* * *
In college I lived, one year, in a part of Austin that was largely residential. Old neighborhoods in every direction.
But on the way to the lake there was a municipal golf course. And skirting the corner of the grounds, right where the front nine met the back, was a baseball diamond. I think there are two there now. There was one then.
I used to stop during my jog at the diamond. Because I hated jogging. And because there was almost always a ballgame going on there. Between teams I’d never heard of, and players I didn’t know.
I stopped because it was baseball and not exams and not financial aid statements and not relationship blunders and not law school applications and not rent payments and because it was a whole lot better than jogging.
The players on that field were young, maybe in junior high, and sometimes you’d hear a dad bark or a mom yell or a coach holler, but my memory is that the players seemed oblivious, almost dismissive. It was their game. They were competing and they were making plays and they were not making plays and the baseball game belonged to them.
The Great Game. The game where failure is the baseline.
I’m sure that mom over there and the dad 20 feet away were stressed out about plenty of things. Things more critical than final exams or a fourth of the rent check. The kids probably had their own worries weighing on them, too, but maybe the ballgame was a break from all of that, as it should be.
As long as Mom and Dad accepted the failures. Let their kids experience them, work through them. Decided it would be OK for there to be things their kids were better at than they were — and other things their kids didn’t do as well. That should be OK, too.
A few blocks from 3204 Bonnie Road, there was a mound at the center of a grass infield in the middle of a youth baseball field off to the side of a golf course a mile from the lake.
It was baseball, familiar and anonymous. And that was always enough.
* * *
Sometimes things hit you just right.
A hit-and-run single the opposite way.
Queso and a very cold drink.
A line drive barreled 250 feet toward you, with a perfect long hop and the runner turning third base with intent.
A song that clobbers you at the right exact damn time.
Your kid stretching her limits.
And sometimes they don’t.
Without one, however, especially in sports, the other loses its punch.
* * *
I’ve been in Surprise, Arizona, locked in on a television set along with a handful of Rangers folks, when the big club clinched a division title (at Oakland, 2016).
I’ve been there, watching the same set with many of those same people, as Texas suffered possibly its worst regular season loss ever (at Oakland, 2012).
This year, I was in Surprise when Texas was finished, with games left on the schedule.
Finished, in part, because of what had just happened in Oakland.
Each, a season of heartbreak. From 2012 to 2016, from 95 losses to one strike away, they all break your heart, unless . . . .
I don’t remember when in 2009 I was at Fall Instructs or whether that visit coincided with the Rangers’ mathematical elimination on September 29. I do remember my first look at 16-year-old Jurickson Profar on that trip, and the feeling that the big club, about to finish with a winning record for the first time in five years, was on the verge of something really good, and I’ll fully admit that my vision of how those two story arcs would play out converged like your favorite story line in “Lost,” or [insert some other 2009 reference; I got nothing].
The Rangers’ first-ever pennant, of course, arrived a lot sooner than I imagined.
Profar’s rise to prominence, if not preeminence . . . didn’t.
I mention 2009 because — aside from the brutal 2014 season, a horror show on the field and off — that was the last year the Rangers were eliminated before the final baseball game they played.
Feels, sometimes, like we take that for granted.
There’s not a major pro sport whose playoff invitations are more exclusive. And only once in these last eight seasons did the Rangers play so much as one baseball game that, in terms of playoff eligibility, didn’t matter.
That is, until Tuesday the 26th, when a Minnesota victory made Texas’s fifth straight loss, hours later, statistically meaningless. It was made meaningless because the first three of those five in a row came in Oakland, four weeks after another three in Oakland were won by the A’s, who would finish last in the division for the third straight season.
Houston 14, Texas 3 on Tuesday the 26th was made meaningless because the Rangers lost eight consecutive games in Oakland in 2017.
Or, maybe, because the bullpen blew 21 saves, so many of which came before school let out in the spring.
Or because the offense hit .224 on the road, the lowest average any team has had away from home in the 45 years since MLB introduced the designated hitter.
Or because they played a third of the year without their best player and a third of the year without their best pitcher and nearly that much without their second best pitcher.
Or because the hitters struck out too much and the pitchers didn’t strike out enough and the outfield defense was challenging but not as challenging as the year the second baseman had.
This club has never been about one or two star players (unlike the Angels, whose superstar has won as many as playoff games in his seven years as you have), but it’s telling perhaps that, in a poll of 45 players, club executives, scouts, media, and analysts, Yahoo’s Jeff Passan compiled an All-MLB Team, Second Team, and Third Team last week, comprised of 61 players, with only Texas, Kansas City, and Tampa Bay unrepresented by either a current player or one that it traded during the season.
There were plenty of Rangers who didn’t underachieve this year, but not enough. Coming off an AL-best 95 wins, this team should not have finished with a losing record.
Or with a season-ending set of four, at home against those blasted A’s, that didn’t matter.
A season-ending set of four that began with a loss, on the day that ground was broken hundreds of feet away.
And that ended with a loss — like every Rangers season, 162+ or otherwise, for 13 years in a row.
Sometimes the heartbreak fades just after the memory goes. Other times it persists, indifferent to attempts to overcome with anything other than that which was narrowly missed.
* * *
The Rangers lineup that got ready to play on Monday the 25th in Goodyear, Arizona, 20 miles south of Surprise, wasn’t focused on the big club’s dwindling chances. Blaine Prescott and Charles Leblanc and Pedro Gonzalez and Sam Huff and Brendon Davis and Curtis Terry and Darius Day and David Garcia and Myles McKisic, none of whom is likely to reach Arlington before Globe Life Field opens, were instead locked in on that afternoon’s opposing pitcher.
Hunter Greene piled up more millions to sign (7.23) than pro innings pitched (4.1) this summer, but by all accounts (not that it was hard to tell) the Rangers’ hitters weren’t clenching up as they got set to take on the Cincinnati 18-year-old in what would be his first Instructional League outing, and that 99–101 with a hammer breaking ball.
Double rocketed down the third base line.
Opposite-field triple (by Gonzalez, the return from Colorado for Jonathan Lucroy and in the estimation of some the MVP of Rangers camp so far).
Double blasted into the left field corner.
The parlance in exhibition games when the teams agree to end an inning short of three outs is that the inning is “rolled.”
Once Curtis Terry pulled into second with his two-run two-bagger, he and nine Reds players headed toward their dugouts. The Rangers’ first inning against Hunter Greene (which you can watch in its entirety here) was rolled.
Line drive missile off Greene’s glove.
Line drive missile off Greene’s foot.
Opposite field single.
Four-hundred-foot sacrifice fly to center.
Run-scoring single to left.
It was the second of nine innings, on the 14th day out of 26, for the 59 players invited to Instructs by the Rangers, effectively extending their season from six months to seven. They came from the 1st round and the 35th. From the draft and from the Dodgers. From high schools in New Jersey and from community colleges in Utah and from Venezuela and Nicaragua and Cuba.
The days drag but the years fly by, said one of the coordinators while I was there. He wasn’t talking about the baseball season, but in the context of one that fell well short for the franchise, he could have been.
I figured some of the players might look gassed, just trying to get to the finish line for the year (example: Luis Ortiz, 2014), but I saw none of that. The coaches wake up when some of us go to sleep, and start working. It sets a tone. Expectations are high and accountability is demanded and the work never stops. (At least, formally, until October 7.)
In pitching coordinator Danny Clark’s 12 years with the Rangers, the organization has had 67 pitchers who’d come through its Instructional League program get to the big leagues. DC pointed that out in a room of 30 pitchers — ages 18 to 23, plus James Jones (the only one of the five players in the Leonys Martin trade with Seattle who hasn’t changed teams again), a converted outfielder coming off Tommy John who will turn 30 during the 2018 season — not to pat himself and his staff of instructors on the back, but to challenge the kids in the room with the reality that most of them — do the math — won’t do enough to get to the Major Leagues.
It’s a game of failure. Effort, though it guarantees nothing, is essential.
DC singled out Alex Claudio as an example. A 27th-round pick with middling stuff who changed his arm slot but never his focus, driven to do everything asked of him so he could pitch in the big leagues.
As far as the pitchers in camp are concerned, in my three days there AJ Alexy was drawing a good bit of the buzz . . . but not as much as righthander Hans Crouse, who looks like he should have never fallen to the 66th pick — and the 30th pitcher taken — in June.
The transition of 27-year-old Royce Bolinger from right field/first base to pitcher isn’t official, but it’s 94–95 and it’s repeatable.
If Gonzalez hasn’t been the star of camp, 18-year-old shortstop Chris Seise (rhymes with “beast”) has. He’s not quite Carlos Correa’s size (at a similar age), but he’s close, and coming off a .336/.395/.509 Arizona League run (followed by a late-season stint against college-aged Northwest Leaguers), the 2017 supplemental first-rounder (taken as compensation for the loss of Ian Desmond with the 29th overall pick, the same slot Lewis Brinson was drafted in five years earlier) has the chance to be a system-defining prospect. I won’t say I’m coming away from Surprise with 2009 Profar thoughts in my head, for a couple reasons, but I’m really fired up about Seise, whose bat looks like it might play anywhere on the field.
In contrast to Seise’s pull power, all I saw first-rounder Bubba Thompson do was wear out the opposite field. His approach is a lot more refined than I expected it would be, and his reads and his jumps and his closing speed in the outfield stand out.
Between Thompson, Gonzalez, Leody Taveras, Miguel Aparicio, and Leuri Mejia, the center field depth on display in Surprise was exciting.
And when the six catchers in camp (Garcia, Huff [more than just a bat], Matt Whatley [more than just a glove], Josh Morgan, Melvin Novoa, Yohel Pozo) took the field for their throwing program one morning, one high-ranking scout on hand wasn’t afraid to say he bets all six get to the big leagues. And that doesn’t include Jose Trevino, who is on the doorstep.
It’s going to be a very cool thing when the organization produces a long-term starter behind the plate and another one roaming center field.
Gonzalez (19 years old) and Davis (20) and Alexy (19) had the distinction not only of being the three players in camp who started the year in different organizations, but also in competing for the 1st Annual Alex Rios Calf-a-Like title. They’re gonna get bigger and stronger now that they’re here.
(Yanio Perez, on the other hand, throws down more of a Juan Uribe/Pablo Sandoval vibe.)
Jon Daniels suggested this week that the club’s 2017 draft may turn out to be the strongest of the dozen his group has presided over, interesting given that Texas wasn’t on the clock until the 26th overall pick and was slotted 29th or 30th in every round after the first. Thompson, Seise, Crouse, and Whatley in the first three rounds was a haul, and there was a heavy infusion of pitching after that.
If you don’t recognize a bunch of the names now, just hang tight. In 2013, for example, 21 of the players Texas sent to Instructs — most of whom hadn’t yet graduated from Class A — have since made it to the big leagues.
Twelve made it here. Here are eleven of them: Joey Gallo, Nomar Mazara, Keone Kela, Ryan Rua, Drew Robinson, Chi Chi Gonzalez, Jose Leclerc, Brett Nicholas, Hanser Alberto, Nick Gardewine, and Andrew Faulkner.
Another eight made it somewhere else, after being traded for big leaguers: Lewis Brinson, Nick Williams, Jorge Alfaro, Alec Asher, Luis Sardinas, Tomas Telis, Cody Ege, and Abel De Los Santos.
One other, Odubel Herrera, made it elsewhere as a Rule 5 pick.
Aside from those 21, there are six who aren’t yet Major Leaguers — but were traded for players who were: Marcos Diplan, Ryan Cordell, Travis Demeritte, Akeem Bostick, Eduard Pinto, and Marcus Greene.
And I count another seven, still here, who barring injury should get to the big leagues, led by Ronald Guzman, Jonathan Hernandez, and Joe Palumbo (who returns to the mound in 2018 following Tommy John surgery).
Another player on the 2013 Fall Instructional League roster, Yeyson Yrizarri, was traded this summer for international pool money, which we might look back on as a critical step toward signing Shohei Ohtani, who pitched a two-hit shutout Tuesday night, punching out 10 (and hitting 98 on his 124th and final pitch) while going 1 for 4 out of the cleanup spot in his final appearance this season — and maybe ever — for Nippon Ham.
Maybe Arizona reportedly stepping in and signing Venezuelan outfielder Wilderd Patino, after the Rangers had been rumored months ago to have a $1.3 million agreement with the 16-year-old, is also intertwined with the chase for Ohtani, whose name Jeff Banister included in a sentence Wednesday that included Muhammad Ali, Michael Jordan, and Tiger Woods.
The player I left off that first list, the rundown of the 12 players who reported to Instructs in 2013 and have since become Major Leaguers, is Rougned Odor. He was 19 years old.
Odor had a strong 2013 season (.305/.365/.474, mostly with High A Myrtle Beach, plus a month with AA Frisco to end the year) and a very good camp afterwards. Widely considered the number one prospect in the organization, Odor was assigned to Frisco when the 2014 season began.
A month later, he was in Texas, replacing the Donnie Murphy-Josh Wilson duo that was replacing the injured Profar, who was replacing the traded Ian Kinsler.
At age 20, Odor (.259/.297/.402) more than held his own against big league pitching. He struck out 71 times in 114 games (417 plate appearances).
Extrapolate those 71 strikeouts over 162 games, and the total would have been 101.
Extrapolate to the 651 plate appearances Odor amassed this year, and the strikeout number would have been 111.
Odor fanned 162 times this season. A clean one per game.
He improved his OPS from 2014 to 2015. And from 2015 to 2016.
In 2017, he did not. Odor hit .204/.252/.397, inferior in each column to those rookie numbers three years ago.
In terms of offensive Wins Above Replacement, he has gone from being a 1.2-win hitter to 2.7 to 3.3 . . . to -0.5.
Correct: In spite of his 30 home runs, the metrics say Rougned Odor was worse than a replacement-level hitter in 2017.
That has to change. There’s hope that his issues on defense start to iron out with experience, even marginally.
But as a hitter, it starts with approach.
For Odor, 2016 was The Punch. 2017 was the punchout.
There was plenty in 2017 to celebrate. Gallo’s arrival. Adrian’s transcendence. Elvis’s evolution. Delino’s reemergence. Claudio’s toughness.
The outlook for 2018 seems dependent, largely, on two things:
Rebuilding the pitching staff.
And rebuilding Rougie.
* * *
The effort to put a rotation together around Cole Hamels and Martin Perez, and a bullpen in need of a lot, can’t all come via free agency. It will likely cost Texas some of its minor league talent, adding names to that Diplan-Cordell list. Nobody appears to be on the verge of breaking through from the farm system to join the rotation, at least not to start the season.
As for the bullpen, spending big on late relief is usually not something Jon Daniels likes to do.
There’s been tons of attention and praise heaped lately on the Cleveland pitching staff, and deservedly so. Notably, there isn’t a single free agent acquisition among the 11 arms the Indians will go to battle with against the Yankees this week.
They traded for Corey Kluber when he was in AA, in a three-team deadline deal involving Jake Westbrook.
They traded for Carlos Carrasco (AAA) in a six-player deadline deal involving Cliff Lee.
They traded for Trevor Bauer (four games of big league experience) in a three-team, nine-player player deal involving Shin-Soo Choo.
Cleveland also got Bryan Shaw in that deal.
The Indians traded four prospects for Andrew Miller, and two prospects for Joe Smith.
They traded for Mike Clevinger (High A) by shipping Vinnie Pestano away.
They signed Danny Salazar out of the Dominican Republic for a modest $210,000.
They drafted Josh Tomlin in the 19th round, and Cody Allen in the 23rd round.
They claimed Tyler Olson off waivers.
Daniels acknowledged at his season-ending presser that his group needs to basically remake half a pitching staff, with only two starters (Hamels and Perez) and four relievers (presumably Claudio, Keone Kela, Jake Diekman, and Matt Bush) locked in as established, frontline pieces. In what he described as a “demand-heavy, supply-poor market,” Daniels said acquiring pitching will be a significant challenge but will nonetheless be where the club is most active — and necessarily most creative — this winter.
Whether that includes winning the 30-team chase for Ohtani, or engaging Tampa Bay on Chris Archer, or exploring a reunion with Yu Darvish or an extended relationship with Andrew Cashner, or looking to add a veteran closer (or stepping out on a swing-and-miss set-up man like Anthony Swarzak), or giving Bush a look in the rotation (something he wants, an important factor in Daniels’s mind), all of it’s too soon to say.
But as Texas has shown regularly, and Cleveland is showing right now, there are different ways to get where the Rangers need to get on the mound.
* * *
Is it an indictment on Darvish’s value (not his ability, but his value) or a testament to the battle in this team that, leading up to the trade with the Dodgers, Texas had a win percentage of .481, and after the trade, it was .483 — with Texas gaining Willie Calhoun, Alexy, and Davis as part of the shakeout?
I’d take him back. The money’s got to be right — and it probably won’t be — but I’d take him back.
* * *
My afternoon drive most days takes me by several elementary schools, a couple of which have baseball diamonds skirting the corner of the grounds. Nine months out of the year there are practices or games going on, with kids learning the game on scrubby patterns of dirt and weeds and the occasional patch of healthy grass, fringed by a rickety backstop battling scoliosis and a couple makeshift bleachers of three rows each.
I’ve never pulled over to watch. Maybe if I made time these days to jog, and didn’t hate jogging even more, and didn’t have far more to worry about than college exams and pulling together my fraction of the rent, I would. But in that handful of seconds each day that I peripherally catch the game being played, by kids, I’m good.
There are probably games and workouts just like it, on haggard fields in Colombia and Curacao, 12 months a year.
It’s the Great Game, and not just because it challenges you physically and mentally and emotionally and not just because it demands accountability and discipline, and teaches you, at a young age and in a productive setting, how to respond to opportunity and adversity, and to failure.
It’s the Great Game, because you can be Aaron Judge or you can be Alex Claudio, and thrive.
But emerge from those Little League fields, and then from high school or college, and then from the minor leagues and Fall Instructs, and get to the Major Leagues, and there will still be failure.
Sometimes the heartbreak happens in one defensive inning.
Sometimes over four days, in two countries.
Sometimes on a fly ball to right.
But sometimes it lasts months, a half-year quicksand struggle with the rope, ultimately, slipping away, while others march on.
I’ll miss 2017. I’ll miss Elvis and Joey and Adrian and Alex and I’ll miss Eric & Hicksie & Jared and I’ll miss Levi’s gamers.
But they’ll all be back.
They’ll all be back, along with the game, promising nothing ever but an outside shot at winning your final game of the year, not the 162nd one that doesn’t matter, but the one topping off that elusive 162+ phase that has been less elusive for the Texas Rangers the last eight seasons than just about anyone else.
Promising nothing, that is, unless you count a routinely broken heart, dodged only, if ever, by putting in the work, over days that often drag and years that always fly by, that just might lead, once and for all, to the win that ends not just your season, but everyone else’s, too.