It has been six months since the Texas Rangers lit up baseball's winter meetings with the $252 million signing of free-agent shortstop Alex Rodriguez and created the self-fulfilled prophecy playing itself out in the American League standings.
Rodriguez is living up to his amazing contract, but the Rangers are living down to the pitching problems that abruptly sent them to the bottom of the AL West Division last year.
The off-season additions of A-Rod, Andres Galarraga, Ken Caminiti and Randy Velarde has pumped up the volume at the plate, but the Rangers' third-ranked offensive attack has not been able to offset the damage wrought by a pitching staff that has an off-the-charts 5.99 team ERA.
After completing a rain-shortened three-game series at Camden Yards on Monday, the Rangers were in last place, 13 games under .500 (18-31) and looking so far up at the first-place Seattle Mariners that there doesn't seem to be any realistic hope of salvaging a respectable season.
Things got so bad so fast that successful manager Johnny Oates resigned in early May and club officials briefly considered trading all-everything catcher Ivan Rodriguez to rebuild the team's pitching staff.
Never has the Metroplex experienced such a mood swing, in terms of its baseball team. The Rangers went from the pre-holiday euphoria of A-Rod's arrival through an upbeat spring training to the crushing disappointment of the past two months.
"You get the best player in baseball, expectations go up," new manager Jerry Narron said. "This ballclub was built by [general manager] Doug Melvin and Johnny Oates more to outscore people - for guys to have years that match their track records. That hasn't happened, but I'm not saying that won't happen by the end of the year."
Owner Tom Hicks recently reassured Ivan Rodriguez that he would not be going anywhere, but the organization still faces some difficult choices over the next two months. Do the Rangers stay the course and try to climb back into the wild-card race? Or do they move some veteran players at midseason and begin retooling for the future?
It is the same decision faced by the Orioles last season, though the circumstances are quite different. The Orioles were dismantling an aging lineup that would soon have dismantled itself without help. The Rangers conceivably could keep the nucleus of their offensive attack together for several more years - if Hicks is willing to spend the money to keep Ivan Rodriguez beyond the 2002 season.
No rush to rebuild
This couldn't be what Alex Rodriguez envisioned when he jumped from the Mariners for the biggest guaranteed contract in the history of professional sports. Now, understandably, he wants the opportunity to help make things right before the Rangers decide to rebuild.
"I'm motivated to turn this thing around," Rodriguez said last week. "That should be the motivation of everybody in this clubhouse. We've still got a long way to go. The theme of this season hasn't been written yet. There's still time to turn it around if we go out and play good, fundamental baseball."
That might be a little optimistic. The Rangers are 19 games behind the Mariners, who are showing no signs of coming back to the pack. The wild-card race also looks like a pipe dream, with the Cleveland Indians 13 1/2 games ahead.
Narron, in his first month as a major-league manager, continues to express confidence that the Rangers can climb back to respectability, even as he concedes that the mountain looks very, very high right now.
"We have a veteran group of guys who are professionals," Narron said. "They play hard, work hard and they have not felt sorry for themselves."
They could be forgiven, however, for cursing the fates. Who could have imagined the Mariners would respond to losing their third superstar in four years by winning 31 of their first 40 games?
"That just compounded everything," Narron said. "If they get off to a start that's not that far out in front of everybody, I don't know if that takes the pressure off, but it doesn't look as bad. You don't feel like you've got to make up a lot of ground real fast."
Instead, there is little reason to focus on making up ground at all. There's just too much of it.
"We can't worry about the Mariners," first baseman Rafael Palmeiro said. "The only time we should be worrying about them is when we play them. We just have to play our game. Win our games. Just basically do what we can control.
"We're playing much better. We're not getting blown out. We're playing a lot of good games. We need to keep working to get better."
The offense has done its job. The Rangers rank third in the American League in team batting average, third in runs and first in home runs. The pitching staff, however, has staggered behind rotation cornerstone Rick Helling, who has lost six of his first nine decisions and built a frightening 6.31 ERA.