Positive reinforcement

I'm not from 'round here, y'all. Don't speak with a drawl. Don't wear a big hat or boots or nut-hugger jeans. Don't drink Shiner, whatever that is. Definitely--underscore, boldface, italics, capitals--don't listen to country music.

So maybe I just don't get it. Maybe I'm too dense, too East Coast, too stuck in my ways to acclimate myself to a climate warmer in both geography and disposition. "Southern hospitality" and positive thinking are about as foreign to me as good cheesesteaks are to you.

Full disclosure, then. I'm a Philly kid, reared in an abrasive, hostile environment where the intolerance of the press toward underachieving teams is trumped only by fans' impatience for a winner. Being both a fan and a reporter, I tend to be as skeptical as they come, which is probably why I've been baffled since I moseyed into town. Confused by the Texas Rangers, their fans, and their front office. Specifically, confounded by the upbeat temperament. (By the way, if it'll make you feel better, as this column unfolds feel free to poke fun at my hometown, its occasional inferiority complex, 17-years-and-counting championship drought, or frequent lack of decorum--e.g., the unfortunate cheering at Michael Irvin's life-threatening injury at Veteran's Stadium--as an exaction of revenge.)

Here's the thing: Throughout a large chunk of June, the Texas Rangers were mired in a long series of ridiculous losses, a succession of blown saves and unwanted whiffs that manager Johnny Oates and party were all too happy to dismiss as aberrational. At one point, the club dropped 10 of 11 over a star-crossed stretch. Really, things don't look much better these days. Really, they look rather bleak.

Not so, I'm told. Just a few miles down I-30, the boys in the clubhouse are unfailingly upbeat. I suppose the sun shines brighter deep in the heart of Texas than in the City of Brotherly Love.

"We dug ourselves a little hole, but we're a very talented team," says transient center fielder Gabe Kapler, smiling brightly. "We're a different team than that losing streak would indicate. We're not that club. We have plenty of good players; now we're working into a position to get back on track."

It's one thing for players to speak that way. I mean, what did you expect to come from his mouth? "Well, we really stunk the joint out for a while. In fact, know what? Tell Dougie they should trade my ass and the rest of these bums, too." It's what players do. They turn into Johnny Mercer and sing "Accentuate the Positive." They cling to their hopes for a winning streak the way a child clutches a blanky.

What's a little more disheartening, or at least it should be to Texas fans, is how Oates and general manager Doug Melvin are approaching the situation. When the bottom first started to fall out on the defending A.L. West champs, when they began to lose by the slimmest of margins and then the most grotesque, Oates publicly promised heads would roll. Through angered, narrowed eyes, he vowed jobs were at stake, but weeks later things remain pretty much the same at The Ballpark.

Only Mark Clark, possessor of a 3-4 record and abhorrent 8.59 ERA in eight starts, lost his spot in the rotation, banished to the bullpen in favor of Matt Perisho. Of the position players, only right fielder Dave Martinez was annexed--he was acquired in a three-way trade with Chicago and Florida--which is kind of like trying to fix a nearly flat tire with a wad of Bazooka. He's hitting a paltry .238 with two homers and five RBIs since the deal.

Look up and down the roster, from starters to scrubs, bullpen to bench, and you wonder why that is. Why house a bunch of cats barely worth their milk? Aside from a few usual suspects--Ivan Rodriguez and Rafael Palmeiro, who are, despite some recent struggles by the latter, putting up their customary power numbers, combining for 42 homers and 118 RBIs as of Tuesday--and a few complements, David Segui (.341 avg.) and Luis Alicea (.325 avg.), what do you have here? In the rotation, you have Kenny Rogers (7-5, 4.12 ERA), who has been serviceable as the team's No. 1 starter. In the lineup, and just to be charitable, you could throw in "resurgent" outfielders Gabe Kapler, who's hitting .296 since returning from a strained hip flexor but just .236 with four home runs and 15 RBI overall, and Rusty Greer, who's upped his average to .273 but has only one homer and 18 RBIs.

Aside from that? You have a bevy of pros sorely underproducing for their grandiose salaries. You have a pitching staff with a 5.34 team ERA, 26th of 30 in the majors, manned by Darren Oliver (2-4, 6.66 ERA) and Clark, who are each making well over $4 million, Esteban Loaiza (4-5, 5.53 ERA), who's making in excess of $2 million, and Jeff Zimmerman (1-4, 7.05 ERA), Mike Venafro (1-0, 4.91 ERA), and Tim Crabtree (1-5, 6.45 ERA), who are all garnering checks for services not rendered. Even Rick Helling, who started the year strongly and probably could have picked up a few more wins with added run support, has lost six consecutive starts--not decisions, starts.