Swing and a miss.
Fastball up and in, ball one.
Slider down and away, rolled over to the 5.5 hole, gloved by the shortstop on the lip of the outfield grass.
The dream typically stars Babe Ruth, or Robin Yount, or Adrian Beltre.
Not Rob Sasser.
Or Moonlight Graham.
Or Jeff Banister.
It was July 23, 1991. The Pittsburgh Pirates, owning baseball’s best record by a healthy margin and on their way to matching the most wins in franchise history since 1909, had a comfortable 10-3 lead over Atlanta coming out of the seventh-inning stretch, when catcher Mike LaValliere grounded out to Braves shortstop Jeff Blauser to start the bottom of the frame. Pirates righthander Doug Drabek was the next man up.
Except manager Jim Leyland decided his ace had done enough for the day.
The next man up, instead, was a 27-year-old who had posted up for nearly 500 games and 1700 plate appearances on the farm, and was about to be entrusted, by Leyland, with his first of each on the big league level.
And his last.
Unable to find his own bat or his own helmet because his teammates had hidden them, Jeff Banister — who’d been told by his AAA Buffalo Bisons manager Terry Collins that morning that he was going to Pittsburgh to fill in while catcher Don Slaught was on the disabled list — grabbed Cecil Espy’s bat and someone else’s lid and made the walk to home plate at Three Rivers Stadium, on ankles and knees that had been operated on nine times in high school and college, some of which were conducted before doctors found bone cancer in one leg, which is to say nothing of the junior college collision at the plate that left him paralyzed from the neck down for 10 days, a terrifying sports moment that would have never happened had a Yankees scout not requested that he catch that day — or if he and his family would have allowed doctors to amputate the left leg three years earlier in the wake of the cancer diagnosis.
On a pair of legs relief-mapped by a series of scars that were reminders of what was never supposed to be possible, Jeff Banister made the walk to home plate, as perhaps the least decorated big leaguer ever produced by the University of Houston, pinch-hitting for certainly the school’s most decorated player ever.
But as a big leaguer, nonetheless.
Charged with facing aging Braves reliever Dan Petry, who was pitching in mop-up relief for his second of three teams that season in what would be the 13th and final year of the 32-year-old’s career, Banister swung through one, watched one, and connected with the third Petry pitch, beginning his sprint toward first base just as Blauser started sprinting away from it. Blauser met the ground ball in the hole and fired it to first base, but Banister got there first, firing through those 14 steps while “carr[ying] a whole truckload of people with me down the line.”
He legged it out. And was safe.
The debut single drew an ovation from the the Pittsburgh crowd of fewer than 22,000, among which were none of Banister’s family members — Banister’s wife, mother, and sister had instead driven up from the Houston area to Oklahoma City, where Banister’s Bisons had traveled 1,200 miles to play the Rangers’ AAA club that night. Nobody, including Jeff, had expected Bisons-89ers to go on without him.
Gary Redus followed Banister’s one-out single with a fly to right, Jay Bell went down swinging, and the inning — and Banister’s big league playing career — came to an end. Bob Patterson took over on the mound, and in the lineup slot that Banister held down for less than 10 minutes. With one swing of the bat and 14 intense strides, Banister cobbled together a 1.000/1.000/1.000 slash line, one that’s forever frozen on the back of one baseball card.
It wasn’t a Travis Ishakawa moment by any measure, except to one man.
When Banister — a non-roster, part-time, .240’s-hitting minor league catcher who was replaced on the big league roster four days later by his Buffalo counterpart, Tom Prince, who held things down until Slaught’s return — talked about that infield single at Friday’s press conference introducing the 50-year-old Texan as the Rangers’ new manager, he said:
Touching first base and seeing the umpire give the safe call, it was complete satisfaction. Everybody goes, “Oh, don’t you wish you hit a home run?” Now: no. Then: no. Because it was such a challenge, so difficult to get there, why would I want it easy? It would be easy to trot around the bases.
It was magical for me then, and it’s even more magical now. When I talk to my kids, when they’re sitting back and wanting things to come easy to them, I say: “Life ain’t easy. You’ve got to grind it out. When you grind it out, it’s that much more satisfactory to you.”
It’s a quote that would surprise nobody if it came from Ron Washington, and in some respects, both in personality and in coaching history, there are similarities between the Rangers’ 17th full-time manager and their 18th.
But there are unmistakable differences, too, one of which can be illustrated by a comment Banister made in his presser, when he noted, parenthetically, that you chase the big inning because the data suggests putting up a three-run frame results in an 80 percent win probability.
Forget whether the numbers bear out; the significance is at least twofold. First, this is a manager who wants to understand metrics and to take advantage of them.
Second, less bunting.
When Banister started talking about “looking for the ways . . . we can outplay the predictable outcome,” the Wash double-takes were out the window, but it also became very clear that Banister (who has spent the bulk of his coaching career in player development, which along with scouting he called the Pirates’ “lifeblood”) is far from a slave to the numbers.
“I understand the idea of analytics but also understand the human aspect of the game. This is still a game played by humans. Because of that, any number of times, the general numbers may not play out for you. . . . Ultimately that’s what it’s all about. Showing up and playing hard. Being ready to play and playing to win. Show up and play hard every night for 27 outs, hard outs. We show up to play and we show up to win.”
Pitchers who attack the strike zone, who work quickly, who compete. Hitters who adjust to the game situation. Runners who will take the extra base. Defenders who are “extraordinary at the ordinary.” Teammates who go to battle with a “next man up” mentality, ready to fill in when another man is down.
That’s the stuff that reminds you of Wash. But when Banister is described by Pirates quantitative analyst Mike Fitzgerald as “a guy . . . who will pop in and say, ‘Have we ever thought about this?’ or ‘How is the game changing?,’” you don’t expect him to be the type of manager who will bat Mike Carp third and Rougned Odor ninth over and over and over when the season is lost, or who will bunt in the first inning or refuse to take a reliever out of his papered role, dismissive of the situation.
That’s not to be dismissive of Ron Washington, the greatest manager this franchise has had. But he put this organization in a position of having to replace him, and that created an opportunity. An opportunity to gauge the roster, which is different from the 2006 group Wash inherited, and the game, which is played in a different way from how it used to be played, and try to reinvigorate the clubhouse and the organization with a new voice to integrate with the others in charge.
Tim Bogar could have been that voice, unquestionably. The players and management were familiar with him; he was somewhat of a known quantity. He succeeded under trying circumstances over the season’s final three weeks, and had demonstrated that he had different ideas from his former skipper on how to run the club — and they seemed to work. He seemed to communicate well with the press and, by extension, the fan base. For a number of years he’s been a frontline managerial candidate, more so (at least apparently) than Banister. He trained under Terry Francona and Joe Maddon and Ron Washington.
It would have been easy and safe for Texas to shed the “interim” tag and appoint Bogar as the full-time manager, and not one member of the media or segment of the fan base would have denigrated it as easy and safe.
For Texas to decide, after formally interviewing Bogar and Banister and six others since season’s end, to forgo the option that seemed to line up so well and instead roll the dice a bit, it’s obvious that Banister (who gets three years and a club option for a fourth, compared with the two Washington got on his initial deal) had to have blown the doors off the core of the 12-man committee that Jon Daniels put together to help make this choice.
That doesn’t necessarily make the choice the right one. That will play itself out.
But this is a risk Rangers management believed was worth taking — or maybe more to the point, one not worth not taking — and that part I have faith in. Aggressive and risky is good, if the risks are measured. No more bunts in the first inning.
The front office has put itself on the line with this hire, and that’s better than seeking out the least controversial path — if you don’t think it’s necessarily the best one. I was a big Tim Bogar guy, and am confident he will manage winning teams in the big leagues. (I’d have said the same about Banister if he hadn’t won this job — and I still find it interesting that the Astros, whose ballpark is 20 minutes from Banister’s home, narrowed their search to A.J. Hinch, Torey Lovullo, and Banister three weeks ago, and went with Hinch.) But the Rangers, after all the homework and all the conversations, believed that Jeff Banister was the perfect candidate to be the next man up for this team, and for now that’s absolutely good enough for me.
News broke last night that Bogar would not be part of Banister’s staff, and that the Rangers, whose contract with Bogar extends through 2015, offered him a non-coaching position (likely some sort of special assistant to the GM role) as a fallback opportunity should he not find a position he wants with another club.
Maybe the situation was too awkward — for both Banister and Bogar — to move forward with one reporting to the other, particularly with Bogar having managed the team himself for the final three weeks of the season. There is precedent that would have supported the idea that a Bogar return couldn’t be ruled out — Don Wakamatsu was Buck Showalter’s bench coach in Texas, interviewed for the opportunity to replace him, and though he lost out to Washington, remained on the Rangers coaching staff for a year, manning third base on Wash’s first staff . . . Maddon was named interim manager for the Angels in 1999 after Collins resigned late in the season, and stayed on as bench coach for six years after Los Angeles hired Mike Scioscia in the winter as the new full-time manager — and there’s even relevant history with Banister himself.
Banister had been a minor league player, player/coach, manager, and field coordinator with the Pirates for 20 of his 24 years with the franchise when, in August 2010, the organization fired bench coach Gary Varsho for disloyalty to manager John Russell and elevated Banister to the bench coach position. Russell was fired after the season and Banister interviewed for the manager post, and the club’s decision came down to him and Rangers hitting coach Clint Hurdle (out of a group of candidates that had included Bo Porter, Ken Macha, John Gibbons, Eric Wedge, Dale Sveum, and Carlos Tosca), with Hurdle getting the ultimate nod.
Banister says Hurdle sat down with Banister afterwards, and asked him why it is that he coaches. What it is that gives him joy in the game. How he transfers that joy to other human beings. Satisfied with the answers, Hurdle, the newcomer, asked Banister, the holdover, to remain as his bench coach. Banister accepted, and held that job the last four seasons.
That’s not going to happen with Banister and Bogar, for whatever reason. I’d love to see Bogar remain with the franchise in some capacity, but (1) it wouldn’t be for long, because he’ll manage in the big leagues soon, and (2) it would mean he couldn’t find a better opportunity, and I don’t wish that for him.
That said, if I have a vote, I’d prefer not to see Bogar filling Oakland’s bench coach vacancy, created when Chip Hale left a week ago to manage the Diamondbacks.
Does Banister have an external candidate in mind for the job to his side?
Could it be fellow finalist Kevin Cash — and would Cleveland permit Texas to hire its bullpen coach (who may be viewed as Francona’s heir apparent but who will probably get the chance to manage somewhere before Francona is done with the Indians) away for that position?
The Pirates didn’t trade righthanders Kurt Miller and Hector Fajardo to the Rangers for Steve Buechele until a month after Banister’s one Pittsburgh at-bat, but I assume the two were teammates the following spring training in Bradenton (before right elbow surgery wiped Banister’s season out). Whether that has any sort of impact on the chances that Buechele — who also interviewed for the job Banister won (as well as the one in Houston that neither got) — could land on the big league staff is unknown.
There’s at least one certain opening on the staff aside from Bogar’s, as Gary Pettis (outfield/baserunning/third base) has taken a job with Houston.
Hitting coach Dave Magadan has reportedly spoken to the Yankees and Mets and A’s about their hitting coach vacancies (though the Yankees have ruled him out), and Texas reportedly obtained permission to reach out to A’s hitting coach Chili Davis before he took the job in Boston. In the meantime, Magadan will visit with Banister and Daniels in Surprise on Thursday, according to Calvin Watkins (ESPN Dallas).
Mike Maddux says he wants to stay. (Notably, Banister worked with Frisco pitching coach Jeff Andrews in the Pittsburgh farm system from 2003-07 — and Andrews is considered a star here, just as pitching coordinator Danny Clark and AAA pitching coach Brad Holman are.)
No word on Andy Hawkins, Bengie Molina, or Bobby Jones.
We know two things, according to local reports: Banister won’t be forced to retain any incumbent coaches he doesn’t want, and (per Gerry Fraley of the Dallas Morning News) he won’t be permitted to bring anyone over from the Pirates, based on an agreement between the two franchises.
In any event, according to Watkins, the Rangers want to have the coaching staff finalized before the November 10-12 GM Meetings, with Banister looking for “men with passion for people . . . difference-makers . . . guys who love to prepare, who like to be at the ballpark, who want to learn and don’t know it all and are willing to make adjustments. The name on the front of the jersey means more than the name on the back.”
Are there a couple clichés sprinkled in Banister’s media game? No question. Does that matter? It doesn’t make Buck Showalter or Hurdle any less effective at managing a ball club.
How he communicates with his players is more important than how he communicates with us (and for the record, I thought he was extremely impressive on Friday, especially when he began taking reporters’ questions).
Factor in some of the things that those who have known him longer have said in the last few days, and you get a picture in higher definition.
Jerry Crasnick (ESPN): “Anyone who’s dealt with Jeff Banister will tell you he’s the real deal. Not a big name, but [the] Rangers just made a great hire.”
Bob Nightengale (USA Today): “Jeff Banister, the new Rangers manager, is one of the most passionate baseball men you’ll ever meet. A pro’s pro.”
Fitzgerald: “He’s a baseball guy. But he can communicate with nontraditional people in the clubhouse and reach them. He’s got a pretty cool ability to reach people on any level.”
An anonymous Pirates player, according to Jared Sandler (ESPN Dallas): “He makes guys better at [the big league] level and that just doesn’t always happen. . . . No one is better at dealing with different types of players and people. . . . He’s a tough SOB. He isn’t scared of challenging situations. He’s a rock in the clubhouse.”
An unnamed Pirates insider, according to Shan Shariff (105.3 The Fan): Banister “is a Roger Clemens, Greg Swindell, kick-your-ass kind of guy, in a quiet and humble way.”
C.J. Nitkowski (Fox Sports; also pitched in the Pirates farm system for two years): “Great move by Texas hiring @BannyRooster28 as their next manager. Widely respected, terrific leader, nice to see him get this opportunity.”
About that Twitter handle . . . a “banty (bantam) rooster” is a miniature breed of the bird, and when used in reference to a person, it means someone small in physical stature but aggressive, spirited, and ready to attack anything in its way.
Banister isn’t a little guy, but he says he was as a kid, and that’s when the nickname stuck — when he was just the wiry son of a high school football coach and an algebra teacher, not yet a teenaged cancer patient or college-aged paralysis victim who took on fights on a completely different level altogether.
Daniels, who has repeatedly referred to Banister as “a winner and a survivor, in every sense of the word,” and “a man of tremendous integrity and physical presence,” told the local press on Friday, six weeks after Washington had resigned (and one year to the date, incidentally, after Nolan Ryan had done so himself): “I’m not sure I can define the perfect manager — but I’m pretty sure I can define the perfect manager for us.”
A survivor, in every sense of the word. Cancer. Paralaysis. An unexceptional minor league career that nonetheless led to a big league opportunity. Nearly three decades with one franchise, as a 25th-round draft pick and Low A player and High A player and AA player and AAA player and big league player and AA player-coach and rookie-level manager and Low A manager and winter league manager and High A manager and AA manager and big league field coordinator and minor league field coordinator and fall league manager and big league bench coach.
In the later years of that timeline, there are two professional moments that stand out when painting a picture of Jeff Banister, survivor.
In the summer of 2007, the Pirates were sold to a new ownership group and GM Dave Littlefield was replaced by Neal Huntington, who had been with the Indians for a decade. Huntington came in and fired manager Jim Tracy, senior director of player development (and interim GM) Brian Graham, senior director of scouting Ed Creech, and director of baseball operations Jon Mercurio, telling reporters:
Since my appointment as general manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates we’ve undergone an exhaustive review of what is here, who we are, what we do, who is in place, what’s good and unfortunately in some situations what’s not so good. . . . It became very clear to me that we needed some change. If we are going to successfully implement our philosophies, our vision and our system we needed to change the leadership. We needed to change the direction of our baseball operations department.
Huntington added explicitly that the new direction would be heavily grounded in sabermetrics, a clear departure from the way the Pirates had done baseball business throughout their organization to that point.
Banister was the organization’s 43-year-old minor league field coordinator, older than Huntington and considerably older than the new 29-year-old director of player development (Kyle Stark) and new 27-year-old director of baseball operations (Brian Minniti) he was bringing in to help usher in a completely different way of doing things.
Many player development officials were let go. Banister was one of the few who survived.
Three years later, in August of 2010, when Varsho’s (and pitching coach Joe Kerrigan’s) failed coup left the embattled Russell without a bench coach, Pittsburgh didn’t elevate another member of the big league staff into the role for the season’s final two months. The club promoted Banister, who had held down the field coordinator role on the farm (the Rangers’ equivalent is Jayce Tingler) for nearly eight years.
When Russell lost his job that October, Banister was included in the field of candidates to replace him — and was a co-finalist with Hurdle — but the Pirates awarded the job to the Rangers hitting coach shortly after their World Series run ended.
There’s little question that Hurdle had a list of colleagues in the game that he was prepared to bring in as his right-hand man. But after talking to Banister — a lifelong member of a franchise Hurdle was charged with helping turn around and the man he’d just beaten in landing the manager’s job — he decided he wanted Banister to ditch the interim bench coach tag and stay on as his permanent sidekick.
Four years ago, the Pirates hired an assistant coach off the Texas staff, and the arrow started pointing up right away.
The Rangers now look for the same success by reversing the move.
After Washington’s sudden resignation, the Rangers’ 12-man committee went to work, reportedly whiteboarding over 40 candidates (including some sitting managers) to consider targeting. The committee then came up with a list of eight to interview. From that group, five were eliminated, leaving Bogar, Banister, and Cash. After Texas had reached out to 20 of Banister’s former teammates, coaches, players, and bosses, looking for the right man to fill five defined job description “buckets” (reinstatement of a winning culture; getting the most out of his personnel; presence; preparation; organizational partnership), he had legged the process out. He’d survived yet again.
Noticeably absent from those five categories is any reference to analytics, although in helping set the tone not only in the clubhouse but also throughout the organization, it’s reasonable to assume that Banister will bring his data-driven experience into three of the five, with an emphasis on simplifying the information so that it’s usable for his players.
Truthfully, it’s all assumption at this point. The same would be true, even if to a slightly lesser extent, with Bogar. The Rangers chose to interview only men with no experience at the full-time helm of a big league baseball team, and managing AA teams or Arizona Fall League squads — or even a decimated big league club three weeks from euthanasia — can only tell you so much. We don’t know how this is going to go.
Neither does Texas, of course. A tremendous amount of energy and homework went into this front office taking sizable risks on Josh Hamilton, and on Yu Darvish, and on Ron Washington, and here’s another one, at the expense of the more familiar and more predictable option. The Rangers could have stuck with Edinson Volquez, and C.J. Wilson, and Don Wakamatsu. Would there be two AL pennant flags flying if they did?
It’s cheap and maybe even offensive to compare what the Rangers went through in 2014 to what Banister has gone through in his life, and I’m not meaning to do that at all, but you absorb this Friday quote from the Rangers’ new dugout leader and it’s difficult to ignore how it might ring true for an organization that needs to prove that this season was an outlier, and not a shift:
I understand perseverance. I understand what hard work means, that pain is one of those things we’re given to let us know we’re alive from time to time. You survive. Push. Endure. The other option is not what I’m looking for.
He wasn’t talking about a baseball season. But it says something about what drives him, and maybe about why he coaches, and how. About that relentless, internal fire to push forward, to succeed, to pass on, that he says “was formed a long time ago in a couple hospital rooms.”
Again, none of us knows if Jeff Banister, the next man up, is the correct choice. We all have a fairly defensible idea that he’s the riskier one.
But this isn’t about making the logical move. It’s about making the right move.
The Rangers have to get this right.
And I’m all for playing for that three-run inning.
In a story published last night, Dallas Morning News columnist Kevin Sherrington writes that Rangers interim manager Tim Bogar, one of three finalists for the club’s permanent post, “appears to have been passed” by Pirates bench coach Jeff Banister and Indians bullpen coach Kevin Cash, who according to Sherrington “look like frontrunners in a surprising turn of events.”
The balance of the column speculates that Banister could be the favorite to land the job.
The Rangers are expected to make the hire this week.
Evan Grant (Dallas Morning News) reports that the Rangers, having interviewed eight candidates to be the club’s next manager since the regular season ended (Tim Bogar, Mike Maddux, Steve Buechele, Torey Lovullo, Jeff Banister, Joe McEwing, Kevin Cash, and Alex Cora), are “expected to pare the list down to three and conduct some second more formal interviews next week.”
According to Jeff Wilson (Fort Worth Star-Telegram), the new manager “should be in place within a week.”
With J.J. Hardy extending his deal with Baltimore yesterday, the off-season free agent shortstop market was stripped of one of its only legitimate frontline starters, leaving injury-prone Hanley Ramirez and then an underwhelming collection including Stephen Drew, Asdrubal Cabrera, Jed Lowrie, and Clint Barmes. With teams like the Yankees and Mets and Dodgers and Tigers and A’s and Pirates and Padres — most of whom are either big-market spenders or teams that view themselves as contenders or both — theoretically looking for shortstop help going into 2015, did Elvis Andrus’s trade value just tick up a bit with the Hardy development?
Would you be comfortable going with Luis Sardinas at shortstop in 2015, or someone like Lowrie or Barmes, and see if Jurickson Profar can play his way onto the big club sometime during the season and reclaim an opportunity to establish himself as a long-term core piece?
Sure, the Hardy extension not only takes the player off the boards but takes Baltimore out of the market as well — but there are at least a couple high-profile teams on that list who were probably interested in a younger player who they can plug in for the rest of the decade to begin with. Would you be open to seeing what sort of return Andrus could bring, given the holes a trade could theoretically address and the money it would free up?
Would you be concerned about the impact that trading Andrus would have on the clubhouse?
Do you think Andrus, who at 24 and 25 wasn’t really any more productive than he was as a 20-year-old rookie, has more in there, or more to the point, that he has more in there that you can get out of him?
With J.J. Hardy no longer an available option to any number of teams looking for an answer at shortstop, would you trade Elvis Andrus?
I am not asking you to respond to the above. And I’m on record: Elvis Andrus is my second-favorite Texas Rangers baseball player. Ever.
I’m just imagining whether this line of questioning came up during Kevin Cash’s interview yesterday, and in Joe McEwing’s and Jeff Banister’s Wednesday, and in Torey Lovullo’s Tuesday, and in Mike Maddux’s and Steve Buechele’s last week, and whether it will come up when the Rangers visit with Tim Bogar and Alex Cora today.
You’ve gotta fill those half-day and full-day managerial interviews with a whole lot of questions, lots of which have to be very tough to answer.
If not to ask.
Chan Ho Park dealt for seven innings, scattering two singles and three walks, after which Brian Shouse, Doug Brocail, and Francisco Cordero shut things down late as Texas blanked Seattle, 3-0.
It was the greatest of the 68 games Park would pitch in his four seasons as a Ranger.
Sabermetrically speaking, at least. Never mind that the Rangers had been mathematically eliminated from their fifth straight AL West race four days earlier and were sending the Mariners to their 99th and final loss of the 2004 season. There wasn’t a whole lot riding on that game.
The Game 162 expiration contest pitting Park and Gil Meche’s dueling 5+ ERA’s was played on October 3, 2004.
I lead today’s season-ending report off with reference to this meaningless baseball game not because today’s its 10th anniversary, but because Texas 3, Seattle 0 on October 3, 2004 was the last time the Texas Rangers won their final game of the year.
Of course, the point of the game is to play 162+, and these days, when 10 teams (and sometimes more) earn that opportunity annually, nine of them (and sometimes more) end their season with a loss. You’d rather be one of those nine (and sometimes more) who don’t go home when the regular season schedule has nothing left on it than one of the 20 or so others who watch October play out with the rest of us.
But yeah, even though the Rangers lost Game Five to San Francisco in 2010 (3-1), Game Seven to St. Louis in 2011 (6-2), the Wild Card Game to Baltimore in 2012 (5-1), and the play-in Game 163 to Tampa Bay in 2013 (5-2), they also dropped the season finale in 2009 and 2008 and 2007 and 2006 and 2005, even though for all intents and purposes those seasons had really ended before Game 162.
They lost again last Sunday, this time 4-0 to the A’s, and while the game had some actual consequence to it, as Texas had the chance to end Oakland’s disintegrating season (two days before the Royals would; #gauche), the loss wasn’t as marginalized as those pre-playoff days, because it ended a string in which the Rangers — with Yu Darvish and Prince Fielder and Shin-Soo Choo and Matt Harrison and Martin Perez and Alex Rios and Mitch Moreland and Tanner Scheppers and Alexi Ogando and Jurickson Profar and Kevin Kouzmanoff and Joseph Ortiz and Pedro Figueroa and Engel Beltre and Ron Washington as available to the club as Chan Ho Park — won 13 out of 17, including a 7-0 record in one-run games.
In those 17 games, Rangers starting pitchers — namely, a veteran returning from injury (Derek Holland), a veteran who was never supposed to return from injury (Colby Lewis), two rookies (Nick Martinez and Lisalverto Bonilla), a second-year starter (Nick Tepesch), and Scott Baker (Scott Baker) — allowed two earned runs or fewer 15 times.
Think about that.
In 2012, I booked my annual fall pilgrimage to Surprise for the last weekend of the regular season, wanting to get my few days of Instructs in before the playoffs got underway. I made those plans a few weeks in advance, when Texas, coming off two straight World Series and boasting what Jon Daniels has called his best club yet, nursed what seemed to be a comfortable lead on the division. I figured those four days in Arizona would coincide with tune-up games for the big club, with nothing but perhaps post-season home field on the line. Even as the trip neared, and Texas started playing sloppy baseball, the prevailing fear was that the club would merely go into the playoffs out of sync, not exactly ideal as the two-time defending AL champs set out to make it three in a row.
I lifted off for Arizona on a Sunday morning, with five games to go on the schedule (a twinbill with the Angels followed by three in Oakland) and a three-game lead in the division. I won’t finish this part of the story, other than to say that on that Monday night, Tuesday night, and Wednesday afternoon, once I’d gotten in my days on the back fields, I headed over to the Brookside Sports Bar & Grille on Bell Road to watch each game of the Texas-Oakland series, and because we’re talking about Surprise, which has about one or less of most things, that was basically the place to be if you wanted to watch a ballgame that wasn’t on a basic Arizona cable feed, and so I was around a lot of Rangers officials for those three games, guys who were also done with Instructs for the day and ready to settle in to see Texas take care of business and extend its season.
Instead, we saw 4-3, 3-1, and 12-5, all in the Athletics’ favor, two days after which the Rangers’ season would end in Arlington.
I was in the same sports bar last Friday night, again watching Texas lose to Oakland, but there was no dog-cussing from Rangers management this time, even though we once again sat there two days before the Rangers’ season would end. This time we knew the end of the story well in advance, which made the vibe about as far away on the Venn diagram as it could get. There was nothing in common between the Rangers-A’s series that ended the 2012 schedule and the Rangers-A’s series that ended the 2014 schedule.
The 2012 Rangers, who placed two players in the top 5 in the MVP vote (Adrian Beltre and Josh Hamilton) and two in the top 9 in the Cy Young vote (Matt Harrison and Yu Darvish) and whose seventh-best regular (in terms of OPS) was Ian Kinsler, were baseball’s best team for much of the year, and spent 178 of 181 days in first place in the West.
The 2014 A’s were the best team in the big leagues for most of the year, including on July 31, when they added Jon Lester, several weeks after having added Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel, to an already formidable starting rotation.
The Rangers may regret trading Kyle Hendricks (and Christian Villanueva) to the Cubs for starter Ryan Dempster that summer, but not nearly as much as the A’s are going to mourn the loss of Addison Russell in their deal with the same club for Samardzija (who they’ll probably trade this summer to get a better return than the compensatory supplemental first-rounder they’d get if they keep him another season) and Hammel (who will be a free agent this winter), neither of whom was able to help Oakland get past a 163rd game. Samardzija lost to Texas in Game 161, while Hammel threw the final pitch of the A’s season, a 2-2 slider away in the bottom of the 12th on Tuesday that Salvador Perez got around and lined past Josh Donaldson to bring in Christian Colon and end the game.
A Wild Card Game loss for the Rangers (to Baltimore) followed that 2012 season-ending Texas-Oakland series, while a Wild Card Game loss for the A’s (to Kansas City) followed the 2014 season-ending Texas-Oakland series.
And while the A’s wrecked the Rangers’ final week in 2012, relegating them to what amounted to a play-in game, you might say Texas put the penultimate nail in the coffin that Oakland spent two months building for itself. The Rangers swept the A’s in Oakland in mid-September and then split a set of four in Arlington on the season’s final weekend. Had the A’s managed to win just four of seven against the worst team in the American League (which not only had more than a dozen players shut down due to injury but had also shipped Joakim Soria and Jason Frasor away), they would have hosted the Wild Card Game rather than the Royals, and maybe the result would have been different.
But they didn’t, and it wasn’t.
In fact, if the A’s didn’t get a beast effort from a beast starter on the final day, taking Game 162 from Texas, they would have had to play Seattle in a Game 163 just to see who would get to travel to Kansas City for the Wild Card Game.
As it turned out, Oakland’s loss to the Royals — an epic, unforgettable baseball game that in some ways was a microcosm of Oakland’s 2014 as a whole — dropped the A’s to 0-7 in winner-takes-all playoff games in the 17-year Billy Beane Era, and 1-13 when they had the chance to advance.
Think about that.
Texas, forcing the A’s to travel for this latest Oakland spit-up, played a role.
A silver lining at best, maybe, but when asked in a radio interview Tuesday whether there was a part of him that was disappointed to see the 1.1 draft position slip away as his club ceded its league-worst record to the Diamondbacks and Rockies with all those late-September wins, Daniels said he’ll take the confidence and momentum that his players built up down the stretch every time.
In spite of the Rangers’ impossible epidemic of injuries and the record number of players and the manager’s resignation and Mike Carp batting third, overlaid against Oakland’s dominant first four months followed by Billy Beane’s decision to go absolutely all-in, all that it amounted to for the A’s was one extra baseball game.
I wondered aloud on Twitter the other day which team and its fans had a worse 2014, Oakland or Texas. It’s easy to say the Rangers had a more brutal year, because by every objective measure that’s true, but I know that as a Rangers fan, 2012 was tougher on me than this season was — and again, the 2012 Rangers and 2014 A’s had a whole lot more in common than just Craig Gentry and Geovany Soto.
And that’s without even considering the level at which Oakland mortgaged its future to (attempt to) win big in 2014, something the Rangers didn’t do two years ago. Not only did the A’s give up a ton more as far as prospect inventory goes, they also had a dramatically weaker farm system than Texas to begin with, plus an economic situation that makes the development of inexpensive talent more important for that franchise than most clubs who view themselves as contenders.
Oakland’s collapse in 2014 was worse than Texas’s in 2012 — and the A’s season this year, as far as I’m concerned, was worse than the Rangers’.
Let’s talk about that prospect depth for a second. While first-year players like Rougned Odor, Nick Martinez (2.29 ERA over his final six starts, which spanned 35.1 innings — more than the former infielder pitched in three years at Fordham University), Ryan Rua (.338/.355/.514 over his final 76 plate appearances), Jake Smolinski (.349/.391/.512), Tomas Telis, Roman Mendez, Phil Klein (.073/.191/.122 split against righties), Spencer Patton, Luis Sardinas, Lisalverto Bonilla (the first Ranger ever to win his first three big league starts), Alex Claudio, and Jon Edwards contributed at varying levels, and other young players like Martin Perez, Neftali Feliz, Nick Tepesch, Leonys Martin, and Shawn Tolleson took steps forward, there’s another tremendous wave on the way.
While I was at Instructs last week, I saw a Rangers-Reds game in Goodyear in which Texas fielded this starting lineup:
A couple things about that:
1. Yes, Joey Gallo (zero pro experience in the outfield) started in right field, Ryan Cordell (whose entire pro career has been spent in the outfield and first base) started at third base, and Odubel Herrera (who had never appeared in the outfield in his first five pro seasons before making 13 of his 110 defensive appearances there in 2014) started in center field, and that’s not all: Midway through the game, Gallo shifted to center field (Herrera slid to right), and Jorge Alfaro moved from catcher to third base, a position he hasn’t played since Don Welke scouted him in Colombia and, squinting his eyes, saw a potential catcher. (And just yesterday, the starting assignments included Gallo at shortstop, Alfaro in center, and Ronald Guzman in right.)
All of the above qualify as experimental exercises in versatility and, even more so, an effort to liven things up for those guys as their baseball year nears its end.
2. More to the point — barring injury, there’s a legitimate chance that every one of the players in that lineup (six of whom reached AA in 2014, two of whom topped out at High A, and one of whom peaked at Low A) reaches the big leagues, in some cases in frontline roles. Six of them have a chance to play up the middle, and the three who don’t — Gallo, Mazara, and Guzman — have the potential to do damage in the middle of a Major League lineup.
Throw in the pitching that’s developing on the farm — the five pitchers in the season-ending rotation at Frisco (Chi Chi Gonzalez, Jake Thompson, Andrew Faulkner, Jerad Eickhoff, and Alec Asher) should all start in the big leagues, for example — and tack on whomever Texas will take with the fourth pick in this June’s draft to guys like Luis Ortiz, Lewis Brinson, Marcos Diplan, Keone Kela, Corey Knebel, Travis Demeritte, and plenty others, and there’s reason to believe that the Rangers are as healthy as any franchise in the game when it comes to the rest of this decade and into the next, when the club’s new manager is expected to remain at the helm.
While Daniels won’t look for his new big league manager to be as intimately involved in every aspect of player development as Buck Showalter wanted to be here, he’s said that he wants someone to “partner” with the front office in helping shape the direction of the franchise as a whole, establishing a culture of accountability up and down the organization while carrying out the more immediate and perceptible task of motivating 25 men every night at the big league level. He’ll be expected to connect with both core veterans and young players new to the squad, and that’s something that Bogar has already shown an apparent knack for.
After the club responded to the change in manager the way it did over the final few weeks of the season, Daniels said in a radio spot that, “having seen the last few weeks, having seen the change in the energy and atmosphere, I do think [bringing in a new voice] had an impact. Tim should certainly get some credit for that, but sometimes I do think that a change is beneficial. I told Wash . . . I was hoping he’d be the only manager I ever hired. . . . I was not going to make the move this winter. Since it was effectively made for us, I can look back now with some perspective and say, ultimately, it may be for the best.”
In this instance, the “new voice” Daniels seeks on a permanent basis will apparently belong to someone without big league managerial experience, and that shouldn’t come as a surprise. When he conducted the process to replace Showalter after the 2006 season, Daniels assembled five candidates for the interview phase, and none had managed in the Majors, though all five — Washington, Don Wakamatsu, Trey Hillman, Manny Acta, and John Russell — would land manager gigs somewhere within two years.
Expect Daniels’s list this time to be similarly full of men seeking their first big league skipper post — and expect those who don’t get this job to start landing them elsewhere. In other words, don’t expect Ron Gardenhire.
We know that AAA manager Steve Buechele (whom Houston spoke to before hiring A.J. Hinch earlier this week) and pitching coach Mike Maddux have already interviewed, Bogar is set to in the next week or so, and as many as four or five others from the outside will as well. According to local reports, “a few” of the external candidates are currently with playoff clubs, though no names have been confirmed. (Evan Grant of the Dallas Morning News reports this morning that the club has at least had internal discussions about Nationals bench coach Randy Knorr and Dodgers bench coach Tim Wallach, whose teams are still playing, plus White Sox bench coach Joe McEwing and a name I hadn’t seen yet — Angels Assistant GM Scott Servais, who spent six years with Texas (all during the Daniels regime) as Director of Player Development.
Michael Young isn’t on the list, but Daniels did ask him if he’d be interested in being considered for the job, a conversation that has reportedly led Young and the organization to agree in principle on the framework of a front office position. Young and Darren Oliver have evidently been involved in the evaluation process from the club side, and you better believe both will be asked to weigh in on how Bogar and the other candidates would fit from a player’s standpoint.
There are strong indications that the front office evaluation on Bogar was boosted by the work he did after Washington resigned. While Daniels said Bogar couldn’t have locked up the job even if he’d put up a 22-0 record as interim manager and couldn’t have lost it by going winless, the 47-year-old made a strong impression.
“I do think the atmosphere that was created, the communication with the players, the in-game management, how he worked with . . . the media were all very good,” Daniels said. “I really appreciate the job he did, and that factors in for me.”
But there’s a process to go through, and Daniels isn’t going to cut it short. “I think it’s really important for the organization to get this hire right,” he said. “And for the fans and players and everyone else involved to feel like we were as thorough as possible, and when we announce our full-time manager to know that there was a lot that went into it.” If Bogar gets the job — Daniels plans to make the hire before the World Series starts on October 21 (Thad Levine added in a radio interview that the club wants the manager to be “central in meetings and the recruitment of players” as free agency kicks off) — he will know he earned it on the basis of more than mere familiarity, or that 13-4 finish.
“Tim is a real good candidate,” Daniels said. “But if he is our manager, it will be a lot more meaningful if we went through a thorough search first.”
I try to never miss the Manager’s Show that Eric Nadel precedes every game broadcast with, and I was very interested in what Bogar would say before the season finale last Sunday. Aside from the note that he’s already under contract with Texas for another year (which is why the Diamondbacks have had to ask for permission to interview him for their managerial opening), Bogar addressed whether he handled the end of the season with his players any differently as their interim manager than he would have if he had been appointed full-time. His said he conducted exit interviews with every player, going over individual off-season programs and what the organization expects from them in 2015. “I went about it . . . as if I was going to be sitting in this chair next year,” Bogar said. “I think it was the right thing to do.”
I’ve become a big Tim Bogar guy. All the talk from the front office about energy and culture, about the ability to connect and motivate and communicate, about the search for a “partner” in the setting of the franchise direction — if it doesn’t point to Bogar, and the front office believes there’s an even better candidate to entrust the job to, then that other guy clearly will have blown the organization away. Adding talent to an organization goes beyond starting pitchers and middle infielders and corner bats, and the Rangers have a huge opportunity here to add an impact talent on the coaching side of things, at the very top, one who can help set the tone not only in the dugout but also throughout the organization.
In spite of the temporary void at that spot, there’s tremendous strength throughout the system in terms of those entrusted to oversee the franchise’s player development program, and that’s something that jumped out at me last week in Surprise. Obviously there are coaches in every organization who are exceptional at what they do, but I dare you to spend any amount of time around Danny Clark or Scott Coolbaugh or Casey Candaele or Hector Ortiz or Ryley Westman and not find yourself looking for a wall to run through, and that’s without even getting to the managers and pitching coaches and hitting coaches assigned to specific farm clubs.
When Nick Martinez is handed off to Maddux, and Smolinski is put on Dave Magadan’s and Gary Pettis’s plate — and when Bengie Molina gets Alfaro — those guys don’t arrive as finished products, but the crazy amount of work put in not only by the prospects but also by any number of coaches and instructors whose sole purpose is to make them better baseball players and teammates is what turns a 17th-round Lake Erie College infielder into Ryan Rua and a 30th-round Youngstown State righthander into Phil Klein, even if things don’t quite work out for Jordan Akins or Matt Thompson.
There are waves of prospects coming — pitchers first at this point, then position players — and it’s still a very good time to be a Texas Rangers fan, 67-95 notwithstanding. Fielder is swinging a bat and working through normal baseball activities. Choo played all year with torn cartilage in his ankle (he was hitting .314/.432/.500 when he originally injured it — .229/.322/.351 afterwards) and, as it turns out, he was battling through a bone spur in his throwing elbow as well, and both have been surgically repaired. Holland is back, Darvish will be, and eventually Perez will be, too. We have Odor.
And this is a team led by Adrian Beltre.
Jon Daniels said in the wake of this brutally difficult season: “I expect that we’re going to win next year. The years of hoping and praying are gone.”
Maybe Billy Beane said that to a group of Bay Area reporters as well, but contrast that with what Peter Gammons wrote after Oakland’s final-third collapse that culminated with the loss to Kansas City:
When Beane made the trades for Jeff Samardzija, Jason Hammel, and Lester, there was a sense that, at least in the Cubs trade, that it was the wrong thing to do, but he didn’t care. He wanted to win one of those post-season elimination games. There was no solution to their venue or revenue problems, not for another six years. They had the best run differential and record in the game. He and Dave Dombrowski were going to duel at an October sunset. Now Lester and Hammel are free agents and Samardzija will be put on the market to try to find an Addison Russell.
Good luck with all that.
In many ways I’m glad the 2014 baseball season is over in Texas — but, truthfully, I didn’t really want it to end.
When Chan Ho Park won that season-ender 10 years ago today, it gave Texas its 89th victory, following four straight seasons in the low-70s and in last place. There was a prevailing sense that the Rangers weren’t quite as good as their final record in 2004, and I know many of you will remember the cautionary mantra routinely issued by John Hart and Buck Showalter that ensuing winter, even if it didn’t end up on billboards marketing season ticket packages for 2005:
Hart’s successor bluntly said something very different a few days ago: The years of hoping and praying are gone.
He expects to win in 2015.
There’s much work to be done between now and then, with the coaching staff and with the roster and with the definition of everything else, including a culture tune-up that evidently began a month ago.
While I’m eager to see how all of it plays out, this is sports, and one of the great things about hiring a new manager or adding a number three starter or pulling the trigger on a direction-altering trade, all in the name of window-fitting, is that every one of those steps brings us closer to a new baseball season and all the expectations that go with it, expectations in this case that need not be managed but instead confronted head-on, as the quest for a season that ends in a win — and I’m not talking about Game 162 — awaits the hungry and healthier group of Texas Rangers that will suit up for 2015.
Tonight will be a sad night. Lisalverto Bonilla’s season will come to an end.
I’m not predicting injury or a Mo Claiborne-style walkout for the 24-year-old righty. No, this is more like U2, leaving the stage, one by one, as they play “40” to finish the show.
Only this is a concert with no encore, and that’s what makes it so sad.
Tonight Bonilla takes the ball to start the fifth-to-last Texas Rangers game of the season. And then, because only four games follow, he’s done for 2014.
I’m so used to the ramp-up adrenaline that coats this week on the schedule, and I miss it. The last time the Rangers were playing out the string in the final week, the iPad hadn’t been invented, there was no such thing as Instagram, and Tiger Woods was not only Superman but Clark Kent as well.
It shouldn’t be that tough to handle. I spent a lifetime celebrating 162 with perennially gutted hopes of anything more than that, and I was still a passionate, devoted baseball fan. There were those three years out of four when the miracle of the baseball encore visited my world, but getting fed to the Yankees each time got to be even more demoralizing, in a sense, than the innocence of having a regular season attraction without realistic expectations of more.
I know for some of you it’s hard to even fully enjoy 10 wins out of 11, given the surrender of the “worst record” trophies that seems fairly likely at this point, but I’ve got to say, baseball is fun again. I’d have appreciated something more than the one win out of eight that the Diamondbacks have pocketed on their bullet train down to baseball’s worst mark, and while I’ll admit to moments the last couple weeks when seeing a Scott Baker inning go wrong wouldn’t have crushed me, I still find myself wanting the win every night, and when the big moments are provided by Rougned Odor or Ryan Rua or Nick Martinez or Spencer Patton — or Derek Holland — all the better.
And if there’s a better candidate to manage this team in 2015 than the one at the helm right now, then great — and yes, I’m in favor of going through the process of interviewing a small number of whoever the front office considers the top prospects for the job, for various reasons — but I can’t imagine anyone other than Tim Bogar running this team on the field at this point. And it has nothing to do with this win streak, in which eight of the 10 victories have come against teams who needed the wins. Bogar is an awesome candidate for this job. He wants it, and has said so. This is going to happen, and I’m fired up about that.
Jon Daniels has said he doesn’t expect to begin the interview process until a week or so after the season ends — but wants to make a permanent hire before the World Series kicks off on October 21 — and though we don’t know who is on the list of folks that will come through, Michael Young won’t be one of them. Evan Grant (Dallas Morning News), Richard Justice (MLB.com), and Ken Rosenthal (Fox Sports) each devoted a story to the idea of Young as Rangers skipper over the last week or two, but Grant reported last night that while Daniels and Young discussed the possibility Tuesday, Young is committed to family right now and isn’t ready to consider an opportunity as all-encompassing as managing a big league baseball club.
More immediate is the wait for the Carolina Mudcats to decide whether to hook up with the Rangers (who visited on Monday) or the Braves, leaving the other to head to Adelanto, California to make the High Desert Mavericks their new High Class A home, and this isn’t an unimportant thing.
And for Texas to hold a private workout for 23-year-old Cuban outfielder Yasmany Tomas, which will reportedly happen today. Also not unimportant.
And for Bonilla-Scott Feldman tonight, which is unfortunately less important.
Followed by Colby Lewis-Jason Hammel, Nick Tepesch-Scott Kazmir, Holland-Jeff Samardzija, and Martinez-Sonny Gray, four games that six months ago looked like they might be for everything, a long weekend of Castle Doctrine baseball as the Rangers looked to reclaim the AL West perch that the A’s had swiped from them the last two years.
Instead, the ultimate meaning of those four will likely be wrapped up in whether Texas can force Oakland to travel to Kansas City for the Wild Card Game, after which the house lights at 1000 Ballpark Way flip on and we file out of the 2014 season, without an encore.
As a baseball fan you never want the length of the off-season to be fixed when there’s still one swing through the rotation left on the schedule, but in this case the question of how long to sing the winter song offers a sadly clear-cut answer, and the identity of the manager who will lead this team the next time it suits up is nearly as certain, and I’m not sad about that part at all.
I don’t remember many concerts or many baseball seasons that I wanted to end, and while I’m enjoying baseball right now more than I have in a long time, thanks to Rougned and Neftali and Adrian and Bogey, one absolute truth for the Rangers is that it’s necessary for 2014 to end in order for 2015 to get here, and though I’m looking forward to these final five of 162, truth be told I’m more than ready to pour a 40 out on this baseball season and, like I’d gotten used to before the last four glorious, spectacular years of 162+, get fired up for the next one.
I hope you saw Tim Bogar’s postgame presser, especially his response to Gerry Fraley’s question about whether he considered pinch-hitting for Guilder Rodriguez in the bottom of the seventh inning with two outs and the go-ahead run on second base.
Pretty great moment, both in the seventh and after the game in the media interview room.