Positive reinforcement

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It doesn't get much better at the plate, where the Rangers somehow lead the American League in batting with a .291 average despite the subpar seasons of guys like shortstop Royce Clayton (.230 avg., 12 HR, 35 RBI, $4 million-plus) and outfielder Chad Curtis (.240 avg., 7 HR, 28 RBI, $2 million). But leading the league in batting doesn't help you much when you're also tops in grounding into double plays with 86. That's 10 more than the next-closest club.

Keep in mind the stats were as of Tuesday, and the performances of some have been hindered by injuries: Greer missed a number of games because of myriad ailments, and Oliver was recently placed on the disabled list with shoulder troubles. But, when you get right to it, most of these guys have served only to help consume losses and bloat the payroll.

"In baseball, you have contracts or roster restrictions that prevent you from just going out there and making a bunch of moves," explains Melvin. "It's just not as easy as it sounds. It's not rotisserie league.

"And if the players aren't doing well, there's not a large market for players who aren't doing well. People say, 'Well trade this guy or trade that guy.' When guys aren't going well, there's not a large market for them. So, you're sort of stuck a lot of times."

True, but these days you have only to look at New Yawk and the Boss to know expectancy and a large billfold are the only prerequisites to sustained postseason success. Perhaps news from the East simply doesn't make it this far. My hunch is Pony Express doesn't have an Atlantic-Coast branch, but whatever.

While I fruitlessly search for hoagies and Yuengling Lager, the fans I've tried to discuss this with invariably defend the Rangers. The reaction is usually something along the lines of, "Why can't you just leave those poor boys alone?" or "They're trying" or, my favorite, "They'll turn it around."

To clarify, I'm not trying to condemn them for lack of effort, because you see the struggling hitters taking extra batting practice, and you see the hurting hurlers working with pitching coach Dick Bosman. But in the Bigs, effort and attitude go only so far. No matter how widely they grin, they have a lot of work cut out for them. A lot. To their credit, they don't deny it.

Instead, the blinders in Arlington are reserved to ignore the distinct possibility that all the losing may have finished off the Rangers before the All-Star break. Again, all the losing, at least from here, apparently morphed onetime penthouse occupants into A.L. West doormen.

Yes, it's a long season, and, yes, the team could go on a winning streak. And, yes, Jennifer Lopez could very well leave Puffy for me.

Now, some reality. If you listen closely, you can hear the clock tick-tick-ticking, the calendar pages flip-flip-flipping. As of Tuesday, the boys had three teams ahead of them and were 9 1/2 games out of first place.

The longer this goes on, the longer players they expect to produce sit idly by scratching themselves with manicured fingers, the sooner Melvin will have to use a NASA telescope to catch a fleeting glimpse of first-place Oakland's mustard-yellow, pea-green uniforms.

Still...

"There's no panic," Melvin insists while running his hand through once chestnut-brown hair now besieged by touches of gray. "The interest is to put some wins together with this club. We won 18 games in May without Rusty Greer or Gabe Kapler, so we should be able to put some wins together and show that we're somewhat like the club we were in May. If we wouldn't have gone 18-10 in May, maybe I'd have some doubt. But when you win like that, it gives me reason to believe there are more good months ahead."

Of course, there's no mention of April's molasses-slow, 9-15 start. To the boys, the sun must linger somewhere behind all those ominous, coal-colored storm clouds. It must.

"After all," Melvin reminds, "[a few weeks ago] people approached me wanting to write articles about us being in first place."

He continues forward with mustached grin, attempting to fight the good fight. You all do. You're all so optimistic, so Ned Flanders-like. You don't give up. You forge ahead. Everyone in the clubhouse says the right things, has the right attitude, that I-won't-get-mugged-walking-down-the-street-with-a-fist-full-of-$20s 'tude. It's rosy and happy and cheery.

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John Gonzalez
Contact: John Gonzalez

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