The mental image and the indelible sounds of Monday afternoon's Jordan Akins/Ronald Guzman batting practice session were still stuck in my head when I got out to the back fields Tuesday morning, and there they were: Beast & Beast, at it again.
And I kid you not: Akins and Guzman were even better this time around. They were doing bad things to pitched baseballs with malicious intent, and it got to the point that coaches were joining teammates in the laugh track that followed each successive cannon shot ripping through a sky that was being pierced by the sonic roar of the Luke Air Force Base fighter jets getting in their own early morning training.
Akins from the right side, Guzman from the left. Crushed baseballs in all directions.
I found myself wondering what it sounded like when Josh Hamilton was hitting baseballs from the left side and Nelson Cruz from the right when they were 16 years old like Guzman, or even 19 like Akins, and whether it could have been any more spectacular.
Now don't misunderstand me: By bringing the names of Hamilton and Cruz into this I'm not suggesting that that's where these two young players are headed, because that would be irresponsible, if not foolish. There's a whole lot left to go in the process, and there will be struggles -- as there were, of course, for Hamilton and Cruz on their paths to the big leagues. All I'm trying to do here is to help paint a picture, but there's a long road ahead.
Hamilton and Cruz didn't go through Instructional League with Texas, having come up through other organizations and getting to the big leagues before Texas traded for them.
But Elvis Andrus and Neftali Feliz and Matt Harrison went through the program, after they were acquired in 2007.
So did Derek Holland and Michael Kirkman. And Mitch Moreland and Craig Gentry. And, before the current front office was in place, 2003 draftees Ian Kinsler and Scott Feldman went through Instructs with Texas. C.J. Wilson and Colby Lewis probably did, too.
Rangers officials will tell you that while the evaluation of the progress a player has made since the start of the season and the opportunity to work in a mechanical adjustment here and there are essential facets of what goes on from mid-September until mid-October in Surprise, those things are not as important as what happens off the field over that month. This is where young ballplayers are taught the Ranger Way, a meticulous, comprehensive curriculum of goals and expectations and focus points that have very little to do with swinging a bat or locating a fastball or getting your defensive assignments down.
It's about accountability to your teammates and to yourself. A positive attitude -- in this game of failure -- on the field, in the dugout, and in the clubhouse, and the decisions that feed into that. Talent, the organization points out, is the common denominator among the 70 who are in this camp and the 200 in this system and the thousands in this game, but talent is never enough. Accountability and attitude are separators.
As are discipline and work ethic and leadership and a number of other fundamentals that the Rangers demand of these kids. There's plenty of September chalk talk -- going over not only what went right in yesterday's Instructional League games and what went wrong, but also drawing detailed attention to what the big league club is doing -- but just as central to the program are the moments when the coaches get up in front of six dozen minor league ballplayers to talk about the decisive experiences they've had in the game, and when a handful of carefully selected players are singled out to address a roomful of teammates about their own crossroads moments off the field.
The organization had every one of the players watch scenes from one Brad Pitt movie Monday and Tuesday morning, and the entirety of a different Brad Pitt movie Tuesday night, and it's the one that's not about baseball that was more important to the process.
For me, aside from the latest episode of the Akins-Guzman Show in the morning, the enduring baseball moment on Tuesday was the ninth inning that Matt West gave the Rangers-Royals Advanced IL squad against the Dodgers-White Sox opposition, striking out the side (around two singles) with mid-90s velocity and exquisite command of a wipeout breaking ball that was responsible for each strike three. It was an eye-opening effort that came eight weeks before what's almost certain to be an assignment to the 40-man roster, and seven hours after West had addressed 70 minor league teammates in the home clubhouse, talking about how his decision to turn his attitude around was as central to the turnaround of his career as was the organization's idea to move him from third base to the mound.
Jordan Akins and Ronald Guzman will experience failure and adversity on their way up. Every player and every coach here who played the game is a testament to that indisputable fact. One club official suggested yesterday that there's enough talent in this organization that you could simply roll the balls and bats onto the field and five of the players here at Instructs would get to the big leagues.
The idea is to make that number 15, or more, and part of that effort in Arizona gets played out not only in Surprise Stadium and on the back fields a couple hundred yards away, but also under the roof in between, in rooms where the Rangers once helped build Ian Kinsler and Elvis Andrus into winners and taught Derek Holland and Neftali Feliz how to prepare.
In those rooms Texas now lays out a program for Akins and Guzman and West and dozens of others who will gather Friday, after a work day in camp and an Advanced IL game against a Reds-Indians squad in the stadium, not to watch "Moneyball" but instead to watch the players competing at the level they aspire to reach kick off a second straight year of Major League playoff baseball, another part of the process in helping to inspire these kids to get to the place in this game that they're all in this for.