The Rookie

For 34 years, the Texas Rangers have struck out in their quest for a World Series title. Can they be saved by a 28-year-old general manager from New York whose only experience comes from the fantasy leagues? At this point, I’m willing to try just about anything.

MY FIRST THOUGHT WHEN I read last fall that the Texas Rangers had promoted a 28-year-old named Jon Daniels to the job of general manager was, Who? Having suffered through the ineptitudes of this sorry franchise for nearly three and a half decades, having sat as solemn witness to its stumbling pretenses to be a major league ball club, I assumed that this was just another mistake—typical and, in the long run, of no real consequence. The GM post had been held the previous four years by veteran baseball executive John Hart, who’d admittedly made a mess of things, but at least Hart had had an extensive baseball background. Daniels, on the other hand, was essentially an outsider, a naïf from cyberspace. Think of it this way: In 1999, the last time the Rangers were good enough to appear in an American League playoff game, Daniels had just graduated from Cornell University with a degree in applied economics and management and was in Boston working his way up the ladder at a corporation that bought up companies like Dunkin’ Donuts and Baskin-Robbins. He served a brief internship with the Colorado Rockies, in 2001, followed by four years of crunching numbers and negotiating contracts as one of Hart’s subordinates, but the most experience he’d had actually running a ball club was with the teams he’d fielded in an Internet fantasy league.

It’s a long way from the geek land of fantasy baseball to the major leagues, and farther still to one of the thirty general manager jobs available. Daniels has traveled the distance in record time and made it look easy. That’s what worries me. I learned about baseball from my father, who had followed the minor league team in Dallas since the thirties and believed in the game as a grand tradition. In his time, general managers were likely to be crusty old bastards in baggy pants. Most of them had spent years in the trenches of player development; they spit tobacco, drank gin, and handed out advice like “Take two and hit to right.” It was gospel that the Boston Red Sox would never win another World Series because they were cursed by one GM’s long-ago trade that sent Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees.

But things change, even in baseball. Daniels is part of a new breed, the so-called Jamesian movement, named for the legendary baseball writer and statistician extraordinaire Bill James. James teaches that the offensive side of baseball can be reduced to a science—that computers, fed reliable statistics, can tell a ball club more about a player’s ability than a dozen scouts in the field—and he stresses the discipline of “sabermetrics,” a word that he coined to describe the analysis of baseball through objective evidence and methods. Before Daniels, the youngest GM in major league history was Theo Epstein, of the Red Sox, who was ten months older than Daniels when he got the job, in 2002. Like Daniels, Epstein is an Ivy Leaguer with fireball energy, a mind that preternaturally translates cold statistics into hot intelligence, and a geek’s trust that in this world of preparation and opportunity, all things are possible. As an assistant GM, Epstein played a key role in hiring Bill James as a consultant. Two years after Epstein got promoted, the Red Sox won a World Series championship for the first time in 86 years. So much for the Curse of the Bambino.

Rangers owner Tom Hicks, who bought the team in 1998, believes that Daniels can do for the Rangers what Epstein did for the Red Sox—maybe not this year but sometime soon. Already there are signs that things are improving. A clubhouse where the anger was palpable at the close of last season is now abuzz with peace, if not euphoria. In his first off-season, Daniels signed free-agent pitcher Kevin Millwood, who had the best earned run average in the American League last season (2.86), and traded for two other starting pitchers, Adam Eaton (11-5 last year for the San Diego Padres) and Vicente Padilla (a former All-Star who has gone 51-51 in seven seasons, most recently with the Philadelphia Phillies), thus giving the Rangers more stability at the top of the rotation. In the same trade that brought Eaton from the Padres, Daniels also landed a respectable setup man for the bull pen, Akinori Otsuka. Even better, this team continues to have the hitting to compete with division heavyweights such as Oakland and Los Angeles, especially with young stars like shortstop Michael Young, third baseman Hank Blalock, and first baseman Mark Teixeira just reaching their prime.

But the Ranger faithful can only wait. Before it started its first season in Texas, in 1972, this moribund franchise was the woebegone Senators of Washington (“First in war, first in peace, last in the American League”). Rangers fans fall into two categories: the Believers, who, like the lilies of the field, see in each new season reason for hope; and the Cynics, who know in their gut that a team that has gone 34 seasons without coming within shouting distance of a World Series is, by definition, hopeless. My father was a Believer. But his generation lived and finally died without watching their beloved Rangers succeed. I won’t claim that the Rangers killed my daddy, but I have lain awake at nights, fearing that my own generation might suffer the same fate.

WHEN I FIRST CAUGHT SIGHT of Jon Daniels, or J.D., as he’s known to his Rangers colleagues, it was a cloudy morning in early March and he was jockeying a golf cart at top speed, racing between practice fields at the team’s sprawling spring training complex, on the south side of Surprise, Arizona, talking on a cell phone and, for all I know, trading his outfield for a box of Cracker Jacks. Had I not known he was the new GM, I would have guessed he was some kid who had sneaked past security and was looking for autographs.

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