Six years ago at the Rangers' Winter Carnival, among the guests we had at the Newberg Report table were Hank Blalock, 21 years old and coming off his breakthrough season (.352/.424/.550 between Charlotte and Tulsa), and Mark Teixeira, also 21 and two months away from making his pro debut, in Charlotte.
Teixeira was with us at 11:00 on that Saturday morning, Blalock at 11:30. They were there together for about 15 minutes, and it was one of the first times they'd spent any time together.
I remember wondering what was going through the minds of the two young third basemen, both of whom were consensus locks on anyone's list of the top 10 prospects in baseball at the time. One or the other was going to have to make a position change before long, arguably to a less challenging position on the field. But if there was any tension, it was invisible. Teixeira and Blalock treated each other more like future teammates, future keys to the next great Rangers lineup.
The same thing went through my mind last night as Chris Davis and Johnny Whittleman, two third basemen who have never been teammates but who are two of the most promising hitting prospects in the Rangers system, were together at our book release party, meeting fans and signing autographs and taking questions.
And then each of the five players -- Davis, Whittleman, German Duran, Doug Mathis, and Blake Beavan -- were asked to name the player they respect most and model their game after.
Davis said Jim Thome. Duran: Marcus Giles. Mathis: Brandon Webb. Beavan: Randy Johnson. Whittleman: Derek Jeter and Manny Ramirez.
But then asked to name the best player he's played with or against, Whittleman said it was Davis, and was quick to add that there's no friction between the two of them even though they play the same position -- one that is still occupied by Blalock. "We all just want to get to the big leagues. If we have to change positions to get there, we're happy to do it. And we want each other to do well. We want to be Texas Rangers together and be part of a team that wins a championship."
Despite ridiculous weather and traffic, we had a solid 150 of you there last night. Lots of toys donated, baseballs and books signed, Grant Schiller fastballs thrown at the microphoned players.
A few observations.
Forgive me if this borders on sacrilege, but Davis reminds me of Tony Romo. He's confident but not brash, has that self-deprecating sense of humor ("You might have noticed I have no problem talking -- I'm the guy who everyone tells to shut up before I can get to my point"), and is always smiling. Davis is magnetic, and there's nothing off-putting about him. He's a leader.
Whittleman is another effortless leader, though a different kind. He strikes me as more of a Jason Witten, someone who doesn't crave the spotlight but who teammates will gravitate toward because of that ideal combination of intensity and charisma (and production).
Duran is impressive. He sort of wears his unimposing physical stature as a chip on his shoulder, in a good way. He surprised a lot of people who underestimated him in 2007, and he's not through surprising people. Try to get a fastball by him, and watch what happens. Sick bat speed, and lots of confidence. You've never seen someone so pumped to have been asked to take ground balls at third position, and fly balls at a fourth. His time is coming. Soon.
Mathis, who came in from Arizona for this, has the maturity of a guy who has spent more than the two-and-a-half seasons he's had in the pros. There's a reason he reached AA in his first full season and AAA in his second that goes beyond that sinker and the three pitches he complements it with. If those back issues are behind him, he has a chance to put himself on the doorstep in 2008.
If you thought you had a book on Beavan, based on his comments in June just after being drafted, you might have changed your mind a bit last night. There's no doubt about his confidence -- all successful power pitchers have it -- but there was plenty of humility, respect for the game, and repeated references to how much he hasn't done yet. Whether that smile he never took off his face would have been there if he'd been at a Cleveland Indians event is something probably he doesn't even know, but there's no question about how energized he is to have been drafted by his hometown team.
You might raise an eyebrow when you hear that an 18-year-old kid has an entourage of 20 that follows him to an event like last night's.
But then you find out that all 20 were family members, and any concerns you might have had give way to the thought that family support like that stacks the deck in Beavan's favor.
Thanks to Danny Fine, Chris Faulkner, Coty Kaptain, Valerie Morales, Chris LeBlanc, and the rest of the Rangers' Dallas Office crew, to Taunee Taylor and Rush Olson and Hugo Carbajal, to the U.S. Marines for overseeing the toy drive collection, to Spring Creek Barbecue for feeding us, and to Jim Sundberg, who stepped forward to participate in the Q&A at the request of the fans.
Thanks also to Eleanor Czajka and "Baseball Mom" Toni for predictably making everything go so smoothly. And to Marty Yawnick, whose exquisite work on the book cover drew more compliments last night than I could count.
Mathis (Show Low, Arizona) and Whittleman (Humble) weren't the only ones to come in from outside the Metroplex, nor was Scott Lucas (Austin). I know a bunch of you traveled to get there, in spite of the elements, and I appreciate it a bunch.
I've seen some write-ups on the event on various website message boards, but this is the one that counts: Grant Schiller's review at http://texasrangerstrades.blogspot.com/
Eleanor has posted a bunch of photos from the party at http://emc.mlblogs.com/photos/1newberg_book_party_decem/20group.html
Last night's group included a prospect who split 2007 between Frisco and Oklahoma, one who spent the whole year in Frisco, another who split between Bakersfield and Frisco, another who split between Clinton and Bakersfield, and one who has yet to appear in a pro game.
Doug Mathis, German Duran, Chris Davis, Johnny Whittleman, and Blake Beavan all charted different paths in 2007, and most will start their April assignments without any of the other four wearing the same uniform. But one of the things that makes gatherings like last night's so cool for me is to see the unmistakable bond these guys have with each other, even if some are theoretically battling for a job that ultimately they both can't have.
Whittleman said it best during the Q&A. It's not always about who has the biggest contract or the best endorsement deals. You take a group of players and let them grow together as teammates -- in this case four of five who grew up in Texas to begin with and wanted to be Texas Rangers before that opportunity became a reality -- and you start to build a chemistry that can turn out to be the difference between merely putting up big numbers, and winning a division title, if not a World Series.
Thanks to everyone who was part of last night's celebration of Two Months Until Pitchers and Catchers Report.
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(c) Jamey Newberg
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