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T.R.'s Memoirs

T.R.’s Memoirs: The Dark Years in Rangers history weren’t caused by signing Alex Rodriguez. It was the awful pitching (Part I)

(The Associated Press/Bill Janscha)

 

Editor’s note: T.R. Sullivan retired after 32 years over covering the Rangers, the longest tenure of any beat writer in club history. He is contributing his memories to our website. In the latest installment, T.R. begins a two-part series about the “Dark Years” of the Rangers from 2000-03.

 

The lamps are going out all over Europe. We shall not see them lit in our lifetime.”

— British foreign secretary Sir Edward Grey on the eve of World War I.

The quote about the lamps going out all over Europe is a historical reference to the Dark Ages, that period of civilization before the Renaissance, Reformation, Enlightenment.

The dark years for the Rangers were those seasons from 2000-2003, when they finished last four straight years. The team was bad, and North Texas just lost interest in the local MLB team. It was a miserable time to be around the Rangers.

The Rangers lost a combined 361 games in those four seasons, seventh most in the majors despite having one of the highest annual payrolls annually.

In 2003, the Rangers drew just under 2.1 million fans to the Ballpark in Arlington. That was down from the club record of 2,945,228 fans in 1997. They did so despite having a $103 million payroll, the fifth-highest in the game.

This was not what owner Tom Hicks had in mind when he signed Alex Rodriguez to a 10-year, $252 million contract at the 2000 winter meetings. The Rangers were hemorrhaging money.

So, who was to blame for all this?

Hicks? The owner who just couldn’t keep his hands off the team, just couldn’t stay out of the way and just couldn’t stop changing the plan?

Doug Melvin? The general manager who built three division championship teams but couldn’t sustain that success?

John Hart? The general manager who rode in from Cleveland on a white horse with a glittering resume and expected to work similar magic in Texas but ended up being brutally vilified by the media?

A-Rod? Who was so overpriced that the Rangers couldn’t afford to put a competitive team together around him.

All of the above? None of the above? A combination of the above? Or more?

Or just plain lousy pitching.

My vote?

Lousy pitching. It really wasn’t any more complicated than that.

For all the mind-boggling soap-opera fodder going around with the Rangers during the Dark Years, and all the mind-boggling player acquisitions that just left one shaking the head in dismay, the Dark Years were really all about lousy pitching.

From 2000-03, the Rangers pitchers had a combined 5.52 ERA, the highest in the major league. Their 1.574 WHIP was also the highest.

Reaction to A-Rod

Alex Rodriguez’s record-breaking contract stunned and shocked the baseball world, eliciting reactions from across the spectrum. Most bitter was Mariners CEO Howard Lincoln, who saw his shortstop leave town after turning down five years and $94 million.

“Obviously some fool stepped out of the woodwork to pay him so much he couldn’t refuse it,” Lincoln said the day after the Rangers announced the signing at the 2000 winter meetings in Dallas.

Hicks wasn’t happy with the cheap shot.

“The most classless statement I’ve heard in baseball,” Hicks said. “I don’t know Howard Lincoln and I have never met him. But that shows absolutely no class.”

Sandy Alderson, at the time MLB vice president in the Commissioner’s Office, was at the winter meetings on the day the signing was announced and reacted to with dismay as well.

“We have a crisis in baseball. … We’ve got problems, and this is a terrible example,” Alderson said.

Alderson’s negative reaction irked Scott Boras, who was Rodriguez’s agent.

Boras noted Alderson was the Athletics’ general manager in 1990 when he made Jose Canseco the first player to earn $4 million per season.

“I think it’s a disservice to Major League Baseball when a member of the Commissioner’s Office steps into the room, the same room where we are about to honor one of the game’s great stars, and suggests it’s a dark day for baseball,” Boras said.

The Mariners didn’t miss Rodriguez in 2001. They won a record 116 games in running away with the division. They also lost to the Yankees in the ALCS and haven’t been in postseason since.

The Rangers had high hopes for 2001, but they ended up going 73-89. Their pitching staff finished with a 5.71 ERA, the highest in club history and the highest in the majors in the past 20 years.

General manager Doug Melvin was fired at the end of the season.

Doug Melvin’s bane

The Athletics won 102 games in 2001 and were the American League wild-card winners. They did so with a rotation led by Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder and Barry Zito. They were 25 and younger and all drafted by the Athletics.

The Astros won the National League Central that season with home-grown pitching talent that included starters Shane Reynolds, Wade Miller, Roy Oswalt and Scott Elarton, and closer Billy Wagner. Carlos Hernandez, a 21-year-old left-hander, had also been dazzling in August before injuring his shoulder.

Tom Hicks looked at the Astros and the Athletics, and then the Rangers’ staff. That’s why Melvin was fired despite having built the first three division championship teams in club history.

“My concern is we as an organization, have not done what we need to do as an organization as far as drafting, trading and developing young players, especially pitching,” Hicks said.

Melvin was hired as general manager after the 1994 season. The Rangers won division titles in 1996 and again in 1998 and 1999 in large part because Melvin was so good at acquiring pitching.

But he did so through trades and free agents. He acquired Ken Hill, John Burkett and Bobby Witt for the 1996 team, and Rick Helling, Aaron Sele and Todd Stottlemyre for the 1998 and 1999 division champions. But the minor leagues were another story.

In 1995, the Rangers had the 10th overall pick in the draft and selected right-hander Jonathan Johnson, who stood 6-foot (a generous measurement) and had a fastball clocked at 90 mph. He was durable and threw strikes with multiple pitches. He was picked ahead of Matt Morris and Roy Halladay, a pair of future 20-game winners. Johnson won all of two games in his career.

The Rangers actually did better with their third-rounder, picking right-hander Ryan Dempster. But they used him to acquire Burkett from Florida during the 1996 season, a trade that helped the Rangers win the division title that year. They don’t win without Burkett, but Dempster ended up as an All-Star for the Marlins in 2000.

The Rangers were in better draft position in 1996 after receiving two draft picks as compensation for Kenny Rogers signing as a free agent with the Yankees. Including the second round, the Rangers had four of the first 53 picks in the 1996 draft.

They took four pitchers and whiffed on all four, including future Cy Young Award winner R.A. Dickey

Dickey was an All-American out of the University of Tennessee and a member of the 1996 U.S. Olympic team that won a bronze medal in Atlanta. He was 9-4 with a 2.76 ERA as a junior at Tennessee, striking out 136 batters in 126 innings.

He was everything the Rangers were looking for, and he agreed to an $810,000 signing bonus. All that was needed was a physical.

The way the story goes, Dickey appeared on the cover of Baseball America with other Team USA pitchers. Rangers trainer Danny Wheat saw the cover, noticed that Dickey’s right arm was hanging at a different angle, and showed it to team orthopedist Dr. John Conway.

During the physical, Conway discovered Dickey had “extra laxity” in his arm. The Rangers withdrew their offer to Dickey and sent him to Dr. James Andrews, the foremost expert on pitching arms.

Andrews put Dickey through two MRI tests and determined Dickey did not have an ulnar collateral ligament. The UCL. That’s the ligament that leads to Tommy John surgery when it gets torn. But Dickey’s UCL was not torn. It was not there at all for some freakish reason, whether it was a birth defect or Dickey injured it at an early age and it withered away.

Andrews recommended the Rangers not sign Dickey. Melvin concurred at first, but then elected to offer Dickey a $75,000 signing bonus.

Now here’s what I never understood.

So what if he didn’t have a UCL?

The guy was impressive at Tennessee. He was impressive with Team USA. The Rangers saw something they liked. Yeah, his arm was different. But Dickey wasn’t hurt. He was still pitching without any other issues. Yes, there was a possibility he might never reach the big leagues. Neither did two other pitchers – Matt White and Todd Noel – taken ahead of Dickey that year.

Now, it is true that Dickey never overwhelmed anybody in the Rangers’ farm system. It was only after he switched to becoming a knuckleball pitcher some 10 years after being drafted that he ended up becoming a Cy Young winner with the Mets in 2012.

But it also might be true that the Rangers would have treated Dickey a little different if they hadn’t viewed him as damaged goods.

But the Rangers’ perceived mistake caused them to double their efforts with 6-foot-6 right-hander Sam Marsonek. The Rangers took Marsonek with the 24th overall pick even though his mother really wanted him to go to the University of Florida. The Rangers offered him more money ($830,000) than they originally did with Dickey and called in Nolan Ryan — serving as a special assistant to the club — to help seal the deal.

Marsonek signed, but his promising career was brought down by drugs and alcohol. He was traded to the Yankees in 1999 for outfielder Chad Curtis and made one appearance in the big leagues with New York before getting out of baseball. Marsonek eventually turned his life around and now prospers as a full-time Christian minister dedicated to helping young athletes.

Long after his career was over, he called Melvin and apologized for what happened.

The Rangers also got almost nothing out of left-hander Corey Lee, the 32nd overall pick in the draft, and right-hander Derrick Cook, who was taken in the second round.

That was the draft that sunk Melvin. It didn’t matter that the Rangers used their 31st-round pick to take Travis Hafner, a left-handed power hitter who grew up on a North Dakota farm and ended up having four 100-plus RBI seasons for the Indians after being traded.

The Rangers also scored a big miss in 1998 when they drafted Zito with the third-round pick out of Pierce Junior College in Southern California. This was the summer when Hicks had just been approved as the new owner of the Rangers.

Zito wanted $350,000 to sign while the Rangers offered $300,000. Zito wouldn’t budge and Hicks didn’t want to upset the owners by overpaying for a draft pick. Zito ended up going to USC and being taken the next year by Oakland. Hicks later found out the Braves overpaid to sign second-round pick Matt Belisle, a pitcher out of Austin. Hicks was furious and would never again let a draft pick get away over money.

But all the swings-and-misses on the draft picks wouldn’t have mattered much if the Rangers had landed either Randy Johnson or Roger Clemens after winning the division title in 1998.

They wanted both and made every effort to get them.

Big Unit and Rocket launch

Johnson was a free agent after the 1998 season. At the time, he was 35 years but still one of the best pitchers in the game. He won the Cy Young in 1997 in Seattle and then won a combined 19 games between the Mariners and Astros in 1998.

The Rangers wanted him but were at a disadvantage against three other finalists: the Diamondbacks, Angels and Dodgers. Johnson lived in Phoenix and liked the idea of being at home during spring training. At the time, the Rangers were still in Port Charlotte, Fla., and wouldn’t move to their current home in Surprise, Ariz., until 2003.

The Rangers did impress Johnson by flying him to Texas on Hicks’ private jet.

Johnson loved the jet and had visions of being able to use it to fly his family from Phoenix to Dallas any time he wanted.

That didn’t exactly thrill Hicks, who met with Johnson and was left with a less than favorable impression of the pitcher. The Rangers still offered $50 million over four years but, on Nov. 30, Johnson took $53 million to sign with Arizona. Given the lack of state income tax in Texas, the Rangers’ offer was higher in value.

The Rangers didn’t agonize over Johnson too much. Hicks really wanted Clemens, and that possibility grew as the offseason progressed.

The Rangers’ interest in Clemens went back to when George W. Bush was managing general partner. Some of Bush’s public comments about wanting to trade for Clemens bordered on tampering. That was when Clemens with the Red Sox.

After the 1996 season, when Clemens appeared to be in the “twilight of his career” as Red Sox general manager Dan Duquette put it, he became a free agent and signed a four-year deal with the Blue Jays. The Rangers could have pursued Clemens but had five starters coming back from a division championship team and signed reliever John Wetteland instead.

Clemens won the Cy Young twice with Toronto, but then decided he wanted to pitch closer to his home in Texas. It also didn’t help that the Blue Jays were not contending in the AL East.

During the 1998 season, the Rangers made a spirited effort to land Clemens at the July 31 trade deadline, but weren’t interested in trading a package that included outfielder Rusty Greer. The Blue Jays, who finished 26 games behind the Yankees that season, ended up not trading Clemens at the deadline.

Then, in December, two days after Johnson agreed to terms with the Diamondbacks, Clemens and his agents, Alan and Randy Hendricks, formally requested that the Blue Jays trade him to either a contender or a team close to Houston. At that point, Clemens had two years and $16.1 million left on his contract. That was a bargain compared to Johnson.

The Astros were one of the teams interested. The Astros had just won two straight division titles and went for broke in 1998 when they traded for Johnson at the deadline. Johnson was supposed to put a loaded team over the top, but the Astros lost to the Padres in the division series. Johnson then departed as a free agent, and the Astros now turned their attention to Clemens.

When the winter meetings opened Dec. 10 in Nashville, Clemens was the top news story. Blue Jays general manager Gord Ash, who was close friends with Melvin, made it no secret he was going to trade Clemens.

Melvin and Ash met Dec. 11, but did not make any progress in the deal. Melvin confirmed the talks but said, “Obviously, we haven’t offered the best package that fits their needs.”

At that point, the Rangers were offering pitcher Esteban Loaiza, who the Blue Jays really liked, and first baseman Lee Stevens, a left-handed power hitter with a combined 41 home runs over the previous two seasons. That wasn’t getting it done.

The Blue Jays clearly wanted outfielder Ruben Mateo, who was the Rangers ;top prospect. After 20 years, it is easy to forget how highly regarded Mateo was regarded back then. He was just 20 years old, but had played in 107 games at Double A and hit .309 with 18 home runs, 75 RBIs and a .522 slugging percentage.

He was a star in the making, and the Rangers did not want to give him up.

Then came one of the most stunning press conferences in the history of the winter meetings. It was called by Astros general manager Gerry Hunsicker.

Hunsicker basically said the Astros were out of the running for Clemens. Why?

Clemens’ agents were looking for an extra year on the contract worth $27.8 million. The idea was to get Clemens back up to an annual average salary close to Johnson and Kevin Brown, who was getting $15 million a year from the Dodgers.

“We were stunned and outraged at the demands of his agents,” Hunsicker said.

The Rangers did not feel the same way. On the final day of the winter meetings, Hicks, Melvin and club president Tom Schieffer met with the Hendricks brothers trying to work out the contractual demands.

But the Blue Jays’ demands were the bigger obstacle. The Rangers would not give up either Greer or Mateo, and so the winter meetings ended with Clemens still in Toronto.

But it was far from over.

When clubs started reporting to spring training in mid-February, the Blue Jays once again began talking to clubs about Clemens. This time, the Rangers expected to get him even though the Yankees were going hard after Clemens as well.

This time the Rangers were willing to trade Mateo. He was centerpiece of a package of minor-league prospects, and Ash was willing to do the deal. He just wanted to make one more call to the Yankees.

The Yankees upped their offer to pitchers David Wells and Graeme Lloyd and second baseman Homer Bush, who was in Mateo’s class as a prospect. Wells had also won 18 games for the Yankees in 1998. The Blue Jays said yes.

I was in the Yankees camp the day the trade was announced and part of a small group that cornered Yankees owner George Steinbrenner outside a ballpark elevator. I asked Steinbrenner if he was concerned the Rangers would land Clemens.

“You’re always concerned where Roger is going to show up,” Steinbrenner said. “I was. I gave thought to that.”

Clemens had the right to veto the trade if he really wanted to pitch in Texas. He did not, and that really irritated Melvin.

“I’m most disappointed in that,” Melvin said. “You hear from players and agents that a guy wants to go to a certain place like Roger. Then you work hard to make it happen and it doesn’t happen.”

Melvin at least didn’t lose his sense of humor. Just before Ash made the deal with the Yankees, he tried to reach Melvin by phone the night before. But Melvin was on a plane to Florida and didn’t get the message from his wife, Ellen, until it was too late.

“Ellen put one other player in the deal,” Melvin said. “She couldn’t get it done, either.”

Hicks didn’t think it was funny. When he fired Melvin at the end of the 2001 season, Hicks made it clear he was still unhappy the Rangers failed to land Clemens.

Postscript

The Rangers won the AL West for a third time in 1999 but were swept by the Yankees in the division series. After the season, the Rangers traded Juan Gonzalez to the Tigers rather than risking losing him to free agency after the 2000 season.

One of the players who came back in the trade was left-hander Justin Thompson, who had been an All-Star in 1997 but was coming back from shoulder surgery. The Rangers expected Thompson to fully recover. He did not. Thompson didn’t make it back to the big leagues until 2005 and then only for two games.

Mateo replaced Gonzalez in the Rangers’ outfield in 2000, but suffered a devastating broken leg that ended his season after just 52 games. On June 15, 2001, he was traded to the Reds for right-handed pitcher Rob Bell.

Bell made 33 starts and two relief appearances for the Rangers over two years and was 9-8 with a 6.73 ERA. He was released in spring training in 2003.

In 2001, in Melvin’s final year as Rangers general manager, both Johnson and Clemens ended up winning Cy Young awards.

The Blue Jays did end up with Loaiza. Melvin traded him to the Blue Jays on July 19, 2000, for pitcher Darwin Cubillan and minor-league infielder Michael Young. It wasn’t until long after Melvin was fired that people figured out it he made one of the best trades in Rangers history.

Coming next week: John Hart takes over for Doug Melvin.

T.R. Sullivan

T.R. is a Military Brat and graduate of the University of San Francisco who retired in 2020 after a 40-year career with the Denison Herald, Fort Worth Star-Telegram and MLB.Com. He covered the Texas Rangers for 32 years.

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