Prodigal Son

OKLAHOMA CITY--There was a time when he was deemed a dissenter, a cancerous growth too talented to biop. That changed quickly, of course, and former managers from Joe Torre to Tony LaRussa cut him out and replaced the prodigious outfielder with the more congenial while publicly branding him a malcontent.

That was a long time ago and a long way from here. Now, the situation is different from years past in so many ways. He walks through the door, flashes a brilliant smile, and plops down on the couch next to you. Ruben Sierra is disarmingly engaging, which is good--and different from his reputation as brooding manchild. But he's here, in Oklahoma City, giving you all the time you need before his Redhawks, the Rangers' Triple-A affiliate, play the visiting New Orleans Zephyrs.

So, you think, this is not so good. In fact, this is really bad. They're going to play the who? The Zephyrs? Yeah, uh...whatever. Sounds more like a '50s gang than a baseball team.

And is this even real? Ruben Sierra in Triple A? What happened to that guy with the singular talent, the one who stroked parabolic home runs for the Rangers not long ago, the one who finished runner-up to Robin Yount in the 1989 MVP race? When did the young stud become dispensable, even forgettable?

You almost have to pinch yourself.

Alas, this existence, this minor league reality, is as much a part of Ruben Sierra as were those wonderful, sweltering Texas summers spent patrolling a patch of outfield grass in the Bigs. It's been more than two years since he donned a major league uniform, an outfit he used to wear like a second skin. That was when the promise outweighed the problems, before his act got annoying. In the end, when he couldn't catch on with the Mets, he was just another baseball blackball, an outcast banished for proving to be perpetual trouble.

But, again, things are different these days. That's the point, that's why he's here, so he can get back there, so he'll once more know the joy of playing in places higher on baseball's evolutionary ladder than Nashville or Tacoma. Sierra is convinced that he'll make it back. There's no doubt in those deep, dark eyes, and if there's any below the surface, he doesn't let it show.

"I'm not a quitter, I'm going to make it back," he says with conviction. Sierra, whose head is shaved smooth, is wearing a form-fitting, black mock turtleneck shirt, pin-striped baseball pants, and a look that screams Well, why the hell can't I make it back there?

"I can do it. I can almost touch it, yeah. I can wait to touch it. I thought I'd get called up when David Segui got traded. I had to wait. I can wait."

He waited then. He waits now. He may wait for a long time.

Maybe forever.

It's going to be difficult for Sierra, maybe even impossible, to make his dream a reality--again. You wish the road ahead didn't look so damn arduous, but it does. It does.

Physically, he's still a specimen--thick neck, broad chest, large, toned arms, and powerful thighs as large as light standards. His attitude is the polar opposite of what it once was: 24 hours earlier, you watched as he stood in the on-deck circle and chatted politely with nearby fans. Even statistically, after a scorcher of a start that put him among the Pacific League leaders in several offensive categories, he's performing well as the Redhawks DH/left fielder--through Sunday, he's hitting .332 and leading the team in five offensive categories. That's not what's making this attempt to regain glories past so improbable, though.

"He's been terrific," Redhawks Manager DeMarlo Hale assures. "I mean, you see him approach a lot of guys and talk to them about their take on hitting or whatever. He never crossed the line to coaching or anything like that; he was just being a teammate. And I welcome that. There were times when I was going to go at a player, but Ruben got to him first and talked to him. I appreciate that. He's been a positive. Those are some of the things that you don't see, that people don't see.

"And when you look at Ruben's numbers, he's an all-star here, a Triple-A all-star. Does he deserve [getting called up]? I'm sure him and a lot of other people think that they do too. But...

"It still goes back to understanding this business and knowing that Johnny Oates and Doug Melvin, they have to think about the team and the preparation for next year and, you know, giving whoever playing time to evaluate for next year. There's a lot more that goes into [calling someone up] than just numbers. A lot more."

Translation: How do you tell Superman he's getting old? How do you tell him he's not as sharp as he once was, that, these days, he's more Clark Kent than Man of Steel?

At 34, Sierra has age and the stigma that he's washed up working against him. He's slowed a step, and that powerful right arm might have lost some punch. GMs notice that stuff and apply the DH designation faster than a downtown DMV employee can blow you off. Some higher-ups would rather handle medical waste bare-handed than pick up someone of diminished capability, especially one who didn't make many friends during his first prolonged tour of duty. It makes sense because, if you're a contending ballclub looking to fill out your roster, do you really want a guy in the twilight of his career who can only play an extremely limited role? On the flip side, if you're as removed from a pennant race as the Russian government was from that whole compassion thing a few weeks ago--ahem, Rangers--wouldn't you want to take a look at the future, e.g. prospects, and not the past, e.g. a certain Puerto Rican?

For their part, Melvin and the Rangers say they've "discussed" Sierra, even "entertained" the idea of a September call-up. But, Melvin is quick to add, at-bats are scarce for those already on the Texas roster, including rookie outfielder Pedro Valdez, whom the organization is high on. And if you can't get the young guys into the lineup, how are you going to get Old Man River in there?

"I can still run good, hit good, throw good," Sierra insists, imploring you to believe him as if you have a say in his future. "The way I feel, I can play four, five years."

As much as you've ever rooted for an athlete in your adult life, you root for Sierra. You hope he's right. You cross your fingers that he'll get the phone call for which he desperately longs, that he'll eventually find his way back to the majors, be it with the Rangers or another club. You want it to work because he's accommodating, not just with you, but with the fans and his teammates; where he once managed to alienate himself from both parties, he now embraces them. You want it to work because he's different now, because El Caballo--as he was known back in the day--is still a horse, but he's no longer an ass. You want it to work because he's irrepressible, because he spent last season toiling in Atlantic City with some independent team called the Surf. The Surf, for godsakes.

It was all Sierra could do, he says, to keep playing the game he loves. It was a last-ditch effort to stay in baseball and catch the eye of a major-league scout.

It worked. Sort of. He signed a minor league contract with the Rangers in May and shipped off to quaint but insanely boring Oklahoma City. He's been there since. He might be there until the end, when his skills up and quit and head for that final shower without him.

That's what your brain says, anyway. While your heart contends a comeback is possible, your noggin tells you to stop being a candy-ass and snap to it, that he's got no shot. The odds are long, to be sure.

There is a distinct possibility that he could deteriorate here--a wannabe ballplayer imprisoned in a wannabe town. (Charming as it may be, OKC borrows a lot of its personality from other cities--from a downtown canal you might describe as Venice gone hick, to the ballpark, which is inviting but transparent in its Camden Yards-like appearance.) This, frightening as it may sound to the erstwhile big leaguer, may be all there is.

"I like Oklahoma City," says Sierra, who, 14 years earlier, passed through here on a two-month stint before getting paroled by the Rangers. "I stay in a nice apartment and meet nice people. But I want to get back to [Texas]. I started my career there, I want to end it there. I had lots of fans there. I think I'll have lots of fans still there when I get there."

Sierra pauses, kicks at an invisible nuisance on the carpeted floor, and looks at you gravely. It's the first time all weekend he hasn't brandished a mighty grin--or been so confident.

"If," he says solemnly, "I get there."