Rained Out

SURPRISE, Arizona--Across the way, just beyond the cart path and behind the cheap rope that separates royalty from the serfs--that is, players and personnel from fans and media--former Rangers great Jim Sundberg stands on the calisthenics field and smiles broadly. Both arms are outstretched, as though he's being measured by an invisible tailor. One hand is holding a bat, and the other is empty.

As he beckons a Dallas scribe to his side, he says, loud enough for everyone to hear, that the weather is ideal. And it is. It's just before 10 a.m. The wind whips lightly from the north. The partly cloudy Arizona sky offers just enough sunlight to move the temperature into the low 60s.

"Is this perfect for baseball or what?" Sundberg asks. "I wish it would stay like this forever. But I think it's supposed to rain tomorrow."

Whether he knows it or not, his weather report is an apt description of Rangers baseball--brilliant forecast in early March, but it never manages to hold. Gray days always lie ahead.

It is, it would appear, the same old story this year, especially considering that owner Tom Hicks has suddenly become frugal. The Rangers finished 25 games out of first place last year, which was somehow an improvement from the previous season when they were a ridiculous 31 games back. When it comes to baseball in North Texas, progress comes slowly--if at all.

The team says the change this season is in the approach. There will be no quick fix, no attempt to buy a pennant by going the route of the Florida Marlins or the Arizona Diamondbacks from a few years ago. Those teams were loose with their cash, and it worked for them. But the blueprint was either poorly applied or totally misread by the Rangers, who dropped huge sums on guys like Alex Rodriguez and Juan Gonzalez only to watch their boys continually lock down last place in the standings. (But you can't always forget your mistakes. Some are forever with you, bad houseguests who refuse to pick up after themselves. I checked Chan Ho Park's locker--there's shit everywhere.)

"I think this club sort of resembles the 2001 Mariners," says Jeff Nelson, another off-season addition. He's a relief pitcher, and a good one. But who cares about that? The important thing to remember is that if you ever need to stomp a grounds crew member, he's your man. I like to think of him as multitalented that way. "We had lost A-Rod, and everyone was looking past us. But we had a lot of talented young guys and some older ones like me and Edgar [Martinez] and some other guys who could help point the way. The best part here is that I was watching TV the other night, and they were doing predictions on the AL West, and they just did the top three teams, or what they thought would be the top three teams. No one is really looking for the Rangers to do anything. We have nothing to lose."

Well, nothing but a lot more baseball games and what little self-respect they have left. But I should be careful. I learned the hard way that iconoclasts aren't welcome around here, and sometimes they're beaten bloody with fungo bats. Either way, this whole thing is shaping up to be an ugly mess for the Rangers, for the fans, for everyone.

The days of bad investments--or any substantial investments at all--are over. The "big-ticket items" are for other clubs now. This organization seems ready to build around young players and a smattering of vets, instead of the other way around. A-Rod and Gonzalez are gone, and so is Rafael Palmeiro. They signed pitcher Kenny Rogers (again) and added outfielder Brian Jordan and designated hitter Brad Fullmer. You're forgiven if, like me, you lack confidence in these moves.

But hey, it's not all bad news. Take solace in this: By shuffling the roster, the Rangers managed to trim their payroll to around $60 mil, which is a whole lot less than last year's near-triple-digit payout. If they lose, or rather when they lose, at least they'll lose on the cheap.

Perhaps I'm being overly pessimistic. It happens. In this case, I don't think it's negativity so much as it is reality.

On the plane ride to Arizona, the guy sitting to my right was talking about the Rangers and how trading A-Rod destroyed the only reason for sane people to head to the Ballpark in Arlington on a 105-degree August day. It was a hard point with which to argue, even though it came from the same mouth that said, in a twangy drawl: "This is the first time I've flown. I've been to all 50 states, though. Drove to all of 'em."