A year ago he was the fresh prince of spring training camp.
But on Tuesday morning, outfielder Michael Choice was quietly demoted to the minor league side of the Texas Rangers’ spring training facility.
Physically, the doors are less than 50 feet apart. Symbolically, they are night and day. Bus ride vs. chartered jet. The dream vs. the big stage.
Nobody hit the ball harder or more often in the Rangers’ 2014 camp than Choice. But when he was sent down Tuesday, the Mansfield Timberview and UT Arlington product had just one hit, a single, and an .063 average in nine spring training games.
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The club decided that of the assortment of bodies and backgrounds in camp, vying for the left-field and/or designated hitter roles, Choice could make his case better taking daily at-bats with the Triple A campers.
That’s the way they apparently tried to couch it, at least.
“We just felt like it was time to give Michael an opportunity to go over and continue to work on his game,” manager Jeff Banister said. “We felt like it was time to get him over, get him going more consistently with the at-bats and continue to work.”
No one has been named the starting left fielder yet. Candidates still abound.
But the message behind Tuesday’s announcements — veteran lefty Michael Kirkman was given his release — was that the hottest player in last year’s camp will not be on the club’s roster on Opening Day.
The Rangers are in their 13th season in Arizona and — to me, at least — the Cactus League remains baseball’s Area 51. Things are seldom as they appear to be.
Ten years ago I watched a young Rangers prospect lazily field grounders and throws at first base. I watched his sleepy swing swat a single or two to left field.
“Too soft,” I remember writing in my notebook. I wasn’t the least bit surprised when the Rangers sent him to Oklahoma City.
What has surprised me is that the player, traded in 2006, has gone on to hit 262 home runs in the major leagues and bat .292 with an .863 OPS. Adrian Gonzalez is a four-time All-Star.
The moral of this story is not to trust everything you see in the baseball desert. The infamous “high sky.” The gorgeous sunsets. The fireballer from Nebraska who wants to strike out Roy Hobbs one last time.
Banister and general manager Jon Daniels are still waiting for lightning to strike in left field. It’s hard to envy the wait.
Incumbent Ryan Rua has not carpe diem-ed his golden opportunity. Thus, veteran Ryan Ludwick still has a shot. Carlos Peguero, who hit 30 home runs at Triple A Omaha last year, remains in the mix. And the manager keeps talking about the way young Jake Smolinski is playing.
Don’t ask me. I couldn’t pick a four-time All-Star out of the crowd.
Choice batted .325 in 48 at-bats against right-handed pitchers last spring and looked every bit like an everyday DH. Yet, when the season began, though lefty Cliff Lee was on the mound for the Phillies, then-manager Ron Washington made left-handed hitter Mitch Moreland his DH on Opening Day. Choice didn’t start until the fifth game of the season and was in the lineup only five times in the Rangers’ first 20 games.
That’s not blaming his slow start and the disappointing season that followed on Washington. That’s just the way baseball go.
Teams got an extended look at Choice during that spring. He couldn’t make the inevitable adjustments.
Moreland, meanwhile, will be 30 by the end of this season, and though his career line reads “always hurt, often disappointing,” the new manager sounds infatuated with Moreland’s annual big-swing, big-batting-practice performances.
Who am I to tell him it may just be another spring mirage?