T.R.'s Memoirs: Johnny Oates, the man behind the first great Texas Rangers teams (Part II)
The first three division titles in club history were claimed in a four-year stretch as the Yankees dynasty was beginning.
Editor’s note: T.R. Sullivan retired after covering the Rangers for 32 years for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and MLB.com. He is sharing his memories and history of the Rangers for this website. This week: A three-part look at Johnny Oates era of the Rangers.
The 1996 season was the Magnus Opus for Doug Melvin, Johnny Oates and Tom Schieffer. The same could also be said for former general manager Tom Grieve. Melvin was always consistent in acknowledging he was fortunate Grieve had left him a considerable amount of talent after being fired as general manager.
That nucleus of talent included Juan Gonzalez, Dean Palmer and Ivan Rodriguez, a future Hall of Famer who was beginning to develop into an offensive force. Right-hander Roger Pavlik was a 15-game winner and an All-Star in 1996. Will Clark had been signed to a five-year deal in the 1993-94 offseason.
Melvin assembled the rest, acquiring right-handers Ken Hill and Bobby Witt for the rotation, right-handers Mike Henneman and Jeff Russell, and left-handers Ed Vosberg and Dennis Cook for the bullpen. During the 1996 season, Melvin swung trades for right-handed starter John Burkett and left-handed reliever Mike Stanton.
Melvin, prior to the 1995 season, had signed infielder Mark McLemore and designated hitter Mickey Tettleton. Both had played in Baltimore and Oates knew them well. Darryl Hamilton was signed to play center field.
Oates also made several key personnel decisions.
Rusty Greer had a nice rookie season for the Rangers, hitting .314 with a .410 on-base percentage and a .487 slugging percentage under Kevin Kennedy. When Oates took over, there was still some question if Greer, a left-handed hitter, could play every day.
Oates watched him in 1995 and decided he could. On the last day of the season, after the victory over the Mariners, Oates took Greer aside and told him next season he would be the everyday left fielder with Gonzalez in right.
Oates also decided Darren Oliver was something special. A third-round pick in 1988, Oliver’s development had been set back by multiple arm surgeries. He split time between the bullpen and the rotation in 1995, pitching in 17 games before undergoing season-ending surgery to repair a partially torn left rotator cuff. Oates decided Oliver belonged in the rotation, and he ended up winning 14 games in 1996.
Benji Gil, the Rangers No. 1 pick in 1991, was returning in 1996 as the shortstop. He was 23 and had hit .219 in 1995, his first full season in the majors.
The Rangers brought veterans Kurt Stillwell, Rene Gonzales and Kevin Elster in on non-roster deals as depth.
Then, Gil developed serious back trouble and needed surgery to repair a herniated disk. That left the Rangers without a shortstop, and nobody thought Elster was the answer. He was 31, didn’t move well and had played in just 49 major-league games in the past four years, hitting a combined .157. His career batting average was .220.
As the spring progressed, the Rangers were getting ready to release Elster. But Oates saw something else. He saw a guy with great hands who could turn a double play. That’s all Oates wanted from his shortstop. Elster got the job and shocked everybody that season by hitting 28 home runs with 99 RBIs.
Everything fell into place. The offense scored 928 runs, the rotation combined for 75 wins and the Rangers led the American League in team defense by setting a club record for the fewest errors (87) in a season.
The Rangers, who were in first place for all but three days during the season, ended up winning the first division title in club history. Then they lost in four games to the Yankees in an absolutely riveting division series.
That was Joe Torre’s first year as Yankees manager. He is now in the Hall of Fame after leading the Yankees to four World Series titles. They won it all in ’96 and three in a row in 1998-2000.
The Rangers almost derailed the Yankees dynasty at the start. They came close to beating the Yankees in the 1996 A.L. Division Series. If the Rangers had prevailed in that series, there’s a good chance Torre doesn’t survive the infamous wrath of owner George Steinbrenner.
Burkett pitched the Rangers to a 6-2 victory in the opener. The Rangers led 4-1 after three innings in the second game, but the Yankees rallied for a 5-4 victory in 12 innings. The Yankees’ first run scored because the Rangers failed to two double plays in the second inning, highly unusual for that team.
Game 3 was the biggest one. It’s really the only time I had reason to second-guess Oates, but the manager was truly facing a dilemma.
The Rangers had a 2-1 lead going into the ninth with Oliver on the mound. Oliver was at 103 pitches, and had allowed just four hits and two walks with three strikeouts. He had also retired eight straight hitters.
Derek Jeter, a right-handed hitter, was leading off for the Yankees, and Oates had a rested bullpen at his disposal. Henneman was his closer and had saved 31 games during the season. But he also had a 5.79 ERA and was hardly considered a sure thing.
Oliver gave up singles to Jeter and Tim Raines, putting runners on first and third. Henneman came in, but the Yankees scored twice and pulled out a 3-2 victory.
“Those who follow us know we automatically don’t go to whoever is supposed to be the closer,” Oates said afterward. “I thought the way Darren pitched the seventh and eighth, he wasn’t tired. He was throwing the ball well.”
The Rangers took a 4-0 lead after three innings in Game 4 and couldn’t hold it. The Yankees rallied for a 6-4 victory, and the Rangers’ season was over.
One step back, two forward
That winter, the Rangers decided they had the financial resources to pursue one big-name free agent. Both reliever John Wetteland and starter Roger Clemens were available, but the bullpen problems against the Yankees settled the issue for the Rangers. They went for Wetteland, signing him to four years and $23.8 million. Clemens went to Toronto for four years and $40 million, although he stayed there for just two seasons before demanding a trade.
The Rangers felt Wetteland would be the “final piece to the puzzle.” It was also a major financial commitment from an ownership group still carefully watching the bottom line.
Signing Wetteland kept the Rangers from retaining Hamilton and Elster. Both left as free agents, but Melvin felt they could be replaced by two young players. The Rangers had Damon Buford, excellent defensively, to play center and Gil at shortstop now that he was recovered from his back issues.
Oates didn’t see it that way. Oates wanted veteran players with track records. Young, unproven players made him nervous.
That spring training, Oates quietly expressed his desire for two players. He wanted John Valentin, the Red Sox shortstop who was being pushed aside by Nomar Garciaparra, and Padres center fielder Steve Finley. Oates thought the Padres might be willing to unload their contracts.
He got neither player. Buford could run and catch the ball, but lost his job because of a .224 batting average and a .287 on-base percentage. The Rangers acquired center fielder Tom Goodwin from the Royals on July 25 for Palmer. Gil played the whole year for the Rangers, but they brought back Elster after he spent 1997 in Pittsburgh.
The Rangers were 77-85 in 1997. Valentin and Finley would not have helped. The Rangers’ starting pitching fell apart.
So, Melvin went to work and made a couple of deals that would put the Rangers back on top. Rick Helling was reacquired from the Marlins on Aug. 12, 1997, and Aaron Sele was picked up in a trade with the Red Sox that winter.
Sele and Helling gave the Rangers a 1-2 combination at the top of their otherwise thin rotation. One radio station came up with the slogan, “Sele and Helling, and then comes the shelling.”
But the Rangers were able to slug their way to a division title in both 1998 and 1999. They just weren’t good enough to get by the Yankees, who were at the peak of their dynasty.
Tom Hicks was determined to change all that.
Tom Hicks was a high-powered private investor and owner of the Dallas Stars who bought the Rangers on Jan. 7, 1998. He was officially approved June 16, 1999. The Bush-Rose group was gone.
Originally there was the obligatory claim that Schieffer would stay on as club president, but that didn’t last long. Less than a year after Hicks took control, Schieffer was out as club president. Jim Lites, who was president of the Stars, took over.
Lites was a top-notch hockey guy from Detroit. He had run both the Red Wings and the Stars, but the Rangers were his first foray into baseball. Lites properly professed his love for baseball, but he also said the Tigers made a mistake by trading pitcher John Smoltz because “he’s won over 400 games in his career.”
No, Smoltz, age 32 at the time, did not have more wins than Nolan Ryan, Warren Spahn or Christy Mathewson. Not then, not later in his career. But why quibble over a couple hundred wins here and there.
The real point here is the Rangers had a new owner and that made Oates nervous. Really nervous.
Time under tension
As Oates said, “A guy who has made that much money in his life has to have stepped on more than a few people on his way to the top.”
Now, understand Oates was more to blame for any tension between him and the new owner. Hicks did not come out breathing fire after taking over. He wanted to win, but he expressed his complete support for Oates. He said nothing that could have been construed as a threat to Oates’ job security.
Johnny was just Johnny. He still had those scars from dealing with Angelos in Baltimore.
The Rangers squeaked out a division title in 1998 with Gonzalez winning the MVP but were swept by the Yankees in the division series, scoring just one run in three games. The Rangers shrugged it off. That Yankees team won 114 games that season and was clearly unbeatable.
In 1999, it was going to be a different story. The Rangers ran away with the division and vowed postseason would be different. Most notably, Rafael Palmeiro had been re-signed as a free agent to replace Clark at first base.
Clark may have been a great clubhouse leader, but Palmeiro hit .324 with 47 home runs and 148 RBIs. He ended up being named the Rangers Player of the Year by the local BBWAA. The national BBWAA thought differently. Ivan Rodriguez was selected as the AL MVP.
Actually, the more significant voting was the fans balloting for the All-Star Game. As the voting progressed and was updated through the summer, it was becoming obvious Gonzalez would not be elected to the AL starting lineup. He was, however, expected to be selected as a reserve by Torre.
Ken Griffey Jr. was the leading vote-getter, but the next three were all Cleveland Indians: Manny Ramirez, Kenny Lofton and David Justice. Gonzalez was a distant fifth. Gonzalez also hadn’t forgotten Torre snubbed him as a reserve in 1997, choosing Yankees outfielders Bernie Williams and Paul O’Neill instead.
Gonzalez was clearly not happy. If the American League’s MVP wasn’t going to be in the starting lineup, well, to hell with it.
“I’d love to go if the fans pick me,” Gonzalez said. “But if the fans don’t pick me, I’m not going to go.”
The Rangers weren’t happy with the decision. Neither was Major League Baseball. Melvin and others pleaded with Gonzalez to change his mind. They were unsuccessful. Gonzalez went home for three days.
Oates? He didn’t care. If Gonzalez wanted three days at home, that was fine with him. Palmeiro and Rodriguez were great players, but there was no doubt who The Man was in Arlington.
Gonzalez’s refusal to play in the All-Star Game served as a backdrop for another story that came up later that summer.