Journeymen of summer

Whatever you do in this life, don't go looking for answers in a locker room. They just aren't there. You won't find them lying beneath the damp towels or the dirty jocks or the discarded clichés. You won't find them hanging in a locker next to silk shirts and jars of muscle-building supplements. There are no answers in the baseball players' clubhouse, only the same-ol'-same-ol's doled out on a daily basis. Fact is, if you're a ballplayer, what are you going to say today that you didn't yesterday or last month or won't tell some beat writer tomorrow? After all, man, you're just taking it one game at a time.

So when relief pitcher Tim Crabtree throws a genuine piece of insight your way during a casual -- meaning, ya-got-58-seconds-man-then-I-gotta-go -- conversation, it comes as a shock to the system. Standing at his locker after last Thursday's loss to the Detroit Tigers, the right-handed pitcher with the 3.00 ERA (third best on the pitching staff, behind too-good-to-be-true Jeff Zimmerman and Mike Venafro) was mentioning how the Rangers aren't really a team built upon the miracle swings of superstar bats. But the most interesting thing about what he said was what he didn't say: the name Juan Gonzalez.

"You look at our team," Crabtree said, "and you look at Raffy [Palmeiro] and Pudge [Rodriguez] for the most part as guys you have that stand out, guys you need to be successful day in and day out to have a chance. Those are the only two guys on our team who are pretty big, dominating, contributing forces. Everyone else is just a consistent player."

The man makes a good point: Palmeiro, the prodigal son returneth, is easily the hero of a ballclub in need of one. The man could throw his bat at a pitcher and still drive in the winning run, as he did Monday against the Cleveland Indians, swollen knee and all. And Rodriguez is Yogi Berra and Johnny Bench combined: As of Tuesday, his 28 home runs -- seven better than last year's career-high total, with 43 games yet to play -- puts him three behind Palmeiro's team-leading total. Gonzalez has only 27, with 96 runs batted in; it's doubtful he will get anywhere near last year's mark of 45 homers and league-leading 157 RBI. Maybe his pants are too tight.

Yet the reason the Texas Rangers of 1999 are possibly the best Texas Rangers team ever -- this club is on pace to win 95 to 97 games, besting 1977's mark of 94 wins -- is not because of superstars, though Palmeiro and Rodriguez are both deserving of the American League Most Valuable Player Award. Rather, this team is defined by the men Crabtree speaks of with respect: Jeff Zimmerman, Todd Zeile, Roberto Kelly, Esteban Loaiza, Lee Stevens, Mike Venafro -- the team's nearly anonymous heroes, its construction workers in baseball caps. They're the carpenters building the cathedral, carrying the bricks and installing the stained glass. The only problem is, no one ever celebrates the men who build the temples. They only marvel at the finished product.

Perhaps that's why attendance at the Ballpark is shockingly low, down to nearly 27,000 a night, even though this team has the third-best record in baseball. Against Detroit last week, the Ballpark felt hollow; you haven't seen that many empty seats since a regular-season Mavericks game. Even losing teams of years past would draw well beyond 30,000. Perhaps they're staying away in droves this year because fans come out to root their larger-than-life heroes -- the home-run kings, the throw-'em-out kid. They don't come to cheer the journeymen of summer.

When you get down to it, this team has the disposition of an accounting seminar. You'll never open the paper and see a barbarous quote from Luis Alicea or Roberto Kelly. And this team's so-called superstars apparently confuse a microphone with a rabies vaccine needle. The closest you'll get is some cranky retort from Mark McLemore, who's quick to point out when a reporter gets his facts crooked. Everyone else offers the variation on a theme: "We're winning because of our bullpen," which really means, "Our starting pitchers are lucky to last four innings." Tough to get excited about a team of mutes. Maybe that's why owner Tom Hicks and president Jim Lites have turned up the rock and roll at the Ballpark -- so you can't hear the silence.

Of course, this summer's unbearable string of 100-plus-degree days plays a role in the diminishing turnout; no doubt many fans prefer watching their team in air-conditioned comfort on television to driving to Arlington and marinating in their own sweat for three hours. Eric Nadel, the longtime voice of the Rangers, is convinced all those stories about low attendance miss the point: "They never talk about how every single game is on TV," he points out. "That's all there is to it." Those in the Major League offices who devised this season's calendar must surely have it out for Texas, giving the team a mere eight home games in June and 17 games during the miserable month of August. They must think Tom Hicks owns the weather as well.

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky