Tom Hicks sat in his vacation home in La Jolla, Calif., and marveled at the success of the Atlanta Braves. That’s what the former owner of the Rangers wanted his toy to become — the Braves — when he gutted his franchise and started building rather than renting.
He wanted to build a franchise that would endure.
It was 2004, and the Braves were in the midst of one of the most impressive runs in the history of baseball — 14 division titles in 15 years, including 11 consecutive.
In the Rangers’ front office at the time of this discussion was Jon Daniels, who was about to be named assistant general manager under John Hart.
It is 2016 and Hicks’ vision did not come to fruition; to suggest the Rangers are the Braves is insulting to that run. No. 1 — the Braves actually won a World Series.
What the Rangers have become are Hart’s first club — the Cleveland Indians. Both Cleveland and Atlanta feature Native American mascots, so maybe there is accomplishment in that.
JD was a Hart protege and has built a Hart club — power arms in the bullpen, an offense that leans on the bop, some big-cash free agents and not enough emphasis on defense. At their peak both should have won a World Series, but their legacy is one out away.
The notable differences between the two men is that Hart had a tendency to disappear when the Rangers were losing and could be quite thin-skinned; JD is at least rhetorically accountable, can take a punch, and is visible win or lose.
Before Hart arrived in Cleveland, that franchise was more known for the movie Major League than winning. The Indians only went 41 short years between playoff appearances.
In Cleveland, Hart was more popular than Ken Bone.
In Hart’s 10-year run as GM in Cleveland, the team built a new ballpark, went to the playoffs six times and made two World Series appearances. His Indians also endured one of the most painful losses in World Series history.
JD has now been the GM of the Rangers for 11 seasons, and in his tenure the team has been to the playoffs five times, has plans to build a new ballpark, and has reached the World Series twice. His Rangers also endured one of the most painful losses in World Series history.
Around these parts, say “Game 6” and see what happens; we immediately see Nelson Cruz failing to catch the third out in St. Louis in the 2011 World Series. And then in our nightmares that night we see David Freese.
When JD returned to his family after that World Series loss, his young son asked him, “Are we going to have a parade?”
“No,” JD told his son. “No parade, buddy.”
In Cleveland, say the name “Jose Mesa” and then duck.
In 1997, the Indians led the Florida Marlins 2-1 in the bottom of the ninth inning in Game 7 of the World Series. Hart was standing inside the team clubhouse in full view of champagne and watching a crew cover the team lockers in preparation for the team’s first World Series title since 1948.
When Hicks hired Hart in the winter of 2001, he assured Hicks that the Rangers would “get that third out.”
Neither team has.
Since the Rangers failed to register that final strike for the final out, the club has been good but not good enough.
As evidenced by the last few postseasons, there is a visual gap between the World Series teams and the Rangers. Something is missing.
What JD has done is to build a team, thanks to some good scouting and almost limitless spending approved by his bosses, that wins a lot of regular-season games. The Rangers are continually “around it” and that certainly beats the alternative of playing out the string on May 15.
JD should be praised for his ability to find enough quality arms to make up a quality bullpen, as well as finding players like Carlos Gomez, Vlad Guerrero, Ian Desmond and a few others, to complete a lineup.
He should be flogged for the wretched, big-money deals involving Prince Fielder, Shin-Soo Choo, Elvis Andrus and Yu Darvish, too. Yu is good, but he has not been worth the more than $100 million it took to land him.
JD’s success with the original Adrian Beltre contract empowered him to return calls to El Diablo De Beisbol, aka Scott Boras, who has only been too happy to steal from the Rangers again with the Choo, Prince and Elvis deals. (Yes, I know Prince was originally signed by the Tigers, but JD took on that bad deal, even if the price was defrayed).
JD should be flogged for rushing Joey Gallo to the majors when he was not ready.
And by now JD should know that in a park like The Ballpark, the priority in center field is a man who is a plus defensive player.
Much like Hart, JD regularly trades the glove for a bat.
Rougned Odor is a wonderful, nasty and fearless hitter but defensively he hurts this team. Andrus is a good player coming off a career year, but he’s not Gold Glove.
As good as the Rangers are, JD has not built a strong defensive team in the one region that winning baseball needs: “Up the middle.”
So here we are, one week after another good Rangers regular season has been finished off with postseason heartbreak. As good as the Rangers are they leave us wanting a little bit more.
As much as we’d like to think this is what the Braves went through in their historic run of regular season success, at least they won one World Series amid their postseason misses.
The Rangers are good, but they are Cleveland, and save for LeBron James, nothing ever good came from Cleveland.
Listen to Mac Engel every Tuesday and Thursday on Shan & RJ from 5:30-10 a.m. on 105.3 The Fan.