Phil Rogers: Rangers may have to duck flak

Fans love team's joy on field, but foes may object

April 10, 2011|By Phil Rogers, Tribune Newspapers

Baseball etiquette can be confusing. There are no Emily Post-type guidelines in print. But shouldn't some things be obvious?

Is it ever OK for a big leaguer to slide into second base, pop up, smile and put his hands on his head, as if to imitate a deer? That's what Josh Hamilton, your reigning American League MVP, did last weekend during the Rangers' eye-opening sweep of the Red Sox in Texas.

Hamilton did it after he had gone through a contortionist routine to get around a tag, as the throw from the catcher clearly had beaten him to second base. Hamilton sheepishly celebrated his theft as the Red Sox argued he had been out and a sellout crowd roared.

How would Rangers President Nolan Ryan have responded if he had been in the shoes of Red Sox pitcher John Lackey?

The guess here is he would have buried a fastball in the ribs of Adrian Beltre, who was at the plate at the time. At the least he would have given the batter a "bow tie," which was his phrase for a pitch delivered just below the batter's chin.

Ryan always considered intimidation a necessary part of pitching. He came into the majors when men like Bob Gibson and Don Drysdale set the tone, and loved to tell the story of how Drysdale once sent Rusty Staub sprawling because he had been spotted looking into Drysdale's shaving kit in an All-Star Game clubhouse.

It didn't take much in that era. Ryan himself would drill hitters for any number of perceived sins, including bunts (he hated fielding them), slow home run trots and oversized swings. When Craig Grebeck once asked the umpire to check the ball when Ryan was pitching, the catcher asked him if he was crazy. Sure enough, the next pitch was right at Grebeck's ribs.

You didn't mess with Ryan. But no one seems to care that his team has developed its own play-time code of antlers (hands on the head after a good piece of baserunning) and claw (clenched fist shot toward teammates in the dugout after a clutch hit).

That's odd, isn't it?

"It's a different era,'' an executive with another American League team said. "And it changed a long time ago. I remember the game where Toronto hit 10 homers in a game against the Orioles and not a single hitter got knocked down. That was 1987.''

Under manager Ron Washington, the Rangers play baseball with a visible level of joy you won't see elsewhere. It's fun to watch, and their fans eat it up. But it's jarring to see them turning big-league diamonds into playgrounds with the hand signals that Esteban German developed in the minors and imported to Texas during a 2010 cameo.

Given their dismal history and serious ownership questions, it seemed generous that opponents turned the other check in 2010. The Rangers were an outsider, trying to crash the big stage.

But they clearly have grown beyond that. Season-opening sweeps of the Red Sox and Mariners signaled the additions of Beltre and Mike Napoli have offset the loss of Cliff Lee nicely, fueling a lineup that came out of the chute averaging more than six runs per game.

They're eating at the grownup's table this season. How long before opponents demand they start acting their age?

Push and pull: Playing time long has been the issue that keeps catchers' salaries below where they deserve to be. It's hard to pay a guy at the top of the scale when you're going to have to rest him 30 times a year.

The Twins open the season wrestling with that issue, with the situation exacerbated both by Joe Mauer's $184 million contract and his surgically repaired left knee. Manager Ron Gardenhire has decided to sit Mauer whenever Carl Pavano pitches, even though Pavano denies having requested that he pitch to backup Drew Butera.

Gardenhire told reporters Pavano prefers the "low target'' the 6-foot-1 Butera gives rather than working with Mauer, who stands 6-5. Pavano wisely tap-danced around the issue, saying only that he has had "great success with Drew'' as well as "success with Joe too."

Washington is using Napoli as the Rangers' first baseman or designated hitter when Yorvit Torrealba is catching. But Gardenhire worries he would run Mauer into the ground if he regularly used him as the DH when he's not catching.

"Well, that's not really a day off, because he hits more than most people and he runs around the bases,'' Gardenhire said. "It's about his legs, and giving him a day off is to keep him off the field.''

Closing time: No one has caught more games than the Nationals' Ivan Rodriguez. The rocket-armed Puerto Rican who joined the Rangers as a 19-year-old in 1991 entered the weekend at 2,393 games caught, 167 more than the record Carlton Fisk set in 1993 with the White Sox.

He has set a goal of reaching 3,000 hits but needs another 183.

"There's still a lot of baseball in me,'' Rodriguez said. "I can help this team in so many ways: (On) the field, off the field, with my teammates. …I would like to finish here and accomplish my goals of another playoffs, another World Series and 3,000 hits."

The last word: "Initially I thought I had Bieber Fever, but turns out I have pneumonia.'' — Orioles lefty Jeremy Guthrie, who was hospitalized after his Opening Day start.

progers@tribune.com

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