I haven't run across anyone the last year or two who has jogged up to share some really great financial news. As far as I can tell, those affected the least have still been hit pretty hard.
So I didn't get rattled when I saw news that Hicks Sports Group opted not to make an interest payment a week ago and, as a result, is in default on $525 million in loans. I take Tom Hicks at his word that HSG is still funding all of the Rangers' operational costs without interruption, and that this development won't affect the club's day-to-day business - does anyone really think Hicks didn't have this maneuver in mind in February, when he greenlighted a payroll-busting $20 million investment in Ben Sheets, or when he funded significant, expensive Ballpark improvements this winter, or authorized last week's $6 million release of Frank Catalanotto? - and I'm plenty comfortable that it won't be on Kevin Millwood's mind today, or Nelson Cruz's, or Mike Maddux's, or Chuck Morgan's, or on the minds of 49,000-plus.
If this team doesn't win in 2009, it won't be because of credit lines or debt covenants or the accessibility of interest reserve accounts. It could be because of health, or rotation inconsistency, or another team in the division having it all click, or, more to the point, because it's probably still another year before the gathering momentum starts to really come together here. Momentum that was set in motion, methodically and meticulously and with discipline and unified conviction, just under two years ago, when management proposed to ownership that this franchise put itself in a position to win - not immediately but soon enough, and for years after that - by committing to a program of acquiring young talent as aggressively and expertly as any franchise in the league.
The aggressive part required a financial commitment from the owner. That commitment was made, and Jon Daniels and his team of scouts and instructors and baseball operations officials and advisors have done the rest, executing the long-term plan that ownership bought into, and not only going in two years' time from a bottom five farm system to the consensus number one billing in the league, but also attracting comments from experts all over the country this week that look a lot like this one from Joe Sheehan of Baseball Prospectus:
It's very tempting to see the Rangers as a surprise team this year, what with a confluence of young talent on the way and a front office that is turning the team over to its youth. However, [there are some warts. But t]hey'll sort these issues out in '09, and be my pick to win the West in 2010. And 2011. And 2012.
Whether this team wins this year, or any year, won't be because of Opening Day festivities and the rush that we get from being there for them. It's a heckuva party leading up to 1:07, but once Millwood takes the sign from Jarrod Saltalamacchia and kicks and fires, with Grady Sizemore waiting on the pitch, the new scoreboards won't make a difference like the numbers on it do. Today is just one of 162, but it's a big one, not so much because of Millwood vs. Cliff Lee or because of the fact that Game One kicks off a friendly April schedule or because this morning's agate type includes "Los Angeles Angels: Placed RHP Kelvim Escobar, RHP John Lackey and RHP Ervin Santana on the 15-day DL" or because this might be The Year.
It's big because The Year is unquestionably getting closer, not farther away. This ownership, and this team's President, have endorsed the systematic plan that Daniels recommended, and we're all going to benefit from it. Soon.
And when Step Five of the five-step plan gets here, when Daniels goes to Hicks, maybe in the last week of some July, maybe in the first week of some December, maybe both, and says, "We believe now's the time to attack. We are in a position to acquire Pitcher A or Hitter X. We believe he'll make a significant impact, but he'll also increase the payroll significantly. He could be The Final Piece" . . . .
. . . when that conversation goes down, you can bet that Hicks will respond the same way that he did in June, when Daniels recommended that Texas draft either Ethan Martin, a high school pitcher that the club's scouts loved, or Justin Smoak, an impact college hitter that everyone agreed would come quickly but who would command millions above slot to sign.
Hicks: "Who's the better player?"
Daniels: "We believe Smoak is."
Hicks: "Take Smoak."
The Rangers are where they are right now partially because the franchise got away from the idea that spending (in free agency) leads to winning. Sure, that extra couple million it cost to sign Smoak; that extra hundred thousand or two it took to land Martin Perez; those decisions to let several free agents walk after the 2006 season so the Rangers could have extraordinary firepower in the 2007 draft, which cost millions extra in signing bonuses, some of which were above slot; that six-figure, fourth-round bonus paid to 25th-rounder Derek Holland weeks before that 2007 draft, all those dollars collectively could have gone toward a 36-year-old middle reliever for two years of work. Thank goodness they didn't.
I won't be thinking about Hicks Sports Group engaging its dozens of lenders in forbearance talks in a few hours when I hear Chuck Morgan's voice and when I smell those baseball smells and when Millwood toes the rubber and when Andrus makes his first play and when Michael Young, Ian Kinsler, and Chris Davis turn that first 5-4-3 and when C.J. Wilson is getting loose.
The massive number I'll be thinking about today - which may be equally overblown by the media - is not $525 million, but the reigning Cy Young winner Lee's 12.46 spring training ERA. Another: Lee's career 6.42 ERA against the Rangers. Another: his 8.56 ERA in Rangers Ballpark. Another: Young's .409/.458/.455 line against Lee. Another: Hank Blalock's .400/.455/.800 against the lefthander. Today it's about pitch counts, not interest reserve accounts; situational hitting, not syndicated bank loans.
Baseball is one of my dependable escapes from all of that. I don't work in the financial sector, I'm not an economics reporter, I'm not even a baseball reporter. I'm a baseball fan, and today I celebrate that, to exclusion of all (other than the 12-year anniversary of my marriage to my best friend) that doesn't fit.
Step Five is coming.
But not yet. First, necessarily, there are baseball games to be played. By a franchise that, I'm happy to say, is patiently doing things right, and spending in places and ways in which few other organizations are keeping up. And who knows - maybe it will reassert its willingness to spend on Sheets in a few months. That feeds the bigger picture, too.
While the banks may be far more concerned about the short-term - their survival sort of depends on that - the owner here has his Rangers eye squarely on the ball, focused on building a long-term winner. This franchise deserves that. We deserve that.
This particular stage of the patience we've all exercised for so long now, as Rangers fans, gets rewarded today. There are baseball games to be played. Starting in a few hours.
Have a great day.
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(c) Jamey Newberg
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