SURPRISE, Ariz. — Elvis … has been left to the rebuilding.
Once upon a time, in what feels like some sort of perverted, parallel universe, the Texas Rangers’ shortstop was a joyful kid playing for a nearly champion. Today, on a sun-splashed March 1 at spring training, Elvis Andrus finds himself as the uncomfortable elder statesman on a club destined to lose 90-plus games in a lame-duck stadium.
“Time is flying,” he says in the team’s Surprise Stadium clubhouse. “Just yesterday I was a 22-year-old about to win a World Series. Now I’m 30 and … it’s just different.”
Along with those embedded emotional scars, Andrus is the last link to the Rangers’ ill-fated 2011 World Series. Playing in their second consecutive Fall Classic, twice in Game 6 they were one strike away from defeating the St. Louis Cardinals at Busch Stadium and taking home their first championship. Infamously, they coughed up the late leads, lost the Series and have never truly recovered.
They won a couple of division titles and had a 2-0 lead on the Blue Jays in the 2015 playoffs, but another collapse — fueled by two Andrus errors in an unfathomable seventh inning of an epic Game 5 loss in Toronto — confirmed and accelerated the downward spiral threatening to spin out of control.
Andrus on the field, Jon Daniels in the front office, Chuck Morgan on the public address and those bonkers-yet-beloved colorful dots racing in the sixth inning are all that remain from eight (going on 80) years ago. Andrus has matured — perhaps deteriorated — into the organizational bridge between those glory days and these impending gory years.
Entering his 11th season, he is the organization’s longest-tenured player. On a team void of stars and thin on hope, he is their de facto leader in 2019.
“I’m the old man,” jokes Andrus, who has been playing professional baseball since age 16. “You hang around long enough and people say ‘Hey, it’s your team now.’”
When the Rangers host the Chicago Cubs on opening day this Thursday in Arlington, there will be the usual military flyovers; red, white and blue bunting; and a ceremonial first pitch hurled by Gov. Greg Abbott. It will commence a humble eulogy more than high expectations.
In the last two seasons, they are 34 games under .500 and have finished 59 games behind the rival Houston Astros in the American League West. The failure prompted the firing of #NeverEverQuit manager Jeff Banister, replaced by 42-year-old rookie/realist and #TogetherWe skipper Chris Woodward. Gone are future Hall of Famer Adrian Beltre, novelty sideshow Bartolo Colon and all rational hope.
What remains? A team that Las Vegas oddsmakers predict will finish 71-91. A talented-but-untapped lineup, frayed by a sketchy, anonymous pitching staff counting on three starters recovering from Tommy John surgery. With the bar set ridiculously low, this year’s focus won’t be on the current rebuilding project but rather past warm-’n’-fuzzies inside a Globe Life Park seeing its last season as the home of the Rangers. Next year they’ll play in the retractable roof, air-conditioned, fake-grass Globe Life Field just across the street.
The Rangers will host 23 promotional nights, in which they give to fans everything from bobbleheads to T-shirts to calendars. Exactly one — “Elvis Andrus Infield Base Set Night” on June 9 — will feature a current player.
Says Woodward, “Results are important, don’t get me wrong. But this season is also about redefining our definition of success.”
A franchise previously represented by Pudge Rodriguez, Michael Young, Beltre and even Nolan Ryan, now sports Andrus as its face. The senior will be the voice left to explain long losing streaks and describe clubhouse moods, while also being Woodward’s sounding board.
Andrus is also one of the question marks.
After a 2017 in which he hit .297 with 20 homers and 88 RBI, he nosedived last season. He suffered a broken arm in April when he was hit by a 96-mph fastball, went on the disabled list for the first time in his career and never found his rhythm. He played in only 97 games, his average dropping 40 points and his OPS a full 100.
Last year was the shattered arm. This year it might be his broken heart.
Because gone is Andrus’ baseball soulmate, Beltre. They joked with each other in the dugout and on the left side of the infield. They goofed off and made otherwise routine pop-ups must-see TV. They pulled, prodded and poked one another into bigger smiles and better stats.
“I’m not gonna lie. It’s tough,” Andrus says. “Especially here at spring training when it gets kind of boring. We kept each other on our toes and woke up. But he’s on to the next chapter, and I have to move on also. I wish he could play until he was 50, but he’s done enough.”
While his performance is uncertain, Andrus’ resilience and optimism are the least of the Rangers’ problems. He survived 2011. Endured 2015, when his two routine errors turned a late lead into an excruciating elimination. And didn’t exercise the opt-out clause in his eight-year, $120 million contract, forgoing free agency to stick with a team perhaps headed for the worst season in its history.
Bad news: The Rangers haven’t won a playoff game in three seasons and are projected to finish last in the West. One website, Bleacher Report, even predicts 98 losses.
Good news: The Astros voluntarily underwent a similar reconstruction project from 2011 to ’13. In those three years they lost a whopping 106, 107 and 111 games, but came out the other side winning a World Series in 2017.
“I’m not saying we are the favorites or something, but I never like to think we’re gonna finish in last place,” Andrus says. “I believe we can have a great team. Our offense is gonna score runs, and if our pitching stays healthy, we’re gonna surprise you and a lot of folks. We’re playing with chips on our shoulder. You media guys are doing us a favor, you know that?”
Shock and Awe
It may not be sexy, but 2019 for the Rangers is about internal growth from promising players such as Nomar Mazara, Ronald Guzman and Rougned Odor.
“The strength of our team will be our position-player nucleus,” Daniels says. “We have a good group that’s over that initial hurdle, that now has to take the next step. The exciting thing is that none of them has reached their potential. It’s a process, but they’re all going to get better and better.”
The Rangers are so committed to rebuilding — choosing to merely bargain shop at the major league level while bolstering their farm system — that their only All-Star in the last six years is designated hitter Shin-Soo Choo, who played in last season’s midsummer showcase and then promptly hit .217 with three homers in the final 56 games.
Instead of Beltre, former Indians and Mets castoff Asdrubal Cabrera will man third base. Jeff Mathis and Isiah Kiner-Falefa will split the catching duties. The experiment to make Matt Davidson a pitcher/hitter failed, landing him in Triple-A. The Rangers are so desperate for pizzazz that 36-year-old Hunter Pence, six years removed from his peak and coming off a season hitting .226 with the San Francisco Giants, was a feel-good camp story line.
To soothe their likely litany of losses the club is offering the “Fowl Pole,” a 2-pound piece of chicken equipped with its own carrying case and a $27.50 sticker price.
If that doesn’t distract, there’s always Joey Gallo.
He is the ultimate baseball boom-or-bust. Last year he hit more homers (40) than singles (38), following a similar 2017 of 41 and 32. His moonshots are jaw-dropping, instant viral content with mammoth exit velocity that are like crack to social media sharers.
He also, however, strikes out about 40 percent of the time and barely hits .200.
He’s the NBA player who dunks the hardest in the pregame layup line, then misses bunnies in the game. He’s Dude Perfect, out-tricking the tricksters in an AND1 Tour hoops game in Harlem’s Rucker Park. He’s the long-drive champion who can’t make money on the Tour because he makes 10 percent of 90-foot putts but misses 90 percent of 10-footers.
He possesses Mike Trout’s power, without the .312 average, 122 walks, 1.088 OPS or $430 million contract.
The Rangers haven’t had a roller coaster this exciting since the 1982 debut of whiff-or-wallop Dave Hostetler, who clubbed six homers in his first 45 at-bats before striking out into oblivion. Gallo will become the fastest American League player to hit 100 homers if he merely smacks 12 in his first 239 at-bats.
In some corners, Gallo is everything that’s wrong with baseball. All power, minimal production. But to the Rangers, he’s an unbridled 25-year-old who’s athletic enough to play left field, determined enough to harness his power and popular enough to attract eyeballs to TVs and put butts in seats.
Woodward wants more patience from Gallo, which he, in turn, believes will lead to even more power. The buzz phrase at spring training when talking about Gallo is “stubborn in the strike zone.”
The Rangers want him to shorten his swing and lengthen his breath. As in … chill.
“That’s the toughest part for me, staying calm,” Gallo says. “But I’m working on it. I’m going to get pitches to hit. I’ve just got to learn to be more patient.”
That won’t be easy. The Rangers have Gallo trying deep-breathing exercises, even focusing on calm, static objects in the stadium.
Through 34 spring at-bats before a groin injury, the results were alarming: 0 homers, 14 strikeouts.
While the offense could provide enough highlights to win games and garner interest, the pitching staff will likely anchor the Rangers to the division cellar.
The starting rotation — Mike Minor, Lance Lynn, Edinson Volquez, Drew Smyly and Shelby Miller — has a combined 299 wins, three All-Star appearances and 0 finishes in top-five Cy Young voting. The Astros, despite losing Dallas Keuchel and Charlie Morton to free agency, boast 430 wins, 10 All-Star berths and nine Cy Young top fives.
While some teams line up their rotation to maximize lefty-righty effectiveness, Woodward is considering juggling his to prevent the three reconstructed elbows — Volquez, Smyly and Miller — from throwing back-to-back-to-back.
Minor is the Rangers’ least imposing opening day starter since Tanner Scheppers in 2014, and Volquez was out of baseball last season. When Lynn made it to the sixth inning on March 19, he was the first starter to do so all spring.
The liveliest, most intriguing arm belongs to 25-year-old closer Jose Leclerc. He has nasty stuff and is the type of affordable, home-grown talent the Rangers covet in their rebuilding process. Still, with only 14 career saves, he is far from a proven, trusted commodity.
“It’s no secret we need our starters to remain healthy,” Daniels says. “If that happens, we might be able to surprise some people.”
Make no mistake, Daniels and Rangers fans wanted the next manager to be Michael Young. But the popular personality and franchise leader in games played politely declined.
Instead, the club that went to two World Series (Ron Washington) and won division titles (Banister) with 50-somethings is relying upon a younger leader barely removed from his playing days. The year the Rangers lost Game 6 in St. Louis, Woodward was a utility infielder for the Blue Jays.
“He’s a communicator, that’s the biggest thing,” Andrus says. “He listens to our input, and he’s in touch with the way the game has changed. We played against him not that long ago.”
Woodward, who played every position except pitcher and catcher during a five-team, 12-year career, comes to Arlington from Los Angeles, where he was the third-base coach for the National League champion Dodgers the last two years. His lone managing experience came with the New Zealand national team during 2016 World Baseball Classic qualifying.
While Washington and Banister were traditionalists who rarely strayed from traditional concepts, Woodward is advertised as a free thinker who will welcome strategic and statistical advancements to the point of employing dramatic defensive shifts and inserting bullpen pitchers to start games.
“You can’t control results in this game, but the thing you can control is effort and belief,” Woodward says. “We’re going to compete hard and take nothing for granted. I don’t like excuses and complaining. I like solving problems.”
A sign it might indeed be one of those memorable seasons for a bunch of forgettable reasons?
Veteran pitcher Jason Hammel was told by the Rangers on the morning of March 22, as the team left Arizona less than a week before Opening Day, that he had made the roster as a bullpen reliever. Within hours, Hammel retired.
The Rangers have a storied history using sleight of hand.
In an attempt to both entertain fans and distract from notoriously underwhelming play, they have throughout the years trotted out some creative diversions. At old Arlington Stadium there was bat night, where kids received a legit, wooden, red bat courtesy of Minyard. There has also been batting helmet night, dot race bobblehead night and, in 1973, Farm & Ranch Night, where between games of a day-night doubleheader cows were led onto the field for a milking contest among players.
When you’re losing 105 games, no object can be too shiny.
Maybe they can rebrand as the McRangers, mimicking the fast-food restaurant that has camouflaged its pedestrian, prefabricated fare with cutesy nicknames, playgrounds, clowns and plastic toys doubling as garnish.
In essence, that’s the plan: Drown the negativity in nostalgia.
In Globe Life Park’s swan song, the Rangers will, of course, continue the popular Wednesday Dollar Dog Night, Friday Fireworks and Sunday $1 Ice Cream. Sprinkled in will be postgame concerts, giveaway trinkets such as magnetic schedules and yearbooks and, on June 8, the retiring of Beltre’s No. 29. There will be seven promotions geared toward the ballpark’s final season, including commemorative hats (May 19), T-shirts (June 2 and Sept. 29) and scoreboard replicas (Sept. 28). The nine bobblehead giveaways will feature signature players and plays from the stadium’s 26-year history, including Gary Matthews Jr.’s over-the-wall catch (May 4), Josh Hamilton’s batting title (June 1) and Kenny Rogers’ perfect game (Aug. 17).
Texas Rangers 2019: Come for the promotions! Stay for the baseball?
This is the year before the year. Or maybe even the year before the year, before the year. But as the acknowledged face of the franchise, Andrus is defiant about dire predictions that his team will more likely flirt with the franchise record for losses than sniff a World Series.
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“Really? Ah, come on,” says Andrus, minutes after roping a single to center field to lead off the fourth inning of the exhibition against the Chicago White Sox and then calling it a day. “Your expectations are difficult. It’s annoying.”
On his way out of Surprise Stadium to the clubhouse, Andrus slowly meanders down the right-field line. He hugs the railing, signing autographs, posing for selfies, shaking hands and holding a personal, 20-minute meet-and-greet.
“These fans, they deserve it,” Andrus says. “They supported us when we were winning, and they’re still here, hoping we’ll win again. I’ll never take that for granted. It’s still baseball. Still a game I love to play. Still a game I want to win.”
Elvis … has not left the rebuilding.