Turning back the clock: The hottest stove.

I was a sophomore at The University of Texas in 1988.  I subscribed to the Dallas Morning News, because the Austin American-Statesman didn’t offer too much Rangers coverage, the awesome National sports daily was still two years away from launching (and three from dying), the Internet wasn’t yet a big player, and the world of the Prodigy bulletin board time-suck hadn’t yet been dialed up.

It wasn’t necessarily super-cool to be a Rangers fan at the time.  Austin had more of an Astros feel, the DMN was focused on the flagging Cowboys (in the final months of Tom Landry’s tenure) and the surging Mavs (having taken the Lakers to Game Seven of the conference finals in June), and the Rangers, who had never won anything, were coming off a season that saw them finish 33.5 games out of first in the West, their greatest deficit since the 1972-73 introductory seasons, drawing under 1.6 million fans, a total that they’ve eclipsed every year since – including this one, just half the way through the schedule.

I was a resident assistant at the Castilian, happily roommateless and running SportsCenter on a perpetual loop interrupted only by ballgames on WGN or TBS.  I saw a lot of Cubs game in the summer of 1988, which gave what would happen in December an added layer of cool.

The Rangers were a young team, and that was a positive for all of us grasping for straws of faint hope.  In 1986 they’d introduced Kevin Brown, Ruben Sierra, Pete Incaviglia, Bobby Witt, Mitch Williams, Mike Stanley, Jerry Browne, Bob Brower, and Mike Loynd to the big leagues (with Oddibe McDowell, Edwin Correa, Jose Guzman, and Steve Buechele among their second-year players), winning a staggering 87 games and finishing five games back in the West, matching a franchise best.

But that group won only 75 games in 1987, finishing in a tie for last in the West with the California Angels.

And then there were 70 wins in 1988, and that overpoweringly distasteful 33.5 in the “GB” column.

Every regular in the lineup who was there in both 1987 and 1988 saw his OPS drop in the latter season, with the exception of Buechele.  The offense was below league-average in OPS and in batting average and in just about every other measure.  Texas was the first team in 20 years to strike out more than 1000 times three straight seasons.

Tom Grieve, in his fourth full season as Rangers GM, had engineered the youth movement a couple years earlier, but he knew, even with Juan Gonzalez and Sammy Sosa and Dean Palmer getting closer to the big leagues, that his lineup needed a facelift.  He went into the Winter Meetings in Atlanta with a bad offense, and three stud prospects who would arrive the next year at ages 19, 20, and 20 and would bring with them the expected growing pains and, naturally, a whole lot of swing and miss on a club that, even on its best days, was violently free-swinging.

I’ve been meaning to do this for years but just got around to it last night.  I asked Grieve, who remembers everything about everything, a few questions about the plan he took to Atlanta that December.

“We felt that we needed a couple of good hitters,” Grieve recalls.  “We targeted .300 hitters who would give us a better chance against good pitching.  We could feast on number 4 and 5 starters, but we got shut down by number 1 and 2’s.

“We keyed on Julio [Franco] and especially Raffy [Palmeiro], and we got lucky because we matched up with both Cleveland and the Cubs.”

There have been published accounts suggesting that Grieve pushed the Yankees hard that off-season on five-time All-Star Don Mattingly, in his prime at age 27 but reportedly at war with owner George Steinbrenner.

A month before the Winter Meetings, Grieve reportedly offered New York a package including Pete O’Brien, Guzman, and Williams for Mattingly, while the Yankees apparently wanted to expand the deal to one in which they’d tack on third baseman Mike Pagliarulo and infielder Bobby Meacham and get Texas to add Buechele, Brower, and two prospects to O’Brien, Guzman, and Williams.

Apparently, the Yankees changed the conversation so regularly that Grieve pulled the three-for-one offer off the table, and turned his attention to a handful of other pure-hit types like Wade Boggs, John Kruk, Harold Baines, and Johnny Ray.  (An effort earlier in the off-season to sign free agent second baseman Steve Sax failed.)

There was evidently one discussion with the Cubs that would have sent Guzman and Curtis Wilkerson to Chicago for Shawon Dunston, whom Grieve reportedly would have flipped to San Diego in a deal for Kruk, but the Padres wanted to put prospect Sandy Alomar Jr. in the deal rather than Kruk.  Those talks died.

But they generated a discussion that Grieve hadn’t anticipated – the Cubs were open to trading the 24-year-old Palmeiro, probably because they viewed him as a first baseman even though they’d broken him in as a left fielder, and were committed at first base to fellow 24-year-old Mark Grace (but perhaps for other reasons you can probably root out with a Google search).

Chicago had finished under .500 four straight years, ending the 1988 season 24 games back in the NL East.  Their offense was league-average and their rotation, led by Greg Maddux and Rick Sutcliffe, was suitable.  Their bullpen was a mess.  From the Dunston talks, Grieve knew that the Cubs were enamored with Williams, a pitcher he was more open to moving than Guzman, anyway.

Centering things on Palmeiro and Williams, the Rangers and Cubs struck a nine-player trade on December 5, involving five left-handed pitchers (Williams, Paul Kilgus, and prospect Steve Wilson from Texas, and Jamie Moyer and Drew Hall from Chicago), with Palmeiro heading to Texas and Wilkerson and mediocre prospects Luis Benitez and Pablo Delgado going to Chicago.

Grieve had the hitter he coveted in Palmeiro.  And he wasn’t done.

Hours before finalizing the trade with the Cubs, Grieve sent Brower to the Yankees for Meacham, giving him an extra middle infielder he’d need because of another deal he’d laid the groundwork for a month earlier and would strike on the following day.

The Indians had managed two winning records in the decade and no better than a fifth-place finish in the AL East in 12 years.  They needed their own shakeup.  Their best player was Franco, the league’s reigning Silver Slugger at second base and, at “age 27,” arguably headed toward the wrong side of his prime years and thought to be a bit of a clubhouse concern.  They’d started an aging Willie Upshaw at first base in what would be his final big league season.  And they coveted one young Rangers player in particular.

“Cleveland loved Oddibe,” Grieve recalls.  “And they probably looked at Julio as the one guy they had who could return multiple starting players for them.”

With the addition of Palmeiro, whom Texas was prepared to move in from the outfield and turn into an everyday first baseman, O’Brien was expendable.  Center fielder Cecil Espy had done enough in a supporting role in 1988 that Grieve was prepared to move the regressing McDowell.  Cleveland wanted the 22-year-old Browne as a replacement for Franco, as part of an effort to get significantly younger as prospects Joey Belle and Mark Lewis were developing on the farm.

O’Brien, McDowell, and Browne for Franco.

Deal.

Having acquired Palmeiro on December 5 and Franco on December 6, Grieve had two more moves in mind, one to get a bat to plug in at DH (Larry Parrish had been released over the summer, and 16 other players had appeared at DH that season, led by Geno Petralli) and another to make completely different kind of splash from the ones he’d made by overhauling the lineup that week.

The Plan A effort at DH fell just short, as Grieve tried to pry Nick Esasky loose from Cincinnati after the 28-year-old’s disappointing 1998 season.  The Reds were primarily interested in reliever Dwayne Henry, who at age 26 had five straight seasons split between the farm and the big leagues and who in 1988 had punched out 98 hitters in 75.2 AAA innings but too often couldn’t find the plate (54 walks) and thus couldn’t earn the organization’s trust.

“We thought we had the trade done, Esasky for Henry,” Grieve remembers, “but Cincy changed their mind.

“In hindsight, I wasn’t aggressive enough.  We should have gotten that done.”

A week later, the Reds traded Esasky, along with left-handed reliever Rob Murphy, to Boston for first baseman Todd Benzinger, righthander Jeff Sellers, and minor league righthander Luis Vasquez.  Esasky would have his career year with the Red Sox in 1989 (.277/.355/.500 with 30 home runs and 108 RBI) – after which he signed a three-year, $5.6 million contract with Atlanta, but appeared in only nine games as a Brave before retiring, never able to overcome a severe case of vertigo induced by an ear infection.

But even though Grieve concedes he wasn’t aggressive enough after Palmeiro (December 5) and Franco (December 6) to get Esasky, he was plenty aggressive on December 7, 1988, signing Nolan Ryan to a one-year contract with an option for a second, outdueling the Astros, Angels, and Giants to sign the 41-year-old and, you might say, to help change the ultimate course of Rangers history.

A landmark free agent signing, maybe the franchise’s biggest ever at the time, and two awesome, old-fashioned, talent-for-talent baseball trades, dependent neither on contract status or financial redistribution – “strength/weakness” deals rather than “buyer/seller” deals, as Rays GM Andrew Friedman believes might be trending again soon.  Volquez for Hamilton a generation earlier and on a different scale.  All in the space of three days that were as glorious at it once got for Rangers fans, yet to be treated to a post-season baseball game to call our own.

Now, whether this oddly timed retrospective was prompted by the nostalgic rush that tonight’s Turn the Clock Back special at Rangers Ballpark brings crashing in, or by the recent irritating rash of anemic hacktasticness at the plate by the Texas offense, or by the significant lineup turnover that this club faces over the next two years (which will involve a number of the hacktastically guilty) that calls for even more trade market spitballing and the search for hitters who are tough outs, is for you to decide, while I sit here frustrated by this team’s current offensive rut, not because I think the odds of reaching the playoffs are at all endangered but instead because I fear the possibility that this lineup, if it nose-dives into one of its extended, collective sputter-phases when October rolls around, could end up making the club a shockingly easy out once the win-loss records are wiped clean and the tournament gets underway.

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