Second Thought: Wednesday, April 11, 2007
Take Me out of the Ballgame

You can buy laughs for peanuts, but not a crackerjack ball club.


There’s something different going on at the Texas Rangers’ ballpark this year.

No, not the quality of the play. Please. The Rangers started out the 2007 season getting swept by the Angels in Anaheim, then winning a couple from the Boston Red Sox here at home. In other words, about the same way they’ve started the last seven seasons — and for good reasons.

Basically, the Rangers didn’t make many changes in the off season. They added a few players, lost a few, made a few trades. But their payroll is the 11th lowest out of 14 American League teams, and the experts apparently expect them to perform accordingly: Sports Illustrated has ranked them 22nd out of 30 MLB teams. So it’s hard even for die-hard Ranger fans to believe that a team that has finished fourth (last place in their division) four times and third place three times in the past seven years is going to end up much higher this time around.

The thing is that, in 2007, the team — and the fans — may have a better time doing it.

The first sign was the firing of manager Buck Showalter last year, by all accounts a strict disciplinarian and control freak. He wanted hats on with the brim forward during batting practice, suit coats on the plane, and a locker room that verged on the funereal.

And Buck had a major bad habit. He would leak unflattering things about his team members to the news media, the idea being that it might goad the players into performing better. But when you are making millions, you shouldn’t have to put up with that crap from the boss

So they brought in Ron Washington, who lets the players do anything they want in the locker room as long as the police and fire departments aren’t called. Washington believes baseball should be fun and has reinstated the pepper games at batting practice, a little exercise in which players stand six feet apart, hitting and catching, making small talk and bonding with each other. Happy, happy, fun time.

General Manager Jon Daniels has been accessible to the media more than ever before, never turning down a request from sport talk radio or the Sunday night local tv sports specials. The players are following suit and seem less worried about losing now and also less sullen.

For the fans, there will be cheap t-shirt and hot dog and beer nights. The Ameriquest home-run bell is gone, but so is the association with a drain-circling, bottom-feeding company. And as they try to entice fans to come out and root for the team, the Rangers are also having more fun with their marketing. In one commercial, a wimpy man is at Bed, Bath & Beyond sniffing candles with his wife when he realizes baseball might make him a real man again. The front office even enlisted pitcher C.J. Wilson — a former college film student — to produce a commercial that shows the players wrestling around wearing Speedos. One billboard tells fans that “Pop Fly is not a Rap Star.” Ahh, yuks for the masses.

However, nowhere in its marketing does the team say this year might be about winning. Ron Washington talks about how they are really playing hard and things will be getting better. No mention of Sammy Sosa’s steroids or corked-bat cheating, no questions about how the team’s ballyhooed minor-league pitchers have pretty much crapped out. And certainly nothing about how owner Tom Hicks has figured out a way to make money from a losing team year after year.

I really am trying to join in the spirit. But I can’t help thinking about September: Nice guys may be fun to watch, but in this league, nice guys also finish last. Or third.

Quite frankly, I’d rather go see the Fort Worth Cats, who have won two independent championships in a row. And last year two of their players celebrated in St. Paul, Minn., by going to their opponents’ bar after the final game and starting a big fight. Now, that’s fun.

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