Oliver focuses on goal at hand — a ring
There are two empty bottles on the highest shelf of Darren Oliver’s locker in the home clubhouse at Rangers Ballpark: Domaine Ste. Michelle sparkling wine and Korbel Champagne.
They are souvenirs of a successful October. One was emptied during the Texas Rangers’ celebration after defeating the Tampa Bay Rays in the first round of the American League playoffs, the other upon clinching the pennant at home last Saturday night.
The bottles are situated close together. That is by design.
There is room for company.
“I need one more,” Oliver says with a smile, “and I’ll be good.”
Just to be clear: Oliver wasn’t saying that he will retire if he wins his first World Series ring after 18 seasons in the big leagues. Believe me. I checked. When speaking with a 41-year-old left-handed relief pitcher, that subject is never too far away.
Of course, Oliver has no qualms about acknowledging the possibility that this could be his final season in the majors. In fact, he’s quite open about it. Some professional athletes pretend that they will be able to play forever, that their skills will never erode. Oliver, one of the most relatable players in the major leagues, is the opposite of that.
Oliver says he would like to come back in 2012. His performance — 5-5 with a career-best 2.29 ERA in 61 appearances during the regular season — suggests that the Rangers would have interest.
But before he makes any decision, Oliver will consult with his wife and two sons, Brock, 11, and Maxwell, 9. They will, in effect, have a family vote. And when that happens, it’s rarely 2-2. “It usually swings one way or the other,” Oliver says.
So, what does the early polling data suggest?
“I don’t know yet,” Oliver says. “I talked to my kids the other day. It was kind of funny. (Brock) thinks if I told (Maxwell) that I was only going to play one more year, he might be OK with it, because he could see the light at the end of the tunnel.
“The younger one doesn’t want me to keep hanging on, hanging on, hanging on.”
That’s ironic: Maxwell is probably too young to remember that his dad was all but retired … six years ago. Darren Oliver didn’t plan to hang on at all, after being released by three organizations — the Rockies, Diamondbacks and Cubs — during a 2005 season spent entirely in the minor leagues.
The baseball winter meetings after that season were held in Dallas, where Oliver has lived since his prior tenure with the Rangers, from 1993 to 1998. Oliver had no intention to resume his career, but his agents invited him to stop by for a drink. Curious about what the winter meetings were actually like, Oliver stopped by the sprawling lobby of the Anatole Hotel.
“I had never been,” Oliver says. “Once I got there I was like, ‘This is a joke. All they do is sit around, drink, and tell stories.’ That’s all they do.”
Perhaps, but there is a purpose behind most of it: While Oliver was there, he saw Mets executives Sandy Johnson and Bryan Lambe. Before long, he had an invitation to spring training. He revived his career in New York during the 2006 season, making 45 appearances during the regular season. He pitched in two more games that postseason, including six shutout innings in Game 3 of the NLCS at Busch Stadium — where this year’s World Series opens Wednesday.
Oliver has become an October regular since his brief “retirement.” He has pitched in 27 postseason games, and 26 of them came after his fortuitous meeting with Johnson and Lambe.
Oliver’s only postseason appearance prior to that was a start in Game 3 of the 1996 AL Division Series against New York — the first home playoff game in Texas franchise history. Oliver entered the ninth inning with a one-run lead before the Yankees rallied to win, 3-2.
Not long ago, Oliver reminisced about the ’96 start with a man who was part owner of the Rangers at the time: former President George W. Bush.
Bush, who frequently watches games from the front row at Rangers Ballpark with friend Nolan Ryan, spotted Oliver on the field before Game 1 of the ALCS and struck up a conversation. Oliver said Bush remarked about his longevity in the game, saying, “You’re one of the old-timers here now.”
In fact, Oliver is riding a streak of six consecutive playoff appearances — ’06 with the Mets, ’07-’09 with the Angels, and ’10-’11 with the Rangers. It’s the kind of thing that makes it hard to walk away from the game.
But one never knows what a world title might do to Oliver’s plans. He didn’t play in the World Series until last year, at age 40. Now he’s back, with just the right amount of room left on his Champagne shelf.