T.R.’s Memoirs: Meet the most maddening group in Rangers history — their closers (Part III)
(AP photo/Paul Sancya)
Editor’s note: T.R. Sullivan covered the Texas Rangers over 32 years for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and MLB.com and is sharing his “memoirs” with Rangers Today.
In this three-part installment, Sullivan reviews the Rangers’ 50-year history of trying to find a closer, the ninth-inning reliever entrusted with getting the final three outs of a game. Today: the road to Neftali Feliz.
Jeff Zimmerman was a phenomenon. His rookie year in 1999, plus the back story that went with it, made him one of the biggest stories in baseball leading up to the All-Star break.
Zimmerman pitched at TCU, but did not get drafted in 1993. Instead, he pitched in France, for the Canadian National Team and finally in 1997 for Winnipeg in the independent Northern League. He had the lowest ERA in the league. After that season, he faxed a request to all 30 teams asking for a tryout.
The Rangers were the only team that responded. Zimmerman lit up their minor-league system in 1998 with a 1.28 ERA, an 0.89 WHIP and 9.4 strikeouts per nine innings in 51 games at Class A Port Charlotte and Double A Tulsa. Zimmerman was named the Rangers’ Minor League Pitcher of the Year and invited to big-league camp in 1999.
He was the last player cut, but made only two appearances at Triple A Oklahoma City before being called up. At that point, he just started mowing down major-league hitters as a setup reliever ahead of closer John Wetteland.
The numbers were fantastic. Through 44 games, he was 9-0 with a 0.88 ERA. Opponents, baffled by his hellacious slider, were hitting .115 off him. Zimmerman did not allow a run in June or July, part of a 29 2/3 scoreless-innings streak. He pitched a scoreless inning in the All-Star Game and helped the Rangers win the division, although they were swept by the Yankees in postseason.
Zimmerman wasn’t nearly as dominating in 2000. He was 4-5 with a 5.30 ERA and a 1.64 WHIP in 65 games, and the opponents’ batting average shot up to .286.
That’s why, when Wetteland retired after the 2000 season, the Rangers decided hard-throwing right-hander Tim Crabtree would be their next closer while Zimmerman stayed as setup reliever. Crabtree, who came close to enlisting in the Marines out of high school, had also been a strong setup reliever in front of Wetteland and was as tough as they come on the mound.
But it didn’t go well. Crabtree struggled, got taken out of the role and then came down with back and shoulder issues that wrecked his career. He did not pitch in the big leagues after 2001 and ended up working for the DFW Airport police.
The closer’s job went to Zimmerman, and he found the old magic again. The Rangers finished 73-89 in 2001, but Zimmerman still had 28 saves, a 2.40 ERA and a 0.89 WHIP. The Rangers were in a rebuilding mode, but they had their closer for the foreseeable future.
New general manager John Hart thought so. He signed Zimmerman to a three-year, $10 million extension in spring training in 2002.
Then one day, early in camp — I will never forget this— PR man John Blake came up to reporters with an injury report.
“Jeff Zimmerman has a little tightness in his right elbow,” Blake said. “They are going to hold him out for a couple of days. They don’t think it’s serious.”
“They,” meaning the Rangers’ medical staff. Blake was just dutifully relaying the information.
Two Tommy John surgeries later, Zimmerman never pitched in the big leagues again.
That’s why I always tell young baseball writers: Never underestimate or underreport an injury.
With Zimmerman down, manager Jerry Narron had to find another closer. He started with John Rocker.
That man John Rocker
When Hart took over as general manager Nov. 1, 2001, he had an idea that it would take three or four years to build up the starting pitching. Until then, Hart’s plan was to build a lights-out bullpen around Zimmerman. Todd Van Poppel and Jay Powell were signed to three-year deals to be right-handed setup relievers.
Hart also wanted a left-hander to go with them, so he acquired Rocker from the Indians for minor-league pitcher Dave Elder during the 2001 winter meetings.
Rocker had been the Braves’ closer in 1999, saving 38 games for a team that went to the World Series. In doing so, the Braves beat the Mets in the NLCS before losing to the Yankees in the World Series. During those series, Rocker made some comments about New York and then amplified them in a December interview with Sports Illustrated.
The worst of it …
“It’s the most hectic, nerve-wracking city. Imagine having to take the 7 Train to the ballpark looking like you’re riding through Beirut next to some kid with purple hair, next to some queer with AIDS, right next to some dude who just got out of jail for the fourth time, right next to some 20-year-old mom with four kids. It’s depressing… The biggest thing I don’t like about New York are the foreigners. You can walk an entire block in Times Square and not hear anybody speaking English. How the hell did they get in this country.”
Rocker was suspended 14 games by Commissioner Bud Selig, then traded to the Indians midway through the 2021 season. Hart vouched for Rocker — having now traded twice for him — but was cautious in his statements.
“Believe me, this isn’t one you jump up and thump your chest over,” Hart said. “We have made no promises to John.”
In January, broadcaster Eric Nadel, Dallas Morning News writer Evan Grant and I flew to Puerto Rico to interview Rocker. He was down there pitching winter ball, and was both contrite and brash in his interview.
Rocker insisted he was trying to be either sarcastic or witty in the SI article and it came off wrong. Rocker said he got along with 98 percent of his teammates and Rangers fans would appreciate him because he gave 100 percent every night.
“But I’m not a guy who is going to sit around and take a lot of crap,” Rocker said. “I’m not some guy who is going to bend over when people are yelling at you and throwing stuff. I believe in respect.”
Rocker didn’t cause any problems in Texas. He just pitched badly. He had a blown save May 18, leaving him with a 7.53 ERA after 17 appearances.
The next day, owner Tom Hicks said, “I know if he keeps stinking it up, he won’t be in that role anymore.”
Finally, at the beginning of July, Rocker went on the disabled list with a shoulder injury and didn’t pitch the rest of the year. He was released after the season.
Irabu and Urbina
With Rocker out, the Rangers went with right-hander Hideki Irabu, who stood 6-foot-4 and was listed as 250 pounds. He might have weighed even more than that given Yankees owner George Steinbrenner once disgustedly referred to him as a “fat toad.”
Irabu’s training regimen included a cigarette or two and either a cocktail or cup of coffee. He gave the Rangers 16 saves until one night in July 2002 when he was taken to the hospital and diagnosed with blood clots on his lungs. The guy once known as the Japanese Nolan Ryan did not pitch again that season and returned to Japan in 2003.
Right-hander Francisco Cordero took over for Irabu and finished the season strong. In 39 outings, he had 10 saves, a 1.79 ERA and a 1.01 WHIP. That should have been good enough to earn the job full time for 2003.
Instead, the Rangers had to sign Ugueth Urbina, who had 40 saves for the Red Sox in 2003. But if you had to list the worst human beings in Rangers history, Ug-Boy might be at the top of the list. He gets my vote, and I was there for 32 years.
Urbina didn’t talk to the press. Hated the press. Of course, it didn’t help that Jim Reeves wrote of Urbina, “He’s suddenly gone John Rocker on us.”
Next time we tried to talk to Urbina, he refused by saying, “Somebody said I was like John Rocker. Who was that? Until somebody tells me, no interviews.”
We didn’t squeal on Revo, and it was probably a good thing. After the 2005 season, Urbina was arrested in Venezuela for attempted murder. He accused five laborers of trying to steal a gun. Urbina doused them with gasoline and attempted to burn them to death. He was convicted and spent seven years in prison.
The Rangers traded Urbina to the Marlins on July 11 and installed Cordero as the closer again. Cordero had 15 saves the rest of the season, and this time the Rangers stuck with him. The Rangers went 71-91 in 2003, finishing in last place for the fourth straight year before going 89-73 in 2004.
Cordero played a big part in that, setting a club record that still stands with 49 saves. He was selected to the American League All-Star team while heading up a strong bullpen that included right-handers Carlos Almanzar, Frank Francisco and Doug Brocail, and left-handers Ron Mahay and Brian Shouse.
The Rangers were in the race deep into September. They probably weren’t going to catch the Angels or Athletics, but any chance of that happening ended on the night of Sept. 13 in Oakland.
One night in Oakland
That was the night Francisco threw a chair into the stands during an altercation between the Rangers’ bullpen and Craig Bueno, a local fireman who was attending the game with his wife, Jennifer. They had season tickets near the visiting bullpen, and Bueno had been heckling the Rangers all night.
Finally, in the ninth inning, Brocail got tired of it and charged Bueno, hoping to intimidate him into shutting up. The altercation began, tempers flared and, in the heat of the moment, Francisco flung a chair into the stands. It hit Jennifer Bueno in the face. She suffered a broken nose and facial lacerations.
Francisco, a native of the Dominican Republic, was hardly known as a hot head. He has a relatively quiet and easy going personality, so it was somewhat shocking to see him throw that chair. The only explanation is altercations between teams and fans in the Dominican Republic can get dangerous, and players take extreme measures to protect themselves.
This was in Oakland. After the game, a police car pulled up outside the Rangers’ dugout, Francisco got in and was taken away.
The Buenos immediately hired a lawyer, J. Gary Gwilliam, and two days later, Evan Grant, Jim Reeves and I attended a press conference at his law offices in downtown Oakland. It was more of a publicity stunt than anything else. Gwilliam announced the Buenos would be filing a lawsuit against the Rangers.
He compared the incident to the Iraq Abu Ghraib prison scandal that was big in the news at the time.
“Poor discipline,” the attorney said. “We definitely feel the Texas Rangers are responsible. They should pay for it.”
Mrs. Bueno said, “I was scared. I thought I was going to get beaten to death. I never expected professional athletes to behave that way.”
Couple of things: I have a friend who was the head of one of the most prestigious law firms in San Francisco. He told me that Gwilliam had an excellent reputation in the legal community.
Secondly, Mrs. Bueno did appear to be a victim. She was quite subdued at the press conference, hardly ranting about wanting her pound of flesh.
But then there was Craig Bueno. Oh boy, the guy was quite proud of his ability to heckle players and visibly have a negative impact on their performance. He called it “an American tradition.”
He explained thusly: “We get on players. It’s good-natured ribbing, trying to give [Oakland] the home-field advantage. Get on them, give them an extra adrenaline flow. We make fun of their ability, but no profanity, nothing like that. It works. You see relievers come into the game and immediately throw a couple of balls.”
I wondered if this guy expected a bonus from the Athletics if they won the World Series.
Gwilliam said the players are paid to accept heckling as part of the game.
“When they get those huge salaries, they should learn to take it,” Gwilliam said.
I asked Bueno a question. I said players get heckled all the time, so why do you think they picked you out of all people as the one they would confront.
His lawyer wouldn’t let him answer the question.
It took over two years, but the suit was settled out of court. Francisco pleaded guilty to misdemeanor assault charge and served 19 days on a work furlough.
The road to Feliz
Cordero saved 37 games in 2005 but clearly wasn’t the dominating presence of the previous year. Then, in 2006, Cordero blew five saves in April and was pulled from the role. Akinori Otsuka, acquired from San Diego to be a setup reliever, took over as closer and was fabulous, saving 32 games with a 2.11 ERA.
Cordero was also more effective as a setup reliever, then was traded July 28 along with outfielders Kevin Mench and Layne Nix and minor-league pitcher Julian Cordero (no relation) to the Brewers for outfielders Carlos Lee and Nelson Cruz.
Lee was with the Rangers for two months, then left as a free agent. Cruz, in Triple A at the time, ended up helping the Rangers win two American League pennants in 2010-11.
Outfielder David Murphy was also a big part of those pennant-winning teams. Despite, Otsuka’s success as a closer, the Rangers signed former Dodgers closer Eric Gagne after the 2006 season.
Gagne won the National League Cy Young Award in 2003, but was coming off two years of back and elbow injuries. The Rangers got him on a one-year deal. Gagne pitched well for the Rangers, but they got off to a bad start under new manager Ron Washington and decided to go into a rebuilding mode.
On July 31, Gagne was traded to the Red Sox for Murphy, pitcher Kason Gabbard and outfielder Engel Beltre.
Truth be told, the Rangers had their highest hopes for Beltre, a top prospect who never did much in the big leagues. Gabbard was also an attention grabber because the Rangers needed starting pitching and he looked like a keeper. Murphy was the third man in the deal, but history shows he was the best of the bunch.
That was not the only trade made by the Rangers at the 2007 deadline.
That same day, Rangers general manager Jon Daniels sent first baseman Mark Teixeira and reliever Ron Mahay to the Braves for shortstop Elvis Andrus, catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia and pitchers Matt Harrison, Beau Jones and Neftali Feliz. No trade ever had more impact on the Rangers than this one.
At the time, nobody knew much about Feliz. He was 19 at pitching in Class A short-season Appalachian League. He could throw hard, but there were plenty of pitchers from the Dominican Republic with great arms.
Buscones (trainers/agents) grabbed them at a young age and convinced them that pitching was the quickest way to get to the big leagues. Many of them never learned to do anything but throw hard and quickly washed out.
But the rumblings and whispers about Feliz were different. He made an immediate impression and moved quickly through the Rangers system. Scout Don Welke summed up Feliz in two words.
Translation: He threw hard — 100 miles per hour — and without a lot of effort.
Feliz was used mostly as a starter throughout his meteoric rise through the farm system, and the Rangers clearly saw that as his long-term future. But there was an immediate need for bullpen help, and that was his role when he was called up to the big leagues at the beginning of August 2009. In 20 appearances, he had a 1.74 ERA and a 0.67 WHIP, plus 39 strikeouts in 31 innings.
Francisco and left-hander C.J. Wilson were the Rangers’ primary late-inning options, so Feliz as used in a setup/middle relief role.
When spring training began in 2010, both Wilson and Feliz were given a chance to earn a spot in the rotation with Francisco locked in as the closer. Wilson outpitched everybody and won as job as a starter. Feliz struggled that spring, so the Rangers left him in the bullpen.
But even then, Jon Daniels made it clear. His ultimate wish was to move Feliz into the rotation. Daniels saw a potential No. 1 starter in the future.
“At some point, we owe it to ourselves and we owe it to him to look at him as a starter,” Daniels said that spring.
Ron Washington saw something else. He saw Francisco blow two saves in the first week of the season, and that was enough for the manager. By the second week of the season, Feliz was the closer.
Feliz remained there all year and was fantastic: 40 saves, 0.88 WHIP, 9.2 strikeouts per nine innings. Feliz, having pitched less than 50 innings the year before, was named the American League Rookie of the Year.
The Rangers also went to the World Series that year for the first time in club history. Feliz put them there by striking out Alex Rodriguez to close out a 6-1 win over the Yankees in Game 6 of the ALCS.
Daniels still liked the idea of moving Feliz to the rotation, but Washington was resistant. Feliz was his closer, and Washington had no interest in losing his safety net.
Daniels bowed to the manager’s wishes, and Feliz remained a closer for 2011.
What did Feliz want? Good question. Hard to say.
Feliz did not speak great English and he really wasn’t much of a talker. Feliz is a good guy. He just never opened up much in interviews. Even when he did, he was sort of wishy-washy as to what role he wanted. A lot of time he said it was whatever is best for the team.
Me personally? As time went on, I got the feeling Feliz was happy as a closer and preferred to stay there.
Feliz stayed in the bullpen in 2011, and the Rangers ended up with possibly the best rotation in club history. The first four were Wilson, Colby Lewis, Derek Holland and Matt Harrison.
The fifth starter was Alexi Ogando, who had also been in the bullpen the year before in his rookie season. Ogando was terrific as a starter, going 13-8 with a 3.51 ERA in 31 games and 169 innings. He was selected to the American League All-Star team, which means exactly what it means: Ogando was considered one of the best starters in the league.
Now, it was true that Ogando wore down as the season progressed and his workload increased. He had a 2.92 ERA before the All-Star Game and a 4.48 afterward. That’s one reason why he was used as a reliever in postseason that year.
Feliz had 32 saves in 2011, although he wasn’t quite as dominant as the year before. He went from 9.2 to 7.8 strikeouts per nine innings while his WHIP went from 0.88 to 1.15.
But Feliz was dominating in the postseason again. Through his first 10 appearances, Feliz allowed one run on three hits and seven walks with 10 strikeouts. He was 6-for-6 in save opportunities.
The Rangers had every reason to believe Feliz could get the final three outs and hold the Rangers’ 7-5 lead in Game 6 of the World Series.
Feliz struck out Ryan Theriot before allowing a double to Albert Pujols and a walk to Lance Berkman. Allen Craig struck out, but David Freese, on a 1-2 pitch, hit a line drive over Cruz for a game-tying two-run triple. Feliz then retired Yadier Molina to end the inning.
Josh Hamilton hit a two-run home run to put the Rangers ahead in the top of the 10th, but Washington did not send Feliz out for the bottom of the inning.
Washington said he took one look at Feliz between innings and decided he was too mentally devastated to go back out. Washington tried to close out the game with a combination of Darren Oliver and Scott Feldman, but the Cardinals scored two to tie it, won it on Freese’s home run in the 11th, and took Game 7 the next day.
Worst decision ever
Less than a month after losing the World Series, the Rangers signed reliever Joe Nathan to a two-year, $14.5 million contract. It was an unprecedented move by Daniels, who has an aversion to giving out big contracts to relievers. But there was no mistaking his intentions on this one.
Nathan was a four-time All-Star who had saved 260 games for the Twins over the previous seven years. He was coming to Texas to be the closer.
Feliz was going into the rotation. He would join Lewis, Harrison, Holland and Yu Darvish, who was signed after C.J. Wilson was allowed to leave as a free agent.
Ogando? A 13-game winner and American League All-Star?
He was put back in the bullpen.
In essence, the Rangers took an All-Star closer and made him a starter. Then they took an All-Star starting pitcher and made him a reliever. They flipped the two and — to me — it was the worst mistake the Rangers ever made.
So what happened?
Nathan was everything the Rangers expected: 80 saves and two All-Star appearances in two years. The Rangers declined a $9 million option for 2014, so Nathan left as a free agent.
Ogando bounced between the bullpen and the rotation over the next three seasons after 2011 and dealt with arm injuries in both 2013 and 2014. The Rangers made him a free agent by not tendering him a contract after the 2014 season.
Feliz made seven starts for the Rangers in 2012 before going on the disabled list with right elbow inflammation. He was sent to the minors on rehab assignment in late July, experienced more discomfort after three outings, and underwent Tommy John elbow reconstruction surgery.
Feliz didn’t completely make it back to the big leagues until the second half of the 2014 season, when he picked up his old role as closer. He had 13 saves and a 1.99 ERA in 30 appearances, and everything seemed back to normal.
But Feliz lost that effectiveness and his job as a closer in 2015. He had a 4.58 ERA and a 1.68 WHIP in 18 appearances and missed six weeks with an axillary abscess. On July 3, Feliz was designated for assignment and cleared outright waivers. But he declined to go to Triple A and instead took his free agency.
After Feliz struck out Alex Rodriguez to clinch the 2010 pennant for the Rangers and send them to the World Series, he reacted by jumping into the arms of catcher Bengie Molina.
A statue commemorating the moment now stands outside Globe Life Field.