The Buck Starts Here
Hank Blalock, above at the plate, was supposed to be Rookie of the Year last season, but he spent most of it in the minors. The Rangers hope this year he fulfills his promise. New manager Buck Showalter, below, is a perfectionist, always eyeing the players, looking for opportunities to help them improve.
SURPRISE, ARIZONA--If baseball has a paradise, this is it. Surprise, where the Rangers now share a palatial 132-acre facility with the Kansas City Royals, is the polar opposite of Port Charlotte, Florida, the retirement swamp where the team had trained since 1987. Here there is more energy, more life. Periodically, military jets fly in tight formation overhead, screaming toward nearby Luke Air Force Base. The main artery into the $45 million complex, Bell Road, is lined with palm trees and cactus, a scenic desert vista. The centerpiece of the compound is a 10,000-plus-seat stadium, beautiful in its construction--all old-school red brick and gray paneled awnings and spongy green grass.
Today is the club's first spring training exhibition. As on most mornings, the Rangers begin practice with some light stretching, in full view of the august White Tank mountains, the 4,000-foot peaks that outline the horizon just to the west of Surprise, where the Hohokam and Western Yavapai Indians once lived. Just behind the main field lies the expansive 37,000-square-foot clubhouse and the covered batting cages. Behind them are six full practice fields (one of which mirrors the dimensions of the Ballpark in Arlington), a half field for infield and bunting drills and an 82-yard football field used for conditioning. In total, it is an awesome sight, and so it's easy to understand why most of the Rangers--most, not all--smile broadly even though it's barely 9 a.m.
"Man, this is the best time of year," says newly acquired outfielder Doug Glanville. He's no stranger to losing, either, having spent the past five seasons with the similarly inept Philadelphia Phillies. "Nothing that happens here counts on the record. Everyone is a contender."
As a reminder of that, the coaching staff, at the behest of new manager Buck Showalter, is donning red ballcaps; the same style the Rangers wore the last time they reached the postseason--waaay back in '99 when they were (once again) swept by the Yankees in the first round. It's one of the little touches orchestrated by Showalter in an attempt to change the club's mind-set. The old way of doing things, he says, is over.
He is a manager so in tune with the everyday machinations of his team that he has a hand in everything from those hats to teaching the nuances of the hit-and-run to the daily schedule, which is rarely deviated from and always meticulously mapped out. In some ways, Showalter's camp is a bit anal retentive--and there's a lot of that going around; I watched some poor OCD case rearrange Sprite cans in the media fridge for a good 10 minutes. For the most part, though, the discipline is welcome, giving the team a sense of direction, of purpose, something the Rangers couldn't claim the past few seasons. More than any player addition in the off-season, tapping Showalter to be the skipper will most likely prove the Rangers' biggest, best decision.
Nearly to a man, the players agree. Surprisingly, for a group that finished 31 games out of first place last season (roughly as well as a bunch of blind kids with corrective shoes might have done), hope manifests itself on the faces of this crew. "Someone said it springs eternal," second baseman Mike Young says.
Someone did. Someone was foolish. Because for all the opulence of their new digs, for all of Showalter's good intentions, for all the ambition and regurgitated rhetoric, these are still huge questions about these players. They still reside in the American League West, one of the toughest divisions in baseball. Their center fielders still need to prove they can play, their leadoff men need to show they can get on base and their pitchers need to have success despite that no one in baseball sees this as a solid starting crew. For now, at least, they are still the Rangers, and they still look screwed.
The ascension to the postseason, if it ever comes, will be slow and taxing. That's the grim truth. They need a few more players to fill holes. Even then, they still play in the AL West--the division has produced six postseason teams (the maximum possible) the past three years--which doesn't help. General manager John Hart and owner Tom Hicks are right to plan for the future, not expect too much out of the present.
That's when the guy who could help this team exceed all expectations introduces himself.
"Hi," he says, sidling up to me on a sun-soaked practice field and extending his hand, "I'm Buck Showalter."
Aside from making me leery--a natural reaction when approached by sports personalities; usually when they seek you out, they're gripping something sharp--this is a fundamental change in approach from the previous mangers. Johnny Oates loathed anything peripheral and treated reporters like a bad rash. I didn't deal with Jerry Narron much, but when I did, he was far from compelling. At least Oates gave you rancor; Narron barely gave you a heartbeat. With those two managers, if you weren't a beat writer, you may as well have been an apparition--they didn't see you; you didn't exist. Ostensibly, there are things more important in a manager than personality traits, but this speaks to something higher. It says that Showalter is involved, that his attention to detail is supreme, that nothing goes unnoticed. Not even some idiot from an alternative weekly.
To wit: Today he ran down signs with his club, took time to work with neophyte third baseman Hank Blalock on his swing, then stopped by the media workroom to make sure the daily newspaper scribes had the next day's intersquad pitching schedule. That's in addition to his usual, and many, managerial duties. In this environment, he is at once omnipresent and omnipotent. He's been criticized in his other stops (Arizona and New York) for micromanaging, which is probably the correct way to describe what he's doing now. But that doesn't mean that Showalter is misguided in his approach.
"I think Buck is going to have a great deal of impact," ESPN baseball analyst Peter Gammons says. "This is not a team that, in the past, paid a great deal of attention to detail. That's not a knock on Jerry Narron, it's just that they didn't have a whole lot of structure before that they probably needed.
"What Buck is best at...what he does is he sees what teams need. He developed a personality in Arizona, and he changed the personality in New York. He knows how to use his personnel, and he understands the role of his bench and how to get something out of it.
"It's not like he had a team of really good players in Arizona. It was mostly a group with good character, and he understands that, too. He had some good players, sure. You know, the Luis Gonzalezes and those guys, but there were a lot of Craig Counsells on that team. What made that team work was the character. And I think, two years from now, maybe even a year from now, you'll see that sort of achievement here, and maybe for the same reasons."
It was a compliment, and it came from a guy who worked with Showalter as an analyst at ESPN the past few years and who still has a good rapport with him--the manager ferried Gammons around the facility in his golf cart--but it wasn't what the new skipper wanted to hear. Deluded or not, he's said more than once this spring that he's here to win immediately--not months or even years from now. It could be the usual rah-rah manager effrontery, but I don't think so. I think it's more personal than that.
At his last two stops, the Diamondbacks and the Yankees before that, Showalter effected change and led his clubs to the precipice of ultimate triumph. Then he was ceremoniously fired, only to watch both teams win the World Series the year after his dismissal. He spent the past two years regrouping with ESPN, sitting in a booth, watching the game he loved. It had to kill him. Now, he's back in uniform, and he figures to rework the Rangers in his image. But that process will likely take time. Texas is short on pitching and long on questions. There's a lot of talk around here comparing the Rangers to the Angels--Anaheim won last year's World Series after finishing 41 games out the season before--but a .500 mark is far more realistic. There would be no shame in that. The Rangers have a number of players who either have one-year deals or who are playing out the final year of their contracts. If the club makes strides this season, and then wants to dump some of that "bad money," it could allow the team to add some more talent and set it up for a solid future.
"Our guys didn't come in here to get ready for something that might happen two or three years from now," counters Showalter. He is an affable man, short and stocky. His hairline is receding; the top of his mane is blond but going gray. This is where the visual gets disturbing: His given first name is William. He got "Buck" from his days as a minor league player when he would unabashedly sit around the clubhouse buck naked. (Shudder.) "I think they have a sense of urgency. There's an excuse there if you wanna take it--dumping bad money at the end of the year--but I'm not gonna [take it]. There's plenty of ways to judge a season--winning, to me, is the biggest one. And we may want to bring back a lot of those guys next year. Some of these guys with the one-year contracts may play well enough that we want to re-sign them."
That would be fine, but don't count on it. The more important thing here is that the Rangers have a common purpose. That comes from Showalter, who is undoubtedly the club's best move since bringing A-Rod into the fold.
"I think that a manager can have a 10-game impact--a 10- or eight-game impact, and I'm not backing off that," Hicks says. "Watch the interaction between John [Hart] and Buck Showalter. They talk and answer each other's sentences--as I say, talk shorthand--talk baseball, stay up late talking baseball. That never happened last year, and that's not anyone's fault. But I think, as I've said, that any organization has to have a functioning chain of command, and now we do."
I agree. But maybe Hicks made too much of their relationship--he made them sound like two girls enjoying a pillow fight at a sleepover. The rebirth of the Rangers looks like it won't be nearly that fun.
John Blake, the Rangers' public relations maven, is standing in the middle of the clubhouse shaking his head some. He shoots the media a familiar look--part goofy, part incredulous.
"Did you guys see Fraley's column this morning?" he asks.
Naturally. So, too, had most of the Rangers and, in particular, Hart. News travels fast, even when D-FW is iced over and the sun is struggling to peek through the Arizona cloud cover. Turns out that Gerry Fraley, The Dallas Morning News' newest and finest columnist, laid the smackdown on Hart. Called him "Bobby Trendy" and busted his balls in print for thinking that clubhouse décor and other luxuries would matter when the games start to count. Fraley really slapped Hart around. And, as usual, he was right.
There are some pieces here, but there aren't enough to suspect that these Rangers are ready to contend yet. At least it doesn't look that way a month before the season is set to start. Too many questions abound; certainly too many to justify a fat payroll that will come in above $90 million, one of the highest in the league.
"I don't know about that," Hicks refutes. "Everyone has different numbers. I think we're going to be in the low-to-mid 80s, or maybe the high 80s."
Either way, that's an expensive neighborhood for a club that hasn't seen the postseason, except on television, in three years. Last season was particularly abysmal. Injuries certainly handicapped them, retarded their growth even--not having now-departed catcher Pudge Rodgriguez for long stretches was probably the biggest blow--but that certainly doesn't account for them being out of the hunt before it truly began.
"What went wrong?" first baseman Rafael Palmeiro asks rhetorically. "Everything. Everything went wrong. You could say injuries, you could say the pitching, you could say a lot of things. But you can't point to any one thing. Everything went wrong."
To heal the scabs that grew over the 2002 wound, the Rangers are going to need serious contributions from some of their Band-Aid fixes. Juan Gonzalez, in particular, will have to produce, if only to take some of the pressure off of all-everything shortstop Alex Rodriguez. Gonzo--a fine nickname in my estimation--hit .282 last year with just eight home runs while battling a thumb injury that limited him to 70 games; the fewest of his career. Then he arrived late to Surprise and immediately spouted off about this being his last season in a Texas uniform--his contract is up after the year, and if he doesn't get to leave of his own volition, he said, he expects to be traded.
Good stuff. There ought to be a soap opera about these guys.
"I think Juan is in store for a good season," A-Rod says, defending someone who has been on the injured list seven times in the last eight seasons. "He came in in good shape, and he wants to play. And we're going to need him."
Him, and a lot of others. The most painful trauma stems from the off-season. The Rangers refused to go to arbitration with Pudge, insisting that he was looking for too much money. Rodriguez hit the road and signed a one-year deal with the Florida Marlins for $10 mil. Don't think the way it went down didn't make the council of elders recoil, either.
"Things are different without Pudge; I don't know that I'd say radically different, but they are different," Palmeiro says. "Losing Pudge...Pudge is a great player. He's going to be a loss, there's no doubt. I'm sorry to see him go. But I wasn't surprised that they didn't offer him arbitration, not really. To me, he's the best catcher in baseball. How do you replace that? You don't."
Einar Diaz, who was acquired in an off-season trade with the Cleveland Indians, takes over behind the plate. Regardless of how you felt about Pudge, his abilities or his supposed selfishness, it's hard to argue that Diaz is a better backstop. Rodriguez's average was consistently in the .300 range, and he has more power than Diaz, not to mention winning 10 gold gloves. And while Diaz threw out enough attempted base stealers last season to rank third among AL catchers, he also had a .206 average.
"We have to do the same stuff; we're both catchers," Diaz says, without sounding defensive. I'm doubtful he'll be as good a catcher as Pudge, but there's no question he'll be a lot more fun to deal with. "We both have to catch the ball, call the game, block the ball, that stuff, you know...He's a different type of hitter, maybe, than I am. He's kinda a power hitter, or hit for average, and I'm more a line drive hitter."
Perhaps the biggest unknown is at the top of the order; specifically the as-of-yet-unidentified leadoff hitter. As it stands, Carl Everett, Doug Glanville, Kevin Mench, Mike Lamb and a few of the aging parking lot attendants have been rumored for that slot. A good deal of who hits first hinges on Everett and whether or not he plays center field--or anywhere else--for the Rangers.
"Who's in center, there are repercussions to that," Showalter says.
Carl Everett strolls into the clubhouse wearing all white Adidas gear; baggy shorts, a billowy shirt and sneaks. He looks comfortable, if a bit tired. He says hello to a few teammates and then plops down in front of his locker, which sits near the back door and just to the right of A-Rod's stall.
It wasn't long ago--2001, to be exact--that Everett was with the Red Sox; a prodigious five-tool outfielder who was as qualified in the field as he was at the plate. But trouble plagued him in Boston. You didn't have to watch Baseball Tonight too often to hear about him mouthing off to his manager or catch him smashing something in a childish rage. The Sox eventually had enough and cast him off; he washed ashore with the Rangers and has been treading water ever since. Last year he was slowed by various injuries--a strained right calf, a strained left quad and a bad right knee that had cartilage removed from it in an off-season surgery.
Though he played only 105 games, Everett tied for fourth on the club in RBIs and was fifth in homers. He was especially effective after the all-star break; nearly two-thirds of his RBIs and home runs were totaled thereafter. That kind of production, and the potential it promises, are rare, which may be why the Rangers are willing to deal with some of his emotional baggage.
It's the physical baggage that's more worrisome. As Everett pulls his shirt over his head and tosses it into the locker, I wonder for a minute if I'm looking at the wrong guy. Until now, everything I'd known of Everett had been from television. Maybe he didn't look slender on the tube, but he sure as hell didn't look like he had a glandular problem.
Everett, who stands barely 6 feet, is chunky around the middle--he has an ample gut. His face is full. He looks soft. The media guide lists him at 215 pounds. It could be right, but only if the scale was doctored for the overly self-loathing. Again, though, I wonder if it's me, if he's always been this way and my perception is simply distorted by having watched him from afar.
"It's not you, trust me," says one well-respected baseball insider. "He's not soft, he's fat. There's no way this guy can play center field. He's never worked out a day in his life."
His weight, or so the theory goes, may keep him from being fleet enough to cover Arlington's vast center field. If he can't pull it off, or if the Rangers decide to part company, one of the contingency plans becomes Glanville. Though he doesn't carry the same sort of stick, he's far more lithe.
"This is no different from any other year for me," Glanville says, refusing to acquiesce to a bench job. "When I got to Philly, Lenny Dykstra was there when I came in, so this isn't anything new. It's always something. You can't expect, or ever think, that anything is going to be handed to you in any situation, basically. Because when you feel secure, you aren't. I'm not approaching this any differently."
It's that kind of attitude and drive that has endeared Glanville to managers. It doesn't hurt Glanville's case that he's far cheaper than Everett--he signed a one-year deal for a paltry $1 mil. But what happens in center, really, has everything to do with Everett and very little to do with anyone else. If he snaps to it, sheds a few pounds and realizes his enormous ability, the job will be his, and the Rangers will be the better for it. If not...
"I think [Everett's] weight has improved from last year, and it should be even better by the time we break camp," Showalter says. "I don't think that should even be an issue. But we're going to wait and see what comes and trust him and see which way we go forward and make a decision from there. It won't be the last day of camp, necessarily. If there are adjustments that need to be made, then we'll make them if that's the direction we want to go, especially with something like that where there would be repercussions in other areas."
Sound like an endorsement of Everett to you? Yeah, me neither. I tried asking Everett about all of it--his weight, how he sees himself contributing, his take on Showalter--but, in truth, it didn't go so well. In fact, it went badly. (See Gonzalez on page 15 for the blow-by-blow.)
The stink of it is, for all the commotion and uncertainty surrounding Everett, he's far from the team's biggest problem.
Orel Hershiser--erstwhile Dodger great turned Rangers pitching coach--just walked by a small conference room where Showalter is giving his daily media briefing. A second or two after sauntering by, he's summoned by the skipper. Hershiser is an odd-looking man, long and lean with Spock ears and a pointy nose and thin-rimmed glasses. He lopes into the office, all 6-foot-3 of him, and awkwardly stands just inside the doorjamb. Suddenly, Hershiser and Showalter become Martin and Lewis, telling bad bathroom jokes and laughing greatly.
"You know, when I was at the grocery store the other night," Hershiser says, setting up the captive crowd, "I bought us a bunch of that nice toilet paper you like, Buck."
"Oh yeah?" Showalter deadpans.
"Yeah, and I bought a bunch of food with it. And when I got to the checkout counter, I asked the woman if I had enough toilet paper for all the food."
Many yuks fill the air. It's funny because it's true.
Of course, the better, though more obvious, joke would have been, "Do I have enough toilet paper for the considerable mess my pitching staff might make this season?" Many yuks. Funny because it's true.
Last year, the Ranger starters were as unintentionally comic as last week's Baywatch reunion (oh yeah, I watched it). Texas finished 27th (out of 30) in the league with a 5.15 staff earned run average, and issued 669 walks, more than any other club.
That wasn't supposed to happen. Before the season began--and stop me if this sounds familiar--Hicks went out and overpaid for a free agent. Chan Ho Park was the lucky recipient of Mr. Moneybag's affection. He still has four years left on that contract at $13.5 mil per year. Not bad for a guy who went 9-8 with a 5.75 ERA in his first season with the Rangers. (That's so depressing; I had a much better year than him, and I made...let's just call it significantly less.)
"That didn't bother me, people talking about money," Park says evenly. "That doesn't bother me. I got that contract because of what I did before. And I did do my best, but that wasn't for the contract; that's for the team. I do my best for the team and for myself. People talk about the money, you know? They're stupid. They're...it's because they don't make the money. I don't understand why they talk about it. The people who talk about the game, or my teammates or me, that's the right people. The other people, the people who talk about the money, I don't care about.
"Yeah, I can say, honestly, last year was very difficult for me, but because I wasn't healthy. This year, I feel much better, and I really expect a lot from myself."
It shouldn't be too difficult for Park to improve on last season, but he's hardly the end-all answer to the Rangers' pitching woes. The starting five is still in question, with Ismael Valdes, Colby Lewis, John Thomson, Joaquin Benoit, Ryan Drese and everyone's favorite "future star" Doug Davis fighting for the two-through-four slots in the rotation.
"I don't know if I'm going to be the No. 1 [starter] or the No. 5, and I guess it doesn't matter so long as we have five guys who are capable of taking the ball every fifth day," says Valdes, who went 8-12 with a 4.18 ERA with the Rangers and then Seattle. "That's important. We play in a tough division. Look at what Seattle has done in the last few years, Oakland, the Angels. All very good. That doesn't mean that we won't fight for it. The starters, we're going to have to pitch well."
At the very least, the bullpen should be solid. The Rangers added one of the league's best closers in Ugueth Urbina to go with supplements Esteban Yan, Rudy Seanez and Aaron Fultz. Those four should complement Francisco Cordero, Jay Powell and Todd Van Poppel, giving the Rangers one of the better reliever corps in baseball. Problem is, relievers don't do you much good if you're down five runs in the seventh inning.
Hello? Starters? Anyone out there?
The most intriguing possibility, as it has been for years now, is seeing Davis in the rotation. Without him, the Rangers would have an all-righty starting staff. Plus, this could very well be Davis' last shot with Texas. He's out of options, meaning that the Rangers can't send him down to the minors again without risking losing him to another interested party.
"Hopefully he's in a position that he separates himself from the pack," Showalter says. "He knows the opportunity is there for him, but it's up to him to take advantage of it. We're certainly aware that he's out of options, and to say that that's not a factor wouldn't be completely frank.
"His being left-handed is certainly something that I'm aware of. I've talked to you guys about how well left-handed hitters play in our ballpark, and hopefully left-handed pitchers. But I'm not going to take a guy just because he's left-handed if he's not better than the competition.
"Every manager has to be concerned with every area of the team, so maybe our bullpen looks like a potential strength on paper, you know, but you don't know what will happen. We have to look at all the avenues."
A quick note: This morning, when I opened my complimentary USA Today--the best thing about staying at Baymont "Suites," a misnomer--I was greeted by a story on Yankee hurler David Wells, who claims in his autobiography that he was "half drunk, with bloodshot eyes, monster breath and a raging, skull-rattling hangover" when he pitched a perfect game back in '98.
I went snooping around the Rangers clubhouse. I couldn't find any hard booze. I think they ought to get some. If not for the pitching, then for the pain.
Everything I wrote leading into this story has turned out to be an egregious lie. This place is less heaven than it is a bad Kevin Costner postapocalyptic movie set--the beautiful azure skies have clouded over and gone ash gray for three straight days. The temperature has dropped a good 12 degrees, and large drops of rain have poured down from the heavens. Whoever said it doesn't rain in Arizona--I think it was my editor--is a fool. Word has just come down that it's snowing in Dallas, 3 inches or something close to it, which lends a small amount of comfort. If not for schadenfreude, I would have eaten a bullet years ago.
With the weather as dark as my mood, the Rangers have scheduled a day of indoor activity--simulated games, meetings and the like. None of that will get going for another hour. Apparently, someone forgot to tell Alex Rodriguez. It's just past 8 a.m. and A-Rod is already at work, taking batting practice in the covered cages. He is, by all accounts, diligent. Then, the Rangers aren't concerned about Rodriguez's production. What they need is someone to pick up some of the slack. And if you were looking for a bright note, this is it.
There are two prime candidates to sit to the right of A-Rod's throne--third basemen Mark Teixeira and Hank Blalock are on everyone's list of the best young prospects in the league. Teixeira, who hasn't yet played higher than Double A ball, will probably start the season in the minors and hope for a midseason callup. Blalock played sparingly with the big club last year, and not all that well, but still has everyone whispering reverently about his skills.
With Blalock, the issue becomes where to insert him in the lineup. The Rangers are playing musical chairs with their infield--except they don't have enough seats for everyone to sit down. The way it looks now, Blalock will start at third, which would probably move Herbert Perry--as nice a guy as the Rangers have and last season's happy-happy success story--to the DH spot. The other, though less likely scenario, is leaving Perry where he is and playing Blalock at second base, which would move incumbent Mike Young to the bench.
"We're just trying to get better," says Young, whose locker is near Blalock's. "I'm not really worried about that right now. Obviously I want to play. But Hank is one of my best friends on the team, so it's not awkward, no."
I can attest to that. This morning, the two of them, joined by backup catcher Todd Greene, sat around the clubhouse during media hour, listening to Howard Stern. The shock jock was asking rock star Fred Durst whether the musician had banged Britney Spears. The players' recap went like this:
Blalock: So...did [Durst] crush it?
Young: Yeah, he just said he crushed it. Dude, he said he ate her ass.
Blalock: He ate her ass?
Young: That's what he said. Fred Durst is a cool dude.
Now that's a friendship--who else can you talk to about celebrity salad tossing? Anyway, whether they're both in the starting infield or not, and with Teixeira waiting for a shot, at least the Rangers have options.
"We're excited about our young guys and our future," Showalter says. "But, I mean, we can sit here and have a feel-good whatever, but the reality of the season--that'll be a memory. We were hired to win the division. That's what we're here to do. I don't see anything bold about it. Crazier things have happened. I hear guys talk about being competitive--well, hell, I'm competitive when I drive in here in the morning. It's a tough division, but we're here to win it. And I like the idea of kinda laying in the wings a little bit. You know, you win 90 games and you're in the hunt in September. Some people don't think that's realistic, but we'll see.
"Now, to sit here and say simply that we have who we need, no, I'm not going to say that. We're a work in progress."
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