As a lifelong Rangers fan, I had hoped a new general manager could turn the team around. But the ball club started out in the same old placelast.
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On April 15 the Texas Rangers celebrated their thirtieth anniversary with blue skies, a rowdy crowd, and another loss. I have seen all too many such evenings ever since my dad and I celebrated my second-grade team’s city championship in the right-field seats at old Arlington Stadium. A Rangers fan learns to accept that the season will more than likely end badly, but is it too much to ask for it to begin well? Apparently so, for the 2002 Rangers were off to the worst start in team history. This wasn’t supposed to happen. Last November the Rangers hired a new general manager, John Hart, who had resurrected the Cleveland Indians—a franchise that was once so dreadful it inspired Hollywood to make movies about it. But if Major League were being filmed today, Tom Berenger and Wesley Snipes would suit up in Arlington.
I arrived at the stadium early, wondering if pregame practice would shed some light on the team’s ineptitude. Unable to provide customers with good baseball, the Rangers are at least providing good manners. As I strolled through the concourse of the Ballpark in Arlington on the way to the clubhouse, I was in danger of being helloed to death by a score of ushers saying that it was good to see me and that I should enjoy the game and a hot dog. As the team warmed up, it looked as polished as one headed for the World Series. Shortstop Alex Rodriguez, known to the world as A-Rod, sucked up ground balls as easily as a dog takes a nap. First baseman Rafael Palmeiro swatted souvenir after souvenir to fans waiting in the outfield seats. As I stood near home plate, soaking up the scene, it just didn’t seem possible that the Rangers had won only three of twelve games and had already fallen six and a half games behind the first-place Seattle Mariners. In a couple of hours they would face the Mariners in the final meeting of a four-game series; the Rangers, of course, had lost the first three.
I took some comfort that a red horseshoe hung above the entrance to the dugout. It is meant to be a symbol of good luck, a talisman to drive away the evil baseball spirits of strikeouts, errors, and blown saves. Perhaps tonight its magic would finally kick in, but then it hit me: Could a good-luck charm work on income tax day? It didn’t take long to find out. Rangers pitcher Dave Burba, who had followed Hart from Cleveland, gave up three runs in the top of the first, and I knew, once again, there would be no joy in Arlington.
The Rangers’ current stretch of ill fortune followed the signing of A-Rod before the 2001 season for the biggest contract in sports history—$252 million over ten years. My fear that dropping a quarter of a billion dollars on a single player would doom the team proved to be true. Jerry Narron replaced Johnny Oates as the manager just 28 games into the season, and the Rangers wrapped up last place in the American League West, finishing 43 games behind Seattle. Texas led the majors in home runs but had the worst earned run average in baseball for the second year in a row.
During the off-season, the team cleaned house. Hart replaced Doug Melvin as the general manager and made it his mission to right the ship as quickly as possible. He invited a club-record 64 players—including 34 pitchers—to spring training. Hart ended up making the most moves in team history, but in the process he wound up with an odd collection of misfits from baseball’s psych ward: redneck reliever John Rocker, moody slugger Juan Gonzalez (a former Ranger), and belligerent outfielder Carl Everett. Those decisions raised the old question about whether talent or team chemistry is more important. But like a lot of longtime Rangers fans, I didn’t care how Hart saved the Rangers, as long as he saved them.
It hasn’t worked out. Everett played center field on opening day before questions about his knee limited his playing time, Gonzalez ended up on the disabled list after just seven games, and Rocker earned a brief demotion to the minors after blowing one too many saves. I had hoped to watch part of the game with Hart, but that didn’t work out either. Later, we talked by telephone. “The last thing I want to be doing is putting myself in front of the media,” he said with a laugh. “I’m getting beat on, on twelve different ends. I’m sick to my stomach about the way we’ve started.”
On this night, at least, they were able to overcome their bad start. Seattle went three-up, three-down in the second, and in the third Burba struck out the side. Though he gave up a run in both the fourth and the fifth innings, the Rangers took care of business at the plate. Powered by home runs by A-Rod and Everett, the Rangers dug themselves out of their hole and took a 7-5 lead into the top of the sixth. Could the horseshoe be working after all? The team certainly had the bats. What it needed was a pitching staff, and Hart had brought in established pitchers like Burba and former Dodger Chan Ho Park. But what about the bull pen?
That question was quickly answered when Colby Lewis took over in the sixth inning and promptly surrendered four runs. Chris Michalak lasted a third of an inning, throwing seven pitches and hitting one batter. Todd Van Poppel pitched well enough to hold the line, and miraculously, the Rangers started the top of the ninth with the scored tied at ten. That’s when John Rocker dashed to the mound as the Twisted Sister song “I Wanna Rock” blared from the speakers.
He took the hill to equal parts applause and boos, but the boos grew louder when Dan Wilson drove Rocker’s third pitch into left center for a single. Mark McLemore then laid down a nifty sacrifice bunt. Rocker fielded it cleanly and took the sure out at first. Unfortunately, there is no such thing as a sure out in Arlington. Rocker hurled the ball over a leaping Palmeiro, and it skipped along the right-field foul line. To his credit, Rocker limited the damage to one run. Against all odds, the Rangers picked up a run of their own in the ninth, but that only meant that we had to see more of the bull pen. Dan Miceli came out to start the top of the tenth, and two walks and two singles later, the Mariners were ahead to stay, 13-11, and the sweep was complete. The train for the A.L. West title had left the station, and the Rangers were still figuring out how to buy tickets. It seemed like old times.
Back in the clubhouse, a dazed look settled over the faces of the players, who were now asked how they felt about being seven and a half games out of first place. “I’m sitting here wondering how I gave up so much,” said Burba. “We’re wondering, ‘What do we do to get it right?’” Utility man Frank Catalanotto agreed: “I’m tired of saying that we’re not getting any breaks, but it’s frustrating. What are you going to do?” I asked all-star catcher Pudge Rodriguez that question after he had finished flipping through the May 2002 issue of the duPont Registry (“Buyers Gallery of Fine Automobiles”). “We have to do whatever it takes. That’s the only thing we can do,” he said. “Sometimes you play with bad luck, but we’ve just got to keep playing baseball. One day it’s going to change.”
So what has happened to the Rangers? Is it bad luck, bad chemistry, or something else? Well, bad luck accounts for a large part of it: Injuries have decimated the lineup. The bull pen has suffered because of the absence of closer Jeff Zimmerman and setup man Jay Powell. Hart dropped $65 million on a contract for Park, who lost on opening day, then succumbed to injury himself. Pudge is out with a bad back, and Everett has fought to find a spot in the field after having knee surgery in the off-season. “I’m not an excuse maker, but in all candor this is just not the club that we put together,” said Hart. “I liken it to the movie The Perfect Storm. First, it happened to key personnel. Second, all of this happened at the beginning of the season. Third, we don’t have enough bullets in the gun. I feel like that kid with his finger in the dike: You can’t replace everybody who’s hurt.”
Perhaps expectations were too high; it was too much to expect Hart to have salvaged the ship so early in his tenure. Still, no one had higher expectations than he did. A former player and coach, he became the general manager of the lowly Indians in 1991, and the results were nearly miraculous. During his first full season, the Tribe went 76-86; by 1995 the team had earned a record of 100-44. That year the Indians played in their first playoff game in 41 years, and they would go on to win six division titles in seven years and make two World Series appearances. Hart gained a reputation for worrying about talent first and manners second (Albert Belle and Wil Cordero weren’t exactly Boy Scout leaders), but he won, and winning was what Rangers owner Tom Hicks craved.
As for the chemistry, Hart says that nothing builds chemistry like winning—and the Rangers proved him right with a surprise winning streak in early May. “We bought talent that was kind of damaged goods. We knew we were taking a gamble with Everett because of his knee, and we got Rocker for ten cents on the dollar,” he told me. The entirely new pitching staff (except for Michalak, who appeared in eleven games for Texas in 2001) may yet work out. Hart expects Park to be the ace of the staff, but Park is used to a pitcher-friendly park. The Ballpark in Arlington favors hitters. And while it’s still early in the season, even critics like me have had to admit that there hasn’t been a problem with the team’s bizarre mixture of personalities. The problem is performance.
“I think the intentions were honorable in that we wanted to give our fans a competitive team,” said Hart. “If we are able to get healthy, I think this team is going to compete. Are we going to run down Seattle? I don’t know. Maybe not. But I think this is going to be a fun club to watch. But it has been painful watching us lose.” And he hasn’t had to do it for thirty years, like the rest of us.