Commentary

Rangers emerge from the turbulence

Finally legitimized as AL champs, Texas opens '11 following an uncommon offseason

Originally Published: April 1, 2011
By Howard Bryant | ESPN.com

Legitimacy has to be earned, the Texas Rangers now know. It cannot be bought. Former Rangers owner Tom Hicks tried a decade earlier when he signed Alex Rodriguez to what would become an infamous 10-year, $252 million contract for a team that never escaped last place. The Rodriguez deal, with its star power and luxury suite potential, was supposed to be the springboard that transformed a franchise from the mediocre to the elite.

Last winter, a new delegation of Rangers owners believed legitimacy existed in Arkansas, at the home of Cliff Lee, the biggest free-agent prize in baseball. This time around, the Rangers weren't only armed with a checkbook, but a résumé, something real and lasting that suggested membership to the club: a World Series appearance, an American League pennant not achieved by beating a Cinderella, but by taking down the New York Yankees.

Lee was a big part of the new history being written in Texas, an important step into new territory, the land of the winners. He had beaten Andy Pettitte in a pivotal Game 3 at Yankee Stadium that sent the Rangers soaring toward the pennant. His acquisition by Texas before the All-Star break gave the Rangers hope: hope to think big, hope to believe they could now compete with the big markets for the big players on the big stage -- hope to say goodbye to the old Rangers who had never won a playoff series, who could hardly attract marquee pitchers because of the withering Texas heat and the lack of a baseball profile, hope to say, finally, that they belonged.

[+] EnlargeJon Daniels
Ronald Martinez/Getty ImagesJon Daniels made offseason moves that appeared to cloud Michael Young's role.

Rangers CEO Chuck Greenberg, general manager Jon Daniels and team president Nolan Ryan made the trip to visit Lee. The manager, Ron Washington, did not. He was home, in Louisiana, waiting for updates from Daniels. Convincing Lee to stay wouldn't only mean the Rangers would have one of the best pitchers in baseball, but would mean they were finally in the act, able to say a front-line free-agent pitcher had a choice to go anywhere in baseball, and chose the Texas Rangers.

But Washington had an uncomfortable feeling, one that was confirmed when Lee chose to sign with Philadelphia.

"I don't begrudge the man," Washington said. "That's what he chose to do. Did he milk us? You could say that, because deep down, I think Philadelphia was where he always wanted to be, and if they came anywhere close with the money, that's where he was going. And when I heard that, I thought, 'good luck to him.' He did great for us. We went to the World Series. You can't do anything but feel good about that. But we've got a good team, with good players. Everybody's going to have to pick up the slack and let's make another run at it."

Thus, the Texas Rangers began defending their first AL pennant, and did so with a turbulence that lasted the entire winter -- first by losing their best pitcher, then alienating their most loyal, longest-tenured player, then by ousting a key and popular member of their ownership team.

At the same time, however, the Rangers showed signs both small and significant that they intend to enter into the next class of the baseball hierarchy, signing Adrian Beltre to a six-year, $96 million deal, which was the club's biggest free-agent signing since Rodriguez. The Rangers then cemented a lucrative local television contract that might be their most important deal of the offseason -- all before the first pitch of the 2011 season was thrown.

The result of legitimacy

Nobody knows the secret of how some teams are able to take a remarkable season and transform its energy into the beginnings of a great organization. The New England Patriots, once one of the great laughingstocks of professional football, won the most unlikely of Super Bowls in 2002 and began the impressive work of rewriting their history. After 40 years of ignominy, the Patriots are not only a perennial title contender, but also are one of the more influential and respected franchises in the National Football League.

It is legitimacy that the Texas Rangers crave. That is what 2011 is about, not only to repeat the successes of last season but to reshape the 2010 pennant run into an historical marker, into the year people reflect upon as the year the Rangers arrived -- and remained. During last season's run to the World Series, the same question of whether the Rangers were now "on the map" and if the notoriously football-minded Dallas area was now "a baseball town" was posed daily, from the players in the clubhouse, to Washington to Daniels to Ryan.

Winning the pennant would seem to offer automatic membership into the winner's circle, and yet it does not. In 2001, the Arizona Diamondbacks won one of the greatest, most emotional World Series in history by beating the Yankees, saw an increase in attendance the following year and have since come down from that crest. The Houston Astros won the pennant in 2005, a time-capsule moment, and fell back to being the Houston Astros. In 2008, the Tampa Bay Rays, who had never enjoyed a winning season in their decade of existence, beat the Boston Red Sox in an epic seven-game series for the AL pennant -- and the Rays never received the boost in attendance, revenue or free-agent cache that winning is expected to produce.

Only the Philadelphia Phillies in recent years have been transformed, Patriots style, by the ingredients of that ostensible winning formula: a new ballpark, stable ownership, a home-grown core of excellent players and postseason success. The Phillies, the team with the most losses in baseball history, are now the preeminent superpower of the National League.

As spring training neared, the Rangers saw encouraging signs that suggested they were not in a difficult market like Tampa, where the Rays could now thrive in the standings and yet be unable to improve financially. At the organization's best, around the acquisition of Alex Rodriguez, the Rangers sold roughly 17,000 full-season ticket packages. Since then, the club's season-ticket base had been devastated both by bad baseball -- in the nine seasons between the club's 1999 playoff appearance and 2008, Washington's second year managing, the Rangers never finished higher than third and finished last five times -- and a downward-spiraling economy.

But after winning the pennant, the Rangers' front office says it has sold more than 15,000 full-season packages, nearly 3,500 coming over the past winter. Rangers Ballpark holds roughly 49,000 fans.

In addition, the Rangers benefited from serendipity: The Houston Rockets and Astros were both starting their own television networks, creating an opportunity for the Rangers to renegotiate their television deal with Fox Sports Southwest. Greenberg was the Rangers' point person on the deal and the numbers were staggering: $3 billion over 20 years. The club would be receiving a local television infusion of roughly $150 million per year, more than any club except the Red Sox and Yankees, both of which own their own television networks, NESN and YES, respectively.

Full-season ticket sales and luxury suite sales -- along with local television revenue -- are the lifeblood of a baseball club. Teams receive money from their full-season packages before December, allowing them access to cash to spend on free agents and to use to be more aggressive spenders in the June amateur draft. Greenberg, who had jousted with the Yankees during the winter -- who returned fire by pointing out that the Rangers were one of the teams who received revenue sharing from the Yankees -- saw the television deal as a great coup. Things were changing.

[+] EnlargeAdrian Beltre
James Guillory/US PresswireAdrian Beltre is viewed as an upgrade to the Rangers' lineup and defense at third base.

The future possibilities derived from the Rangers' new television deal were immediately obvious. During the winter, it was not lost on Rangers management that they could now compete financially for the best players without mortgaging the future.

The club had signed Beltre, but also wanted another hot commodity: Tampa Bay closer Rafael Soriano. Soriano led the AL in saves in 2010, and acquiring him would have given the Rangers a top closer at the level of Mariano Rivera, Jonathan Papelbon and Joe Nathan. Instead of signing to be a closer, Soriano accepted a three-year, $35 million deal to be a setup man for the Yankees.

"A year later," a Rangers source said, "we would've been able to make two or three deals, not one."

The television money also created an opportunity for a secondary strategy for the Rangers to deal with an historical impediment: the Texas heat and a home ballpark so geared to offense that serves as a disadvantage to attract free agent pitchers.

Historically, the Rangers had not been able to lure free agent pitchers to Texas. Lee never said unequivocally that the park or the heat were reasons for his departure -- indeed, Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia is as notoriously sloped toward offense -- but the fact remains that a top-line free agent pitcher has never signed a long-term deal with the Rangers.

The television windfall gives the Rangers a chance to always be key players at the trade deadline. If free agent pitchers are not willing to commit to the Texas conditions in a six- or seven-year free agent contract, the Rangers showed that a four-month acquisition and playoff run is quite an attractive fallback, putting them in position to compete with the Red Sox and Yankees for big-time players as pennant races take form.

Young's cold winter

The winter was frustrating. Lee was gone to Philadelphia, and general manager Jon Daniels thought they had a line on Royals pitcher Zack Greinke, just a year removed from winning the AL Cy Young award. Greinke was traded to Milwaukee.

Offensively, the club decided not to re-sign Vladimir Guerrero and Bengie Molina, two veterans who had stabilized a young team as it entered the lofty and pressurized world of a pennant race. Management tried and failed to upgrade from Guerrero at designated hitter with Jim Thome, who remained in Minnesota. As the winter meetings concluded in Orlando, management seemed convinced that this team was not going to look much different than it had in 2010.

During the meetings, Washington told Daniels his mantra for 2011 was that "everyone had to get better." He had seen it before, when a club had success and instinctively but fatally believed that each player on the roster would improve from the previous year's performance.

"Wash stressed this with our players," Daniels said. "There are areas where we can get better because we don't think 90 wins is going to do it this year. And it's true. You see it each year. Someone is going to have a career year, and someone is going to struggle. You realize it is kind of a mistake to fall too much in love with what you did last year."

Meanwhile, the free-agent market was behaving curiously. Beltre, the coveted third baseman who had played for the Red Sox, was -- to the surprise of the Rangers' front office -- still available. Conventional wisdom had Beltre signing a big deal with the Angels or perhaps returning to Boston, where he had signed a one-year, $10 million contract in 2010.

Weeks earlier, Washington, whose passion is infield defense, said he did not entertain the thought of acquiring Beltre for two reasons: He didn't believe the Rangers had a chance to land Beltre, and acquiring Beltre would mean either moving Michael Young to designated hitter or trading him. For the majority of his 11 years with the Rangers, Young has provided stability and name recognition for a team transitioning out of financial disaster and last place.

It was Young who provided the warmth with a fan base that in the mid-to-late 1990s had tasted winning -- three playoff appearances in four years -- but had only now tasted losing. Young appeared at the team's community relations events, and made hospital and school visits.

When the team made bold moves, it was Young who accommodated them with his flexibility. He agreed to move from second base to short when the team traded Alex Rodriguez for second baseman Alfonso Soriano in 2004, and Young moved to third base in 2009 when the Rangers saw the potential in shortstop Elvis Andrus.

An enormous clubhouse influence, Young agreed to change positions at a time when he was emerging as a potent offensive weapon. Young has averaged 199 hits a season, and has 1,848 for this career. He is a career .300 hitter and at 34 years old has an outside chance at reaching the 3,000-hit mark.

Acquiring Beltre would require a delicate touch. There were elements in the Rangers' organization that, despite Young's tremendous offensive credentials, viewed him as the weak link defensively. In organizational meetings, the thought of acquiring Beltre, the premier defender in the American League at his position, was tantalizing. Daniels had always coveted Beltre as a player. When Young injured his hamstring in September 2009, Daniels wanted to acquire Beltre off waivers from Seattle, but a deal never materialized.

Michael Young
James Guillory/US PresswireMichael Young has been a DH 25 times during his career.

In assessing his club, Daniels was already pleased with his outfield of Nelson Cruz, David Murphy, Julio Borbon and the newly crowned American League Most Valuable Player, Josh Hamilton.

"Here's how we looked at it," Daniels said. "Cruz, Borbon, Murphy, Hamilton. Then we've got [Yorvit] Torrealba, [Mike] Napoli and [since-traded Matt] Treanor to go with an infield of Beltre, Andrus, [Ian] Kinsler and [Mitch] Moreland, along with Michael.

"All of a sudden, we've got a club where guys can pick each other up, especially in the Texas heat -- and really catch the ball," Daniels said. "That was the thought behind the design of the club."

Meanwhile, during this time the relationship between Young and Daniels deteriorated. According to multiple sources, Young felt he was given assurances from Daniels that the club was not acquiring Beltre and that he was not going to be made a full-time designated hitter. And he felt Daniels reversed course without communicating that to Young when it became clear Beltre was available.

At the same time, the Rangers were attempting to replace Guerrero with Thome, which -- had they been successful -- would have boxed Young out of the lineup completely. As it was, the Rangers still traded for Mike Napoli, a suggestion that Young was not only being squeezed just as the future of the team brightened, but after 11 seasons he was being treated as though he were a disposable part.

As the Beltre deal drew closer to reality, Young agreed again to change positions, this time to designated hitter even though the move went against his competitive nature. A week before spring training, Young -- whose exclusive rights to veto trades as a 10-and-five man begin in May -- formally requested a trade.

Daniels and Young were not on speaking terms. Washington did not get involved. Out of respect, Young did not engage with Washington to keep the manager from being compromised.

"I made it a point not to be caught in the middle," Washington said. "I'm not backstabbing my general manager, and I'm not backstabbing a player of Michael Young's stature, someone who has done so much for me."

Young, sources said, felt as though the organization put him on the defensive and in a publicly awkward position by not being direct with him. He felt, according to sources, like the organization failed to communicate with him and was unwilling to publicly acknowledge misleading him about his place in the organization -- a breach for which he held Daniels solely accountable.

"Obviously, we would have rather it not be a problem," Daniels said. "But if you look at it through the prism of 'does this make our team better,' there's no question it does. And we're a better team with Michael Young on it. The common theme is that these are tough decisions that don't always play out smoothly."

Neither Daniels nor Young cared to discuss the nature of their soured relationship. The two did not speak for virtually the entire winter, save for a brief conversation at the end of spring training. At one point, Nolan Ryan intervened to accommodate Young's trade request, but no deal materialized.

"You have to remember that Michael is still learning [to DH]. You can't just take players and put them anywhere and expect them to play as though they've been there for 15 years," Washington said. "They have pride, you know. Michael has been the ultimate teammate. He does whatever is asked of him, everything. He also accounts for nearly 200 [expletive] runs. I'm very sensitive to that."

Play ball

The Boston Red Sox arrived in Arlington on Thursday night to begin the season right, with two teams who could very well play for the pennant come October, but the turbulence hasn't stopped. Greenberg, who brokered the key television deal and was an emerging face of ownership, was bought out of the organization weeks ago following a murky rift with Ryan and Daniels. Ryan took over his duties and is now the team CEO as well as president.

The team will unveil a dazzling $13 million scoreboard and hand out American League championship rings. Michael Young is in uniform, still the captain, resolute on playing winning baseball, though the business of the game eroded a piece of his foundation. He wants to let his game do the talking.

"Baseball," Young said. "That's it. Let's play baseball."

Washington, who in his first season wasn't quite sure he wanted a second season, and in his fourth survived a drug scandal and managed his team to the World Series, is now in his fifth, having grown into a job that at times has conflicted him.

"Everything is a battle, but that's how you learn to fight," he said. "Only by battling do you know if you even can fight. This team knows it. We've had problems off the field. We've had problems individually, we've had to come together on the field, like when we lost the first game against the Yankees in the playoffs in such a way that everyone thought we were dead. But we worked it out, won four of five and went to the [expletive] World Series.

"And when all this is done, and we're still in it late in the season, the stuff we've gone through to get to that point will be the reason. It may not look like it now, but it will then. Trust me."

Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is the author of "The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron," "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston" and "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball." He can be reached at Howard.Bryant@espn.com. He can be followed on Twitter at www.twitter.com/hbryant42