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T.R’s Memoirs: Elvis Andrus leads off Boys of Arlington series

(Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports)

 

The Boys of Summer — Roger Kahn’s memoir about the Brooklyn Dodgers — is one of the all-time best baseball books. This summer, retired Rangers beat writer T.R. Sullivan will be doing his own reminiscing about some of the iconic and favorite players who came through Arlington during his 32 years.

 

Sometime around 10 to 12 years ago, the Rangers started playing music over a loudspeaker during their workouts on the back fields of spring training.

While a couple hundred fans milled about hoping to get autographs, Rangers players took batting practice or went through their fielding drills with the latest sounds of rock, hip-hop, rap or Caribbean salsa jazzing up their workouts.

It didn’t take long for shortstop Elvis Andrus to assign himself as official music director/disc jockey. The choice of music was pretty much his, and that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just like Andrus himself, his music was always lively and upbeat.

One day, after the workout was over, I asked Andrus when he was going to play Frank Sinatra.

“Frank Sinatra?” Andrus scoffed. “T.R., you’ve got to be kidding me. I’m not going to play Frank Sinatra. That stuff is too old.”

Actually, I was just kidding with him.

“Elvis, he’s an American legend,” I said. “One of the greatest singers of all time.”

Elvis laughed and smiled, then shook his head as if to say, “No chance.” He walked away.

Oh well.

The next morning, just after 9 a.m., I was sitting in the first-base dugout waiting for manager Jeff Banister to begin his morning press briefing when the music began.

“Strangers in the night, exchanging glances, wondering in the night, what were the chances…”

The Rangers’ workout that morning was all Sinatra, just for the senior beat writer, courtesy of Elvis Andrus.

That morning was one of many memories that flooded back when the news came out at the end of spring training this year.

Andrus was released by the Arizona Diamondbacks. Just like that. He was in their camp at age 35 trying to win a job as a backup infielder and didn’t make the team. The news was relayed to the baseball world through a small item on MLB Trade Rumors, the one reliable website devoted to covering any and all transactions.

At this point, Andrus has not signed with anybody and may not. He may have played in his last major-league game and is unceremoniously slipping quietly away.

Which seems so very wrong for a player who meant so much to the Rangers franchise through the years. He was never Derek Jeter or Omar Vizquel. He was never the all-world shortstop that many — at least some — were expecting when he first arrived in Arlington.

But he was the starting shortstop on two American League pennant winners and four division championship teams. Andrus may not have won a Gold Glove or led the league in any major hitting categories, but one thing should have been recognized by Rangers fans.

Elvis Andrus, who loved baseball and never stopped smiling or enjoying himself on the diamond, was more than good enough to be the starting shortstop on a championship major-league team.

He was a winner.

One day, the Rangers will give Andrus the proper recognition he deserves by inducting him into their Hall of Fame. After all, Michael Young said Andrus helped change the entire culture of the Rangers when he first arrived in spring training back in 2008.

“Elvis gave us some much-needed youthful exuberance,” Young said this week. “Our team was rebuilding for a while, and it had gotten a bit mundane here. The effort was there, and guys were performing on an individual level, but it was clear we were outgunned out there. It was super tough to deal with. I know it was for me.

“Elvis came in, and it was an instant energy factory. We needed it in the worst way. The energy came out in his personality and in his game. We fed off of it. We loved him because he immediately walked in like he belonged but combined it with such a humble and easy-going nature. Those were some really fun and competitive teams, and Elvis was in the middle of all of it. I love the dude.”

The kid and the trade

The Rangers were in Minnesota. This was in 2009 when Andrus was a rookie and Ron Washington was in his third season as Rangers manager.

Washington was standing outside the team hotel in downtown Minneapolis, talking to one of his coaches when Andrus came out. He was trailed by one of the hotel bellmen who was carrying Andrus’ bags. The bellman flagged down a cab and put the bags in the trunk while Andrus got in the back seat.

Andrus didn’t tip the bellman. Washington saw it.

When Washington got to the ballpark, he summoned Andrus to his office and unloaded on his naïve rookie.

“Elvis, you in the big leagues!” Washington said. “You don’t do that. This is the big leagues, man. You tip that man! You’re a big leaguer! You ain’t in the minors. You pay your way! Got it? You pay your way!”

That year there was also a night game in Oakland. The Rangers’ team hotel was in San Francisco, and the players got to the Coliseum across the Bay by cab or BART. There was a team bus, but the only people on that were the television and radio broadcasters.

Andrus, being a naïve rookie, figured he could ride the team bus to the park. By the time he got there, the veterans were dressed and ready to go. Young set him straight.

“Elvis, don’t ever let me beat you to the park again!” Young told him.

Washington, especially, could be tough on young players. There was one road game in 2011, also in Minnesota, when Washington pulled Andrus for a perceived lack of effort. The transgression didn’t seem that great, but there was definite suspense about how the young player would handle the rebuke.

“I felt like I needed to do what I did, and that’s it,” Washington said. “He knows I care about him, and when I take actions that are necessary, he knows it’s in his best interests.”

Andrus handled it just fine, hitting 346 over his next 11 games. He loved the game and played with joy in his heart and a smile on his face, just as he always did no matter what the situation. His zest for baseball was unquenchable.

Andrus was part of possibly the greatest trade in Rangers history, at least No. 1 on my list. General manager Jon Daniels pulled it off July 31, 2007, when he traded first baseman Mark Teixeira and pitcher Ron Mahay to the Braves for Andrus, catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia and pitchers Matt Harrison, Neftali Feliz and Beau Jones.

At the time, Andrus, signed by the Braves out of Venezuela, was playing at Class A Myrtle Beach and being rated highly by all the usual prospect-infatuated publications, including Baseball America. He played in the All-Star Futures Game that year, a significant honor for a young player.

It was a time in baseball when great young shortstops were a hot item in the game: Troy Tulowitzki, Hanley Ramirez, J.J. Hardy and Jose Reyes among others. Anybody remember Bobby Crosby? All of them were going to be the next Derek Jeter.

Andrus was going to be as good or better than anybody because — at the time of the trade — he was sold as the next defensive wizard. Then, at age 20, the youngest player in the league, he hit .295 at Double A Frisco, stole 54 bases and was rated by Baseball America as the league’s best defensive shortstop.

The Rangers couldn’t wait. Didn’t matter that they had Young at shortstop, a perennial All-Star who had just won his first Gold Glove. The Rangers decided Andrus was going to be their shortstop and Young was going to third base.

 

(The Associated Press)

 

That started the usual firestorm with Young possibly or possibly not demanding a trade, but he definitely was not happy about getting moved off shortstop. As Young put it, player and team “butt heads,” but it all got worked out in spring training when it was confirmed Andrus was ready.

The Rangers just wanted Andrus to play great defense, an arrangement similar to Ivan Rodriguez 16 years earlier when he was called up to the big leagues to boost the Rangers’ defense behind the plate.

It was Young who set Andrus straight. He sat Andrus down in Arizona and told him don’t listen to those who said his defense was all that mattered.

“Don’t kid yourself,” Young told Andrus. “You work on your offense. This is the American League. You have to be able to ‘rake’ in this league.”

Andrus did. He hit, he fielded and he ran the bases, and the Rangers won. He was an All-Star in 2010 and 2012.

Amazing memories

My favorite Andrus memory on the field came in Game 2 of the 2011 World Series. The Rangers lost Game 1 and trailed 1-0 going into the top of the ninth in Game 2 against Cardinals reliever Jason Motte.

Ian Kinsler led off with a single and stole second. Andrus then lined a single to center, and Kinsler stopped at third as center fielder Jon Jay threw home. As he did, Andrus bolted to second, putting runners at second and third with no double play in order.

After sacrifice flies from Josh Hamilton and Young, the Rangers had the lead and went on for a 2-1 victory. If the Rangers had held on in the infamous Game 6, the Kinsler/Andrus base-running combo would have easily stood out as the turning point of the series.

There were so many moments through the years, whether it was a two-run double in the bottom of the 10th to walk-off a 10-9 victory over the Angels on Aug. 1, 2012, or the many times Andrus ranged up the middle to grab a ground ball, then did a 360-piroutte and first to first for the out. Or going into the hole and making the jump throw from the outfield grass.

How about the night of Sept. 1, 2015, against the Padres. The Rangers were trying to catch the Astros in the American League West when Andrus delivered a two-run single in the seventh to snap a 4-4 tie. But the best came with two outs and Andrus on third. Padres reliever Kevin Quackenbush was in his stretch on the mound and staring at the ground, so Andrus just broke to the plate and slid in safely.

Or just the many times Andrus annoyed third baseman Adrian Beltre, either standing next to him on an infield popup or rubbing his buddy’s bald head in the dugout after a big home run. Nothing annoyed Beltre or delighted Andrus more than that, unless it was dumping a bucket of Gatorade over a teammate getting interviewed after a win on live television.

“He can be annoying sometimes, like I said before, many times, but he loves the game. He knows that I love the game,” Beltre said on the day he retired. “We’re similar in a lot of stuff, but sometimes he just brings the best out in me.”

That was the essence of Andrus as a baseball player. Talented, yes, but he went far beyond that by just being who he was day in and day out. Who could get mad at the guy for going with Baby Shark as his walk-up music?

“I like to enjoy the game; I like to enjoy what I do, love what I do,” Beltre said. “But sometimes he makes it a little easier to do that. He has made my game better and easier.

“I like to have fun playing the game, but there were some times that I had a lot of stuff in my mind … ‘Why am I not doing what I’m supposed to do to help this ballclub?’ — and Elvis would do some stupid stuff, funny stuff and kind of help me to forget a little bit. And that kind of helped me to just relax and just play the game because I can’t control everything.”

Early in the 2013 season, the Rangers completed a 10-year contract extension with Andrus to run through 2023. The deal was a surprise – Andrus was 24 and two years away from free agency – but the Rangers had just lost Hamilton to free agency and traded Young to the Phillies.

Daniels said the Rangers wanted to keep at least a few of their key players for an extended period to help carry forward the culture and tradition being established in Arlington.

Andrus was able to do that, at least for a while, showing up every day and just being Elvis. In 2017, he was the Rangers Player of the Year for the only time in his career when he hit .297 with a career-high 20 home runs and 88 RBIs. Defensively that year he led AL shortstops in assists, putouts, range factor and total zone runs.

Andrus was off to a great start the next season – hitting .327 in his first 14 games – when he suffered a fractured right elbow when he was hit by a pitch April 11. Andrus went on the injured list for the first time in his career and didn’t return until mid-June.

It was a lost year for Andrus and the Rangers. They finished 67-95, and Banister was fired. Dodgers third-base coach Chris Woodward took over just about the time the Rangers were delving head-first into the world of analytics.

And, quite honestly, it didn’t go well for Andrus or other Latin American players, including Nomar Mazara and Rougned Odor.

Said Andrus: “All my career, I have been relying on my instincts. Now they’re asking me to do something different. I’m doing the best I can.”

Said Mazara: “They’re filling our heads up with so much stuff, it’s making our heads spin.”

Andrus had a decent year in 2019, hitting .275 and playing solid defense. But he was 30 years old, about the time shortstops start maxing out their value defensively.

Then came the pandemic and the 60-game shortened 2020 season, a disaster for the Rangers and Andrus. Suffering from a bad back, Andrus played in just 29 games, hit .194 and was unrecognizable on defense. He had two years and $28 million left on his contract, but there was considerable doubt if he could still play shortstop.

That winter, the Rangers traded Andrus to the Athletics for outfielder Khris Davis. It was clearly a deal involving two former star players with big contracts both clubs were trying to unload. Davis led the league with 48 home runs in 2018 but had hit just two in 2020. His slugging percentage was a feeble .329.

It was not a one-for-one deal. Nobody really talked much about the other players in the trade, but the Rangers sent minor-league catcher Aramis Garcia to Oakland and received pitcher Dane Acker and catcher Jonah Heim in return.

Might as well state the obvious.

Andrus was gone, but the deal turned out to be a great one for the Rangers since they acquired the catcher who was a huge part of the World Series team. The future belongs to the catcher, not the shortstop.

Still, it was an abrupt and unceremonious end to Andrus’ time in Texas, a place he had called home for 12 years.

What did Andrus have to say about the trade?

“When I found out the opportunity to play for Oakland opened up, it made sense for my career and where I’m at right now,” Andrus said. “I’m blessed to join the Oakland A’s. We’ve got an amazing team and a great group. I can’t wait to join the team and help any way I can to get back in the postseason and go deep.”

Right to the end, he was still Elvis Andrus, and nothing is going to change that.

 

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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