.

But this is spring training, after all. For now, until the season kicks off on April Fools' Day in Puerto Rico, the only immediate concerns are in deciding what SPF number suntan lotion to apply and how much rubber chicken can be stomached from the postgame spread. For now, life is all figured out, my shirt is on my back, life is good.


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