It’s still February, but fans in the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex are looking to April 5 with anticipation, curiosity and perhaps a little ire. That is when the Texas Rangers open their home schedule, and that is when Josh Hamilton — once popular, now pilloried — returns to Rangers Ballpark as a member of the rival Los Angeles Angels.
How will Hamilton be received? Boos? Cheers? Both? That is a matter for DFW residents to decide. So, I asked one of them Monday afternoon.
The 36-year-old plays for the Philadelphia Phillies now, and he can list for you all the things he loves about that — his teammates, their attitudes, the opportunity to play third base, the chance to win. “I’m glad I’m here,” Young told me Monday. “This is the place I want to be.” But his family still lives in Texas. His memories do, too.
So, about Hamilton . . .
“I don’t know, man,” Young said with a sigh. “I was following what happened maybe a week ago. I wouldn’t be shocked if they booed him, but I hope they give him the positive recognition he deserves.
“Josh is a fantastic player. Some of the stuff that’s been written about him is really unfair. The guy played hard. He was right in the middle of our organizational resurgence. I hope they respect him for that. Going to a division rival certainly doesn’t help matters. I understand that. But that’s the way the game goes. He got a great offer from a team and jumped on it.”
To borrow Young’s phrasing, what happened maybe a week ago was that Hamilton told the Dallas CBS-TV affiliate that Dallas/Fort Worth is “not a true baseball town” and that fans there “got a little spoiled” by the Rangers’ consecutive trips to the World Series in 2010 and 2011.
The irony, of course, is that Young and Hamilton helped to make DFW more passionate about baseball than ever before — going, in Young’s words, “from a .500 team to a perennial power.” But now the two of them are gone, having left one week apart in December — Young via trade to Philadelphia, Hamilton through free agency to Orange County.
“Looking back at what we’ve done over the last few years, it’s blown up (in popularity),” Young said of DFW’s status as a baseball market. “Hopefully it stays that way. It’s a great place to play. They love when their teams win. We were there when the Mavs won, and that place went crazy. I was there for two World Series, and that was the loudest ballpark I ever played in — hopefully until this year.
“I think, deep down, it’s always going to be viewed as a football town, first and foremost. L.A. is a basketball town. New York is a baseball town. Boston is a baseball town. Everyone’s got the way they view certain cities. I actually don’t think Josh meant that as a negative. He just said, ‘Hey, listen, it’s probably more of a football town, first and foremost.’ That doesn’t mean it’s not a baseball town, because there are great baseball fans. … We were playing in 100-degree heat, and they’re there.”
Well said. Young gets it. He always did, during a dozen productive seasons as a Texas Ranger.
Stars come and go from cities, few appreciating the bond between player and fan until long after they depart. Not so with Young. Less than three months after the Rangers ended the perpetual rumors by shipping him to Philadelphia — with his permission, because of a full no-trade clause — Young has a fully formed understanding of the legacy he left behind. When Young’s agent, Dan Lozano, called him during baseball’s winter meetings to let him know a deal with the Phillies was on the table, the first thing he checked was whether the Phillies would visit Texas this year.
“I would have loved it, mostly from the fan (standpoint),” Young said. “You’re there for so long and never get a chance to say goodbye.”
The fans surely want the same opportunity. With Young, who will earn $16 million this season in the final year of his deal, there’s none of the bitterness that accompanied Hamilton’s departure. Young agreed to the trade after his role had been steadily reduced over the past few years — shortstop to third base, third base to designated hitter/utility man. Young adjusted his timing at the plate near the end of last season, resulting in a robust .838 OPS from Sept. 1 through the end of the year. But 2012 was Young’s worst season in a decade, and it became apparent the Rangers’ plans no longer included the franchise’s all-time hits leader. “I had a hunch,” Young said.
Though Young won’t come out and say so, the hunch probably had something to do with his awkward stay on the trading block immediately after the 2010 World Series and frosty relationship with the Rangers’ front office since that winter. Young has never been a favorite of statistically minded analysts because of relatively low walk totals and questions about his defense. But he has the enduring respect of his peers. One of them — Cliff Lee — spoke up on Young’s behalf Monday.
Lee played with Young in Texas three seasons ago, and the two have been reunited in Philadelphia. Lee called Young “the perfect teammate” and said the on-again, off-again effort to trade Young “baffled a lot of people around that organization.”
“He was the heart and soul of that team,” Lee said. “I think they borderline took him for granted there.”
When told of Lee’s remarks, Young said, “I appreciate Cliff saying that. He’s one of my favorite teammates and a good friend. That’s what teammates do — pick each other up, have each other’s backs. I would do the same for him. … As far as my time in Texas, I really do focus on the positive stuff. I had great teammates there. The fans were great to me for 12 years. I’ll always appreciate that. But now it’s in my rearview mirror. I have a new challenge in front of me. I couldn’t be more excited to be part of this team, this group of guys.”
In other words: Thanks, Cliff. But I’m not going to be the one to perpetuate this controversy.
Yet, Lee’s comments will resonate at the Rangers’ camp in Surprise, Ariz., some 2,000 miles away, just as Hamilton’s did. That’s what happens after a post-World Series diaspora. The Rangers should be one of the American League’s best teams again this year, but so many players their supporters connected with — Young, Hamilton, Lee, Mike Napoli, Darren Oliver — are elsewhere. DFW baseball fans probably feel more emotionally attached to those ex-Rangers than many players on the current roster.
If a sellout crowd in Arlington boos Hamilton that first Friday in April, it will be in part because of how great he made them feel for five memorable seasons. In a sense, to have fans react with such anger to a player’s departure is one of the highest honors in sports. The new arrivals — Lance Berkman, A.J. Pierzynski, Joakim Soria — will need to put the hearts of Rangers fans through an October or two in order for the public to curse when they leave.
Young said he has great memories of his postseasons in Texas — despite the two World Series defeats and excruciating Game 6 loss in St. Louis two years ago. The team that was one strike from becoming a world champion has broken up. Young no longer has the chance to win a ring, in his prime, as a member of the team with which he forged his identity as a perennial All-Star.
There’s finality in that, to be grieved and appreciated.
“There are still times I look back at that game and see it in my dreams a little bit,” Young said, his thoughts drifting back to Game 6 for a moment. “I think it’ll be that way for the rest of my life. But in a weird way, it makes me really love the game more. I love playing baseball. I love to compete. That’s what this sport is all about. That’s why it’s the best game.”