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The spring of our discontent

PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla.--So much for the Rafael Palmeiro interview. Spring training isn't a week old, and the Texas Rangers' newest old first baseman is limping around the Charlotte County Stadium facilities like a man whose right leg is a foot shorter than his left.

It's 4 p.m. on March 6, and Palmeiro was supposed to have already left--headed back to Dallas on the first available plane so the doctors could get an up-close-and-personal look at his right knee and pronounce the inevitable: surgery. But he lingers in the clubhouse, trying to reach someone on the phone. There's pain in his voice--the man is hurting. He hangs up the phone and hobbles around the clubhouse, looking for his ride to the airport. He mutters something under his breath, then disappears from spring training forever.

And that is that.
From this point on, the Rangers' highest-profile signing in the off-season, the ex-Ranger returned home after five years in exile in Baltimore, is nowhere to be found.

How you guys gonna do without Raffy? During the next few days, that's all anyone will ask general manager Doug Melvin. That's all anyone will ask manager Johnny Oates. That's all anyone will ask the players. No one, shockingly, admits that the season will not actually begin until Palmeiro returns.

For the first time in his major-league career, which began with the Chicago Cubs in 1986, Rafael Palmeiro goes on the disabled list.

What's that sound in the distance? That high-pitched cackling, that ear-shattering anh-anh-anh from over yonder? Must be former Rangers first baseman Will Clark, laughing his weird, uninjured ass off. (Lee Stevens, designated hitter and currently the No. 1 first baseman, later explains that Clark wasn't weird at all. Just, well, intense.)

Only that morning, word had come from the front office that Palmeiro was just fine, doing great, recuperating perfectly. According to Palmeiro, he injured his knee while running stadium steps, part of his training regime--which is odd in itself, since baseball is a sport that fat men can play. The difference was, this time Palmeiro was wearing weights, which came crashing down on him. He slipped and tore the cartilage in his knee, making the very popular and expensive free agent about as useless as a professional athlete's quote.

So a boring spring training becomes exciting, sort of.
Up until then, Melvin and Oates' biggest concern was batting order: Would left fielder Rusty Greer or Palmeiro bat third? This is apparently a Very Important Question, since there have been many stories about it in the daily newspapers.

A second, though slightly Less Important Question, looms on the Southwest Florida horizon: Who will be the long-relief pitcher out of the bullpen? But before you start losing sleep over that--and you no doubt already have--the answer is Jeff Zimmerman. Or Al Levine. Or Mike Morgan.

Now that that's settled.
For a while, it appeared as though the biggest story of spring training was going to involve catcher Ivan Rodriguez--The Boy Called Pudge. Rodriguez showed up for camp a week late, claiming myriad reasons for his tardiness--well, he actually had his agent do the claiming for him, as Rodriguez couldn't seem to find it within himself to make a call to Doug Melvin. Pudge defended his tardiness by claiming he wasn't no stinkin' team leader, so why did it matter if he wasn't there when pitchers and catchers reported in late February? Apparently, the man keeps all the millions the Rangers pay him stashed in the empty space in his head.

When he finally did show up to camp, Rodriguez told the few reporters who actually talk to him--Pudge can be as personable as a concentration-camp guard--that Oates and Melvin knew all along he was going to be late and that when he said he wasn't a leader, well, he meant off the field. He says this as a way of defending himself. To refer to Rodriguez's relationship with Oates and Melvin as a bit strained is being kind. Melvin, who says Pudge should "lead by example," refers to their relationship as "workable." A rousing endorsement.

But the news about Palmeiro suddenly makes Pudge and his fits of bratty behavior shrink to insignificance.

And to think, the biggest drama during spring training usually involves where to drink at night and how to watch the games while getting the best tan. It is hardly surprising that Fort Worth Star-Telegram scribe Randy Galloway usually has the solution to both dilemmas. That is why he gets the big bucks, has the darkest tan of any media member (and player, for that matter), and stays in a condo near the good bars.

Spring training is the most inexplicable waste of time in the sporting world--except maybe for soccer, boxing, or women's basketball. In hockey, a far more taxing endeavor, half as much time is spent preparing athletes for a far more grueling season. Football training camp is a necessary evil, if only so players can spend time learning new plays the coach so brilliantly thought up over the summer--or so they can relearn the old ones they forgot during a summer spent drinking and whoring. And basketball proved this lockout-shortened season that it needs at least a few weeks of pre-season prep, if only to help spoiled-brat fat guys drop 30 pounds.

 

But six weeks of spring training? Thirty games on top of the 162 that make up the long, hot summer--not including the playoffs? Saying that's a bit excessive is like saying Monica Lewinsky's a cheap date. Then again, it's a really swell place to get quotes from baseball players, such as:

"We have to take it one step at a time."
This comes courtesy of shortstop Royce Clayton, who even winces when these horrible words come tumbling out of his mouth.

Then he says, "We definitely have a big challenge ahead of us this year." This time, Clayton--the most athletic shortstop the Texas Rangers have had in more than a decade, and the most cliche-prone--is being serious.

Last season, the Texas Rangers won the American League West by three games, posting an 88-74 record. The Rangers were so good, they got to the first round of the playoffs, where they were summarily decimated by the New York Yankees. The Yanks scored nine runs in three games. The Rangers eked out a single run, in Game Two. The series was over before it even began. Johnny Oates, who is no Yogi Berra or even Yogi Bear, likes to compare it to a TV series that concludes by promising "To be continued..." Only this one stands just as good a chance of getting canceled.

The Rangers won the West behind one pitcher who won 20 games (Rick Helling) and another who won 19 (Aaron Sele)--even though both men possessed earned-run averages of more than 4.20. (Helling was in fact the first 20-game winner in 18 years not to receive a single vote in Cy Young Award balloting.) They won it on the shoulders of AL Most Valuable Player Juan Gonzalez, who led the league with 157 runs batted in. They won it with John Wetteland and a surprisingly strong bullpen that helped the Rangers go 80-5 when leading after seven innings.

Not that it mattered when the playoffs started. The Rangers might as well have stayed home. Well, actually...

In the off-season, the Rangers added just enough to keep from calling the winter a complete bust: Palmeiro, who returns to the Ballpark built for him clutching a good bat in one hand and a five-year, $45 million contract in the other; and Chicago Cubs pitcher Mark Clark, whose 9-16 record last season inspires shrugs of elation. At least he eats up innings. That's the nicest thing anyone can say about the guy so far.

Everyone in the organization, from the front office to the locker room, admits that last season was a disappointment...actually, humiliating. And everyone knows it is no longer good enough just to win the American League West. The section of the Rangers' media guide dealing with the team's post-season history, 1-6 against the Yankees in 1996 and 1998, is a scant six pages--or 14 pages shorter than the space allotted Nolan Ryan, who hasn't thrown a pitch in anger since September 22, 1993. Buried in the post-season history is the fact that the lone run Texas scored against New York last season set the record for fewest runs scored in the history of post-season play.

"We lost to the Yankees in '96 because we didn't have a closer, and we lost to them last year because we couldn't hit," says Doug Melvin, a rather smart, thoughtful man whose accent still resides north of the Canadian border. "We have to either step up to the challenge of playing the Yankees again--I don't want to back off from them--or we'll find a way of not playing them." Melvin lets out a very small laugh. "Hey, they could have injuries this year. Their pitching's getting a little older. David Cone and Roger Clemens are 36, 37 years of age. They could go out and win 130 games, or they could win 90 games."

Ah, yes. Roger Clemens. Two months ago, Melvin wasn't saying Clemens was getting older, wasn't hinting that he might not be what he used to be. Two months ago, Melvin was this close to bringing Clemens--a man who did not lose a single ball game he started after May last season--back to his home state. The Rangers even had three-quarters of his media-guide bio written...only to toss it all in the trash when the New York Yankees proved they were willing to give up more than Melvin was at the very last second.

 

This is what psychiatrists call rationalization. Or denial.

Johnny Oates gets the weirdest damned look on his face when he's angry, something between a grin and a smirk. He looks happiest when he's at his angriest, which is at once disarming and absolutely eerie. And his words come out in halted sentences, his North Carolina-born accent softening the stammer just a little. It's like William Shatner in Star Trek, every...other...word...just a few hundredths of a second delayed. The effect is rather startling.

It's just a few minutes after the Rangers lost the spring-season home opener to the Pittsburgh Pirates by a rather large margin, something to something. Oates still has a little shaving cream on his face from his regular post-game shave when people from the media come into his office for some small talk. It's only the second game of the spring, but already the man is a little grumpy. He is unhappy that Aaron Sele, his bright and shining star last year, gave up six runs while recording a mere five outs--giving him a rather stellar 32.40 earned-run average for the game.

Watching from the roof of Charlotte County Stadium--the Rangers' Florida home, which is the very definition of a minor-league park, done up in Early Janitor's Closet--Randy Galloway likes to call Sele "cantaloupe head." Why's that? "Because his head's sawft on the inside," Galloway barks, watching Sele give up one homer after another. "That shit ain't gon' work," he grumbles, lathering on a little more suntan lotion.

The first thing Oates says is that his pitchers threw a total of 182 pitches, which explains why a three-hour game felt as though it had lasted for several days. "That's too many of them," he says, and no kidding.

Channel 11 reporter Beth McKay asks whether maybe pitching coach Dick Bosman is working the pitchers too hard too early in camp. He snaps at her, insisting this is the same routine they've worked year in and year out. Then he comes back around to the 182 pitches again.

"How ya gonna win a bad game making 182 heaves?" he says in response to nothing in particular. "I didn't say pitches. I said heaves."

"What do you do then?" McKay asks like a true television expert.
Oates responds, "Tell them to pitch strikes."
Yes, spring training is where dreams come true.

Port Charlotte, Florida, is apparently French for assisted living. In this town, you're either dead or wishing you were, living at the ass-end of Florida, where the air smells like rotting fish and the weather's just pretty enough to make you think you're at least in the same state as Miami. No pretty people here--just very old people, very dull middle-aged people who talk about how cheap the land is, and very young people who spend their free time listening to death metal, smoking Marlboro Lights, and drinking tall-boy Buds at the local pool halls.

The only thing worse than being old in Port Charlotte is being young. It's a wonder every high school girl isn't pregnant. You can't even cruise the surprisingly nice mall in P.C. Too many walkers and wheelchairs in the way.

It's a town where all the sports bars have satellites but do not actually subscribe to the sports channels--meaning that if you want to watch an out-of-state basketball game, you're absolutely screwed. And if you even dare ask to watch, say, a Dallas Mavericks game, the 15-year-old blonde bartender gal with the half-shirt and the pierced bellybutton looks at you as though you just asked her to kiss you hard on the mouth. (Though, truth be told, you'd probably get the same reaction at a bar in Dallas. At least you should.)

After midnight on Sunday, the only thing on the streets is pavement. No wonder everyone gets a hard-on when they spot an alligator in a pond. Death by unnatural causes here would be front-page stuff in the Port Charlotte Caller Herald Gazette Times Leader.

Over dinner one night at a reasonably good Japanese restaurant in a strip mall, one former Texan--he said he was from Houston, which is not where his hair was born--claimed Charlotte County was among the fastest-growing communities in Florida.

"The population here has increased by 98 percent since 1996," said the man, who has some cheap land to sell you at a very reasonable price. His wife, another ex-Texan who moved to the Promised Land with her Prince Charming, insisted Port Charlotte was "heaven," which is no doubt where a lot of its residents are soon headed. Both of them mentioned something about how they were buying up a lot of apartments, if only to keep them from becoming low-income housing, something the city fathers and mothers are looking into.

 

The word "undesirables" is actually mentioned in this conversation. At which point, it suddenly dawns on me that the only black faces I've seen in Port Charlotte belong to Texas Rangers.

Rangers president Tom Schieffer still dreams of the day when he can yank the team out of this godforsaken death valley and move it to South Texas, a quick flight or even a decent drive away from Dallas. He needs three other teams to join up, presumably three other Grapefruit League teams whose owners hate the idea of flying to the Wrong Coast of Florida during the tail end of winter.

It seems like a good idea, the first Schieffer's had since firing general manager Tom Grieve, whose biggest claim to fame is providing the sperm for one Ben Grieve, a young Oakland A's ballplayer far too good to play for the Texas Rangers. The boy's got the prettiest swing since John Olerud, or so the scouts say. Tom, now a Rangers broadcaster, likes to cry on television when Ben plays the Rangers. He's very proud. But that's a whole different story.

Fort Myers, where the Boston Red Sox headquarter during the spring, is a different place altogether. It's an actual city, or a reasonable facsimile, not merely one big Red Lobster during all-you-can-eat happy hour. The Red Sox have a glorious little stadium there nestled in a rather quaint neighborhood, if by "quaint" one means homes about to collapse upon the wife-beater-T-shirt-wearers sitting on the front porch at noon drinking malt liquor through funnels.

OK, so that was just one house. The rest are nice enough--well-constructed, in a rickety sort of way.

The Red Sox play in a baseball temple called The City of Palms Park, which actually looks nicer than the Rangers' old Arlington Stadium. The press box at City of Palms Park is larger than the one at the Ballpark in Arlington, and along the walls nearby are beautiful framed photos of old Red Sox legends doing legendary stuff. It's all very impressive, especially if the team you've grown up with is the Texas Rangers.

About an hour before the Rangers and Red Sox engage in yet another scintillating spring training game on March 7, the final score of which is some number to some other number (the Rangers posting a number not as high as the Red Sox's), Doug Melvin wanders through the press box. Dallas Morning News columnist Frank Luksa asks Melvin whether he's gotten any word yet about Palmeiro's condition. Melvin says that he just talked to trainer Danny Wheat and "it doesn't look good," and that Palmeiro will likely need surgery. "If he does, he'll have it today," Melvin says dryly.

Melvin leaves Luksa and grabs his cell phone. He doesn't say much into the phone, instead scribbling furiously on a white legal pad. The writers sitting nearby theorize that Melvin's making a deal for a designated hitter who can actually connect with left-handed pitching. Melvin calls over vice president of public relations John Blake to discuss the situation, then has him call an impromptu press conference with the handful of metroplex media.

Melvin explains that Palmeiro has in fact already had the surgery on his knee and says he's relieved to have found out the problem and had it corrected this early in spring training. But there is bad news: Right-handed DH Mike Simms, sidelined during the early days of spring training with a tear in his Achilles tendon, will likely miss the first three to four months of the season. His injury is far more serious than anyone thought, including Simms, who had been in remarkably good spirits the day before--especially for a man in his own special world of pain. (Important fact about Mike Simms: Last season, he became only the third player in the sport's history to hit 16 home runs in less than 200 at-bats. Juan Gonzalez, by comparison, posted 45 homers in 606 at-bats.)

The GM tells the media he doesn't want to go out and make a trade for a player he won't need once Palmeiro and Simms return, but knows he needs to get himself a right-handed DH, since Lee Stevens had only five hits in 30 at-bats against lefties last year--a woeful .167, with a meager five runs batted in. "And I'm not gonna get a $5 million player to replace Mike Simms," he adds. He then insists he'd rather save his "inventory"--referring to baseball players as though they were brake drums or refrigerators--in case he needs to make a trade later on for pitching, and he most certainly will.

 

He is asked about using young prospects such as Ruben Mateo or Shawn Gallagher or Mike Zywica. Melvin says he'd prefer to let them stay and play in the minors--better to get the full-time experience than come to the majors only to get some ass time on the bench, waiting their turn. It's worth noting that Mateo--whom Melvin refuses to deal in any trade, even when the Toronto Blue Jays were offering up some guy named Clemens--seems able to throw, hit, and catch, which is important in the sport of baseball, in which throwing, hitting, and catching often happen.

Melvin adds that Palmeiro's injury was "surprising," which is an understatement, since the Rangers signed the guy for his durability. He was supposed to be more sturdy than the oft-injured Will Clark, who wasn't injured at all in 1998, anh-anh-anh. "But off of what I heard," Melvin says, "I feel better about Rafael." He reiterates that it's possible Palmeiro will be back for Opening Day, or maybe just a few days after April 5. "I feel better today than I did yesterday." (Palmeiro said only last Sunday that he expects to be on the field as early as March 28.)

A little while later, before the first pitch of the Rangers-Red Sox game, KRLD-AM broadcasters Eric Nadel and Vince Cotroneo sit in their booth and make up a list of 12 potential candidates Melvin might want to consider bringing in. The two are very helpful. Among those Nadel mentions is former Ranger Ruben Sierra, in camp with the New York Mets. "He bats right, he fills in for Simms. He bats left, he fills in for Palmeiro," Nadel explains in a sort of voice that's either all joking or dead serious. "Plus, he's big enough to fill both uniforms.

"What was to have been a dull spring training," Nadel adds, "has become interesting for all the wrong reasons."

The reason the Rangers got themselves into this mess--trade or don't, call up a minor-league prospect who isn't yet ready, or hope Lee Stevens can figure out how to hit left-handed pitching real friggin' quick--is that the team didn't invite any non-roster veterans into spring training camp. Their non-roster players are all young, inexperienced, another year or two away from even dreaming about having someone else carry their luggage on road trips.

After the game, Oates talks to reporters down on the field, and he's super testy. He is asked about who will DH now that Stevens is going to start at first base, at least until Palmeiro returns and Simms gets healthy. "I got all kinds of guys to DH," Oates says, referring to Luis Alicea, Jon Shave, and Scott Sheldon, who might actually assume Simms' role during the regular season. "But I'm not gonna worry about the regular season."

The Morning News' Gerry Fraley tells Oates that Melvin said he was happy about the news concerning Palmeiro. What he means is that Melvin was happy the doctors discovered the injury early enough to operate, in hopes of getting him on the field for Opening Day. What Oates hears, on the other hand, is something entirely different.

"Oh, yes," he begins, his voice clipped and raised. "I think it's exciting. I think it's wonderful. I think it's good news. I think we should all have surgery every day." Fraley tries to interrupt the sarcasm barrage, but Oates cuts him off. "I don't think it's ever good news anytime one of your players has to have surgery."

A few minutes later, the Star-Telegram's T.R. Sullivan asks Oates whether he'd be comfortable having Lee Stevens play every day against left-handers. There is a very long pause. Oates wears that grin again--the devil's smirk. He finally responds in a very measured tone. "I don't know what my roster's gonna be."

"Anything else nagging on you?" Sullivan asks him.
"Just you guys with the same old questions," Oates tells him, smiling but, you know, not really. "You want me to make a roster out on the third day of spring training. If Lee's at first, I'll be more than comfortable. I'll be tickled."

"But if you make your roster out today, we can all get the hell outta here," Sullivan tells Oates.

"No," Oates says, grinning. "You'd be back here tomorrow wondering why I did it."

DeWain Lee Stevens likes to say he's on his second career, which makes sense, since the first one didn't go so well. He was drafted by the California Angels in 1986, got called up in the second half of the 1990 season, then spent the next four years bouncing back and forth between the bigs and the minors, always posting decent numbers...but never quite good enough. "I always put too much pressure on myself," Stevens says.

 

He sits in front of his locker at Charlotte County Stadium, the nicest damned guy you'd ever want to meet. And among the most thoughtful--which completely goes against his reputation as a brick wall with legs. Of course, that likely had to do with the fact that Stevens always used to locker next to Will Clark, who was like a walking low-pressure system.

For the 31-year-old first baseman, the bottom fell out of his first career on November 16, 1993, when the Angels released him for good. The following year, Stevens entered baseball's witness relocation program, moving to Japan to play for the Kintetsu Buffaloes, where, in 1994, he hit 20 homers. He remained there for two seasons, a beefy giant from Kansas City playing in the Japanese Pacific League. He got his reprieve when the Cincinnati Reds signed him as a free agent on March 8, 1996--and released him 17 days later.

In April 1996, he signed on with the Texas Rangers, brought in to be a backup to designated hitter Mickey Tettleton, whom he even sort of resembled. Both look like Baseball Players, men who use bats to pick food out of their teeth. During the last two years, he'd find himself playing first base every time Will Clark went on the disabled list, which was often: Stevens, a non-starter, appeared in 257 games during the 1997 and '98 seasons, driving in 133 runs.

Stevens is the kind of guy you wish all ballplayers could be--a guy just happy to be in the major leagues, a guy who doesn't care whether he starts or plays off the bench. He's happy just to have a career at all, embracing his second chance as every grown man ought to when given the opportunity to spend his summer playing a child's game.

"I just wanna play," he says in all sincerity. "Every team needs role players, and I'm comfortable with it. At one point in my career, I wanted to be the man, and I didn't play well that way. When I first came up, I was trying to replace Wally Joyner in California, and that would be like trying to replace Will or Raffy, and I didn't handle it very well. Whatever works, whatever makes me play good, that's the frame of mind I'm gonna use. As long as I'm the guy in my home with my two kids, that's all I really care about. I'm not the man here, and I don't really wanna be. Some guys don't want to be the star. I just try to do the best that I can."

Lee Stevens is my new baseball hero.

On March 8, the Rangers lose to the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. Or maybe they won...the notes are a little hard to read from that game.

No, wait. Here it is: Rangers 6, Devil Rays 4. Everything's gonna be OK. No more must-wins this spring training. "It's the most important win of the year," Johnny Oates says after the game.

The consensus is that he's joking.
"It's much better to win than lose," he adds, not joking.
Fact is, asking a manager about spring training games is a little like asking someone about a waffle he ate six months after the fact. What's the point?

The highlight of this particular post-game press conference occurs when KTCK-AM's George Dunham, half of The Ticket's Dunham and Miller, asks Oates whether he's "testy." The manager grins and says, "I'm still mildly testy today." A little later, he elaborates and even sort of apologizes, explaining that he was acting "arrogant" after the Red Sox game. "What do I know about double surgeries?" he offers.

"I didn't think you were arrogant," T.R. Sullivan tells him. "I thought you were a shithead."

Have you ever smelled tension? John Blake, the Rangers' PR man sitting at the opposite end of a table from Oates, looks as though he's about to explode when Sullivan says this. His body shudders. Is this any way to talk to the manager of a major-league baseball team?

Oates thanks Fraley and Sullivan for not using any of his angrier quotes in their respective papers today, and Fraley tells Oates he'd like a mulligan for yesterday's conversation--a do-over. "You know," Oates says by way of explanation, "my constructive criticism comes across as belittling, sarcastic--at least that's what my kids tell me." Everyone has a little laugh. Everyone smiles. All is well in Ranger land today. A win does that, even a meaningless spring training win.

It is going to be a very long season.

 


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