Perfect Rangers: Texas First Basemen Passing in the Night by Larry Herold

Playwright Larry Herold, out of Dallas, Texas, is a co-founder of Times Square Playwrights in New York City and a member of the Playwrights’ Center and the Dramatists Guild. His play, The Sports Page, won the 2010 Texas Playwriting Competition, as well as numerous additional honors. Learn more about Larry and his work at larryherold.com.

So Rafael Palmeiro gets drafted in the first round by the Cubs in ’85. Not as a first baseman, but as an outfielder. That’s how he makes the All-Star team in ’88, as a reserve outfielder. But the Cubs need a closer, so they ship Palmeiro – 6-feet, 180 pounds, hitter of 25 home runs over 3 seasons – to the hapless Texas Rangers for Mitch Williams. Williams gets 36 saves, Cubs make the playoffs, good for them.

Meanwhile, down in Texas, the Rangers install Palmeiro at first base. From the stands he looks like a very likable guy. Easy-going. Harmless. A manly moustache, a smile now and again, and a pretty darn good glove. With Bobby Valentine managing, Nolan Ryan winning 16, Palmeiro starts 142 games at first for Texas and hits 8 home runs.

Four years later, in ’93, the Rangers are still hapless and Palmeiro, now known as Raffy, hits 37 home runs. We don’t know exactly how Raffy jumped from 8 home runs to 37. What we do know is this: on August 31, 1992, Jose Canseco was traded from the Oakland A’s to the Texas Rangers.

However Palmeiro did it, his timing was perfect: he was a free agent. And the Rangers let him walk. The next five years, using whatever magical combo of maturity, weight-lifting, Canseco supplies and diluted expansion pitching you care to believe, Raffy hits 182 home runs, all of them for the Baltimore Orioles. In other words, the free-swinging Rangers had one of the very best-hitting first basemen in the game, and they let him get away.

This would become a theme for the boys from Arlington. Let’s take a quick walk down the trail of tears that is former Texas first basemen: in ’01, Carlos Pena played 16 games at first for Texas and hit 3 home runs. Last weekend he slapped #233 over the ivy at Wrigley. Travis Hafner played 3 games at first for the boys in ’02 and hit a single home run. Last month, in a different uniform, he launched #180. In ’04 and ’05, Adrian Gonzalez started 17 games at first for Texas and hit 7 home runs. Sunday, making like Roy Hobbs, he drove #172 off the light tower above the Green Monster.

Anyway, Texas lets Raffy go in ’93. People say he’s soft. Never growls. Never spits. Thinking they finally have a shot at the playoffs, Texas replaces him with a very serious cat from the National League. He has black stuff under his eyes and something in his lower lip. His uniform fits a little too snug, his jaw is set on go. He doesn’t seem to enjoy playing exactly. He’s more like Sgt. Rock charging up a hill through a hail of shrapnel. Plenty a time for smilin’ when we’re done, ladies. He’s the ultimate badass, Will Clark.

Weird thing #1: a few years before this, Clark and Palmeiro were teammates at Mississippi State. Word is, they didn’t get along. Show of hands if you’re surprised. Anyone? Bueller?

So now Clark is 30 years old, Juan Gonzalez is 24, Pudge Rodriguez is 22. Here we go. The strike gets in everybody’s way, but in short order Texas gets a new stadium, a new manager and in ’96 they win the AL West. Holy smokes, Texas is in the playoffs. Clark, with a stare that says, “You want some of me?”, starts 116 games at first, knocks in 72 runs and the Rangers are no longer mired in mediocrity.

In 1998, a person of questionable judgment, Tom Hicks, takes over the team, but the Rangers win 88 games and the West. Clark drives in 102. But his contract is up and suddenly, 23 home runs and 169 hits are insufficient. They let him go. But who will play first for the bulked-up Rangers? Let’s see, there’s a free agent who hit 43 home runs last year. Let’s get him! What’s his name? Rafael Palmeiro!

So Raffy, no longer a skinny outfielder, returns in ’99, hits 47 home runs, somehow wins a Gold Glove as a DH and part-time first baseman, is an All-Star who finishes fifth in the MVP race. All hail the amazing Raffy and the Rangers win the West yet again. (Alas, the joy in Mudville is short-lived. If you want to know why Texas beating the Yankees in 2010 for the AL crown was so sweet, you have only to look at their 90’s run: Texas made the playoffs 3 times and all 3 times lost to the Yankees, winning only one single bleepin’ game.)

Don’t you love how baseball folds back on itself, the names crossing and re-crossing until you end up with Ted Williams being pushed aside as manager of the Rangers by Whitey Herzog, who is himself soon replaced by Billy Martin? Weird thing #2: the Orioles, having let Palmeiro go back to Texas, need a first baseman. Of course they sign Will Clark, who spends a lonely year in Baltimore. Never accused of using drugs to improve his performance, Clark is hired by the Cardinals to fill in for an injured – wait for it – Mark McGwire. Clark takes a curtain call and at 36 walks away from the game, his unwillingness to hang on and pile up some numbers probably keeping him out of the Hall of Fame.

And Raffy? He labors in Texas for five years, then heads right back to Baltimore. He gets his 3000 hits and his 500 home runs, and on March 17, 2005, tells a Congressional hearing, “I have never used steroids, period.” In August of that year – weird thing #3 – Baltimore’s “Rafael Palmeiro Appreciation Day” has to be cancelled when the honoree tests positive for steroids.

Now that, my friends, is a steep fall from grace. What are we supposed to make of it? I don’t know. But in refreshing my memories of Raffy, I found something interesting.

Did you know he was born in Cuba? Neither did I. His father Jose was a center fielder with 11 years of amateur ball under his belt. In 1965, he didn’t like the way the wind was blowing in Havana. He asked the Cuban government if he could leave, and six years (!) later they said yes. The Palmeiro family escaped the desolation and poverty of Castro’s Cuba for Florida, in part so that Rafael would have a shot at playing baseball for money.

In 1989, the year he hit 8 home runs for Texas, Raffy earned $212,000 playing baseball. Ten years later, he hit 47 home runs and earned $8.8 million. Think about it. If you could increase your annual salary by 41 times, no matter what you had to do, wouldn’t you at least consider it?

Thanks to a 2005 Chicago Tribune article by Fred Mitchell, the always amazing Baseball-Reference.com, the USAToday salary data base, and the fount of knowledge that is Wikipedia for helping me fill in the gaps.

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2 Responses to Perfect Rangers: Texas First Basemen Passing in the Night by Larry Herold

  1. Steve Kiwi says:

    Here’s another thread for you: I read a story a while back that said Will Clark was going to sign for the Orioles in 1993, but he went to a dinner with the new owners and a drunk Tom Clancy annoyed him so much he changed his mind. He turned to his other suitor, the Rangers, opening the door for Palmeiro to take the Baltimore job.

  2. Larry says:

    Wow. Sounds like that crazy old story about Yawkey and MacPhail getting drunk together and agreeing to trade Ted and DiMaggio. Then waking up the next day and changing their minds.

    Other odd stuff I didn’t have room for: they have both been inducted into various Mississippi Halls of Fame, but never, as far as I can tell, on the same day.