Generally, I'm a slow learner. I was about 10 before I figured out that the stove was hot and I shouldn't put my hands on it (which is the main reason why this column is constantly twisted; it's hard to type with Kentucky-fried fingers). Later, in high school and college, I was convinced that the girls I approached for dates really did value my company and didn't want to ruin a wonderful friendship. What can I say? When you have a concrete-hard head, it often takes awhile for salient details to penetrate.
Oh, but eventually I come around. Eventually I figure things out. I'm like a retarded MacGyver that way.
And so it's hardly surprising that, weeks after returning from Surprise, Arizona, where I spent time in the desert sun for Rangers spring training, I rose from bed with urgency early one morning because a light clicked on. (That was probably because my girlfriend was getting up for work, but the symbolism still holds.) It occurred to me that I'd missed the point of my time in Surprise, that I'd gone a week covering controversy instead of focusing on the piece that was right in front of my face. I was distracted, that is, turned deaf to all other stories because of the gossip swirling around General Manager John Hart, Manager Buck Showalter, pitcher Kenny Rogers and any number of journos. I couldn't help it; it was like living a soap opera, and I was powerless to turn away.
I ended up writing approximately 5,000 words on all the Rangers dirt you needed to know for the Dallas Observer, but just after it had gone to print it dawned on me that, while the salaciousness makes for compelling copy, it was the cleaner, obvious spring training story that was perhaps more important.
During my time in Surprise, I spent most of my days trying to get players to talk about the drama. I asked why no one cares much for Hart (specifically the media) and why Rogers is pissed off at the organization and the media (because his contract wasn't extended or enlarged in the off-season and he was then vilified for seeking a better deal) and whether any of that will hinder the team's attempt to improve on last year's improbable 89-win season. I asked first baseman Mark Teixeira and second baseman Alfonso Soriano. I asked shortstop Michael Young and third baseman Hank Blalock. I asked outfielder Kevin Mench, too. I asked all the young principals in the clubhouse, and they all brushed off the questioning on their way to the field for another day of sunshiny, carefree baseball. They laughed and joked and couldn't be bothered with anything so distressing.
"There's a lot of stuff that the media gets wrapped up in that we don't see as an issue," Mench told me while we sat at a table near Rogers' clubhouse locker. I like Mench, probably because he's from Philly, certainly because he almost always shoots me straight. But I told him I thought he was downplaying the Rogers issue because that's what the organization wanted--denial delivered with a shrug and a smile. "Not at all. I just think that, by a lot of us being young guys, we don't get so worried about those things. I still don't think any of it is an issue. But even if it was, we're too worried b.s.ing with each other and fooling around to spend time on what the media says is a big distraction. A lot of us came up [through the minors] together. We're used to each other. We spend a lot of time with each other. That's what we're focused on--just playing and having fun together."
Naturally, I didn't believe him. I didn't believe him because I'm a cynical bastard and, to a certain extent, I thought he was lying to me. I still do. You'll never convince me that the ugly relationships between Hart and the media, Hart and Rogers, and Rogers and the media don't, in some way, at least make the young guys take note. Their collective denials about not noticing were a bit transparent, I think. That said, now that their words have had some time to work their way inside my hard head and marinate, it makes me think that maybe the rest of it was truth. Maybe they did see the drama unfolding, but maybe it doesn't actually affect them as much as you or I would like to believe. Because during the entire week that I was there, the young guys, the core of the team, seemed blissfully unbothered by any commotion, real or perceived. They were like kids watching an ultra-violent television show--they'd seen the hostility many times before and become so numb to it that their moods weren't really affected.
So maybe that's the story I should have focused on. Because here's this group of hotshots, a crew that managed to carry the previously hapless Texas Rangers to within three games of last year's postseason, and they're being bombarded by questions about tiffs and spats. Meanwhile, no one is giving them much of a chance to repeat what they did last year. Almost every smart baseball man I asked or publication I read had the Angels running away with the division while the Rangers hovered around .500. Yet, despite all the negativity and fuss that people (like me) foisted upon them in their own clubhouse, the young guys practically skipped to work each day. Now that has a lot to do with the fact that they're terribly rich and they play a sport for a living, but they'd still have to be able to tune out the other nonsense in order to maintain their constant state of joy. And they did that--messing around at the batting cage or clowning each other in the clubhouse and just generally having a good time.
After one morning workout, Teixeira and Young were on their way to lunch when Tex took the time to bust Young's balls for not washing his hands before they ate. "Dude, you're not gonna wash up before you eat?" he asked. "You sick bastard." Young promptly did an about-face and headed for the washroom, smiling the whole way.
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Point is, they have an uncanny collective talent to wade through all the bullshit and do their jobs. It's a professionalism cocktail with a twist of enjoyment. It's exactly the right attitude to have and carry with them into the season to continue with last year's winning ways. And, regardless of what most people are saying about them, I'm starting to believe that these kids could do just that--win this year.
"We get asked questions about all those things," Young said when quizzed on what was or wasn't a distraction for the team. "But we don't pay attention to any of them. They're really not issues for us. We're just trying to win and trying to have fun. We like playing together. That occupies most of our time. I mean, what's the difference? Even if we were worried about that stuff, we couldn't change it. It really doesn't bother us. We let everyone else deal with it if they want."
It took me awhile, but I'm starting to figure that out.
Editor's note: This is John Gonzalez's last column for the Dallas Observer--at least for a while. He's allegedly heading off to an alleged city called "Boston" for an alleged "job" with another publication. (He's done this before, but like a cat, he came back.) We'll miss him--again--though this time we're keeping his desk open and a Dallas apartment guide handy. We figure one New England winter should have him heading south in a hurry. Either that, or he'll be released on probation. Good luck, John.