Dawdling in the dugout before his team's final night home game of the 2007 season, Texas Rangers manager Ron Washington is asked to give himself a grade for his rookie year.
"I don't have time for that kind of stuff," Washington says with a smile. "I'll let you guys do that."
But before I can decide between C and C-minus, the skipper suddenly makes time for that kind of stuff.
"But if you're going to ask me, I'll say A."
A? As in, better than good and miles above average? As in, coached up mediocre talent into an overachieving team? A?
"We made it real tough on ourselves with our start," Washington expounds. "But we weathered the storm. We never gave up. We played hard every game, and we'll be better next year for having gone through this adversity. I took a lot of arrows this year. But, hell yeah, A."
See that? Down there past your pelvis and beyond Vern Troyer's shoelaces, about eye level with Michael Vick's reputation? That's the Rangers' bar, lowered to an unfathomably minuscule height.
With most Major League Baseball franchises, weathering the storm means recovering from a slow start and making the playoffs. With the Rangers, it means recovering from a slow start to finish 75-87.
With most franchises, a promising season means a significant improvement from the previous year and at least a brief flirtation with the post-season. With the Rangers, it means five fewer wins than '06 and all but two days spent under .500.
With most franchises, a last-place season gets the manager fired. With the Rangers, it gets him a contract extension. And, apparently, an A.
"Considering how we started," says general manager Jon Daniels, "it's easy to be optimistic about how we've finished up and about what we can do next season."
Is it just me, or does anyone else realize that the main reason next year looks so good is because this year was so damn hideous? Whew, it's not just me.
"Really, this feels no different than the past couple of years," says All-Star shortstop Michael Young. "We're going into another off-season needing to re-group again. I'm tired of moaning and pouting about it. The fact is we've got to find a way as an organization to get better or we'll be in this shape next year too."
This year was supposed to be different. New manager. New commitment to defense and manufacturing runs and pitching. So what happens? Ace Kevin Millwood trots to the mound on opening night April 2 in Anaheim and promptly walks the lead-off hitter.
Six months later the Rangers sweep the Angels in their final home stand—punctuated by last Wednesday's 16-2 feel-good rout—to sneak within 17 games of the American League West champs.
"They say we took a step backward this year in order to take two forward next year," says catcher Gerald Laird. "But I don't know, it seems like we dug too big a hole early and next thing you know we're in another rebuilding mode."
Despite Marlon Byrd and David Murphy and Nelson Cruz and Frank Catalanotto producing the weakest hitting Outfield since those dudes in mullets sang "Josie's on a vacation far away...," there were signs of life this season.
Young amassed 200 hits for a team-record fifth consecutive year. Texas scored 30 runs against the Orioles and finished 47-34 at home. The Sammy Sosa gamble paid off in 21 homers and 92 RBI, C.J. Wilson showed glimpses of an elite closer and the Rangers somehow drew 2.3 million customers, more than the Central Division champion Cleveland Indians.
Most of the positivity went wholly unnoticed. Because about the time the Dallas Cowboys cranked up training camp, the Rangers raised the white flag. Deadline trades in July shipped out veterans Mark Teixeira, Kenny Lofton and Eric Gagne, returning a gaggle of prospects that give the Rangers hope in 2009 and beyond. This season, however, was over before it began.
We wrote off the Rangers, along with our taxes, in mid-April. They last saw .500 on April 13, bottomed out at 23-42, had an unprecedented starting pitching ERA of 6.92 through 65 games and didn't register a winning road trip until July.
Seemingly headed for 100 losses, they inexplicably went 52-45 the final three months. Like gulping a morning-after pill a week down the road, it was way too little, much too late.
"We didn't salvage anything," grumbles Young, who helped dig Texas' early grave by hitting .215 in April. "Sure we played better. But considering how poorly we started, that isn't saying much. It's not like we played championship-caliber baseball."
Though Washington arrived preaching pitching and defense, his team displayed shoddy fundamentals right out of Bad News Bears. They didn't hit (striking out a club record 1,224 times). They didn't field (committing a league-high 124 errors). And they didn't pitch (the starting rotation failed to hurl a complete game).
The biggest problem, as it has been since, oh, 1972, was on the mound. They used 15 starters, none more culpable than Millwood and Vicente Padilla—a 1-2 punch that went 16-23 with an ERA that sounds more like your kid's shoe size (5 1/2).
While Millwood was sub-par, Padilla's performance was as revolting as his surly personality. He walked batters. He hit batters. He injured his triceps. He threw 71 mph curves when the situation called for his 92 mph fastball and said nothing to no one in the aftermath. If he's back, the Rangers won't move forward.
So while Mark Cuban fox-trots with the stars and Jerry Jones grooves for pizza, Rangers owner Tom Hicks again has to tap-dance around the truth. His team has finished third or worse in a four-team division for seven consecutive seasons. In the 36-year history of the franchise there've been just 14 winning records and exactly one playoff game victory.
"There's always one Cinderella team," says Laird. "Next year it might be us."
While driving to Rangers Ballpark in Arlington, the hope hit.
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The Rangers are adding prospects, not patches. What if they start developing? What if they sign Twins All-Star and Prosper resident Torii Hunter to patrol center field? Or a designated hitter named Barry Bonds? Or Curt Schilling? What if by next season's home opener against the Orioles on April 8...Wow, that's huuuuge!
The Rangers have long lived in the Cowboys' shadow. Now, thanks to the colossal stadium rising just across the street, they'll also have to play in it.
"The Cowboys are 3-0, huh?" Washington says. "Guess that's where all our fans have gone."
You could use some off-season.