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Not a lone star lineup

March 16

PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- On the last mile of the run down Toledo Blade Boulevard to the ballpark, there are signs along the road that offer lots for "$75 down, $75 a month." Then you pull into the players' parking lot and there's Rafael Palmeiro's Ferrari and a huge black BMW and ... well ... this is not the home of the Devil Rays. Welcome to the big time, in a small-town field.

Juan Gonzalez
It's not a stretch to say Juan Gonzalez is thrilled to be back in Texas.

"It's really amazing when you walk into that clubhouse and start looking around," says Frank Catalanotto. "I think a lot of young players look down at that end and are in awe."

Pudge Rodriguez and Alex Rodriguez, barring the unforeseen, are Hall of Famers at two critical skill positions. Palmeiro, within 515 hits of 3,000, 53 homers of 500, 30 RBI of 1,500, 12 doubles of 500 and 614 total bases of 5,000, is within hailing distance of Cooperstown. Juan Gonzalez may have had too many injuries to make the Hall, but he's a two-time MVP who has averaged 124 RBI the last 11 years and has hit 40 homers five times.

"Sick," says one young player. "Downright sick how good this team is."

Everyone knows that Tom Hicks has authorized John Hart to build this team the way Mrs. Ken Lay would have furnished the Lay Family Dream Home.

"There are a lot of things that make this team different than a lot of those that get big buildups," says Pudge Rodriguez. "First, there's a good feeling here among the so-called star players. Raffy, Alex and I got along great last year, no jealousies, and we all really wanted Juan back here. This is where he belongs, this is home to him. We know he turned down a lot more money in Detroit and he could have made a lot more this winter with the Mets, but Juan is never about money, and everyone on this team knows that; he's about knocking in runs and being nice to people.

"Second, there isn't as much pressure on us. The Rangers made a lot of moves in the offseason. John Hart got Juan, he signed Chan Ho Park, he got a bunch of power arms in the bullpen, but no one expects us to win. That takes a lot of pressure (off), and makes us really want to prove that this group of players is too good not to win."

Pudge, who Yankees manager Joe Torre says is the best catcher ever, should add that the way he has handled his situation is another positive factor. Rodriguez is a free agent at the end of this season, and his annual average salary is $17.7 million less than that of A-Rod, but he does not complain or make it an issue. "We'll see what happens," says Pudge. "All I want to do is win. Coming off knee surgery, I've had to work as hard as I've ever worked in spring training. I feel good, so good that I know really that at 30 years old I want to catch seven more years. I know I can. I've worked very hard to keep my legs in shape to do that, and I plan to catch seven more years. I hope I catch them in Texas, because it's a great place to play and people have been good to me."

As the Dallas Morning News' esteemed writer Evan Grant says, "You cannot handle a situation better than the way Pudge has handled his this spring. He's been unbelievable in what some players would turn into a messy situation."

"You don't get jealousies among big-name players here because it is home, such a good place to play," says Gonzalez. "For me, it is the place where I have peace of mind. This is where I grew up, where I'm comfortable. We are all very comfortable playing in Texas, and that creates a very positive atmosphere."

In Gonzalez's case, it is also comforting to be back with hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo, his minor-league manager when Gonzalez was 16, a man who knows his hitting fundamentals and hot-buttons better than any man alive.

"This team is a lot more than four or five guys," says Gonzalez. "This is the best lineup I've ever hit in, and I've hit in some pretty good lineups in Texas and last year in Cleveland. This is incredible."

"Michael Young could hit leadoff on most good teams," says Pudge. "Here, he's ninth. I don't know if I'm going to bat second or sixth. It doesn't matter. If I hit second, I'm going to get all kinds of pitches to hit in front of Alex, Juan and Raffy. If I bat sixth behind them, I'm going to get all kinds of RBI opportunities."

Catalanotto, who teammate Bill Haselman says "will be in the top 10 in hitting the next 10 years," can lead off. Carl Everett is in the mix, either second, sixth or seventh. Gabe Kapler and Rusty Greer will play left.

And then there's Hank Blalock. "He's George Brett," says Palmeiro. "There are days when I'm shocked that he's 21 years old," says manager Jerry Narron. "But he's so mature, so respectful. And he can really hit."

At age 20 last season, Blalock batted .380 in the Florida State League, .327 in the Texas League, with 128 RBI and a .425 on-base percentage. He grew up outside of San Diego in a baseball family, and somehow he came up with this swing and this presence. "He competes like crazy," says one scout who has watched him this spring as well as last fall in Arizona. "I like the George Brett comparison. Look, Sean Burroughs is a great young hitter. But Hank Blalock to me is the best young hitter coming into the game."

"He's going to be way down in that order," says Palmeiro, "with some pretty good hitters to learn from. And what's good about him, is that he wants to learn."

I don't think there's any mystery here, we need another starter ... We've all talked to Mr. Hicks. He knows it, and John Hart will get it done. We can score 10 runs a game, but in the end, it will come down to pitching.
Juan Gonzalez

This is a team that on some of those hot summer nights munching on the back end of the Baltimore or Kansas City bullpens could end up scoring 100 runs. Pudge stops teams from running, particularly when two out of every five days they start lefties (Kenny Rogers and Doug Davis) who are very tough to run on. The infield defense is very good with A-Rod and Young in the middle, and Narron insists "our outfield defense will be the best it's been in years. Juan is a lot better than he's given credit for, Carl will be fine in center and when you have Kapler in left, that's pretty good."

OK, now we get around to it. Pitching.

"I don't think there's any mystery here; we need another starter," says Gonzalez. "A number one-type starter. We've all talked to Mr. Hicks. He knows it, and John Hart will get it done. We can score 10 runs a game, but in the end, it will come down to pitching, especially in our division, where Seattle and Oakland have such good pitching. If we are going to win the pennant, we have to get by the Yankee pitching. What we have is better than what people think, but ..."

Park is a very good pitcher who the last five years has averaged 15 wins and a 3.79 ERA. But as teammates point out, he has been pitching in Dodger Stadium, and this is his first experience with American League baseball. "It may be," says one veteran player, "a serious adjustment."

Pudge insists that Rogers is not only healthy, but throwing "four miles an hour harder than at any time the last couple of years." The hope for Davis is that he learns to be able to locate his fastball consistently on his non-dominant side, on the outside corner away from right-handers, which would make his cut fastball a winning pitch. Some players insist that Ismael Valdes will be fine with this team because he knows he can go six innings, give up three or four runs and hand a lead to the bullpen.

The '99 Rangers did win the AL West with a 5.07 ERA, the worst division-winning ERA, right ahead of the '98 Rangers (4.99), the '99 Indians (4.89), the '97 Mariners (4.78) and 2000 Yankees (4.76). Obviously, the Oakland and Seattle pitching and ballparks have changed the division requirements, and there is also the knowledge that other than the 2000 Yanks -- whose 4.76 ERA is the worst of any world champion since division play began in 1969 -- only the '96 Yanks (4.65) and '87 Twins (4.63) have won it all and had an ERA as high as 4.22.

"We've got power arms in the bullpen that can stop these high-scoring games," says Pudge. "We blew a lot of games in the late innings (well, the bullpen ERA was better than the starters' -- 5.19 to 6.00), but with Jeff Zimmerman, John Rocker, Jay Powell, Todd Van Poppel ... we'll be much better. In those high-scoring games, we have those guys to stop games."

Hart has been through this before in Cleveland, with big, star-quality offensive machines and power arms in the bullpens, teams whose starters just weren't quite good enough. He vows he will get another quality starter or two, but right now apparently is not willing to give up Blalock. There have been rumors that Toronto would do Vernon Wells and Chris Carpenter for Blalock, Mario Ramos and Kapler. "There is no way we will trade Blalock," says one coach. "It will not happen," insists one of Hart's assistants. "Blalock is going to be a superstar."

Out here in the dusty nowhere of Port Charlotte, just down the road from the $75 lots, there have been no Everett or Rocker or Hideki Irabu implosions, no controversies. The players know this is a Ferrari race team that's going to be a concessionaire's and fan's dream.

They know between Blalock, Mark Teixeira, Kevin Mench and some of their other young players, Hart has talent to trade, and that when he was in Cleveland he traded Brian Giles, Jeromy Burnitz, Sean Casey and Richie Sexson to win now. And that in Texas, it is all about now, because Hicks isn't going to invest in a $110-120 million payroll and finish third, not when the NHL owners say he has suddenly become the biggest shut-it-down hawk in the league.

So strap yourself into Raffy's Ferrari and enjoy the ride, because the kids across the clubhouse are right. This is one sick team, in need of one or two healthy starting pitchers.

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