Temporary separation

On his honeymoon, Alex Rodriguez called his new manager, Buck Showalter, to talk baseball. It was a perfect marriage. Two baseball gym rats, one who plays the game better than anyone alive, the other who knows the game better than anyone alive. Together, they were going to help turn the Rangers into contenders again.

A year later, the honeymoon is over. The Rangers finished in last place in 2003, their rebuilding plan is still short on pitching, Rodriguez is a trade possibility (albeit unlikely), and the A-Rod-Showalter connection isn't clicking as it once did, partly because of a relatively inconsequential firing (not done by Showalter) of a clubhouse attendant who was one of Rodriguez's friends.

This is not a Keyshawn Johnson-Jon Gruden thing. This is not a major war between player and manager, a "if he stays, I go'' type of situation. Not even close. This is not a divorce, just a temporary separation. This is fixable. This is about two good guys who want to win and one, Rodriguez, who is sick of losing and is not overly encouraged by the team's direction.

It's not necessarily A-Rod's and Showalter's fault that they're at odds. It's the Rangers' fault for giving Rodriguez $252 million and, more importantly, for giving him the idea that with the contract came the right to wield his influence and affect change.

Rodriguez once could persuade Rangers owner Tom Hicks. Now, he can't, at least not like he used to. And he doesn't have any power over Showalter or Rangers general manager John Hart. When A-Rod suggests, say, that the team should sign free-agent center fielder Mike Cameron or trade for Royals center fielder Carlos Beltran, those ideas would be considered, but he doesn't have that pull. Now, not everything is being run past A-Rod.

This is partly the influence of Showalter, who is, ultimately, the son of a high school principal. He believes in a chain of command: players play, managers manage. Showalter is anal retentive, stubborn, a perfectionist, a control freak. Call him what you like, but he knows how to win, and he knows how to run a team. Showalter once said that if he weren't a manager, he would be a groundskeeper: As a boy, he and his father would manicure the field until it was flawless. The white foul lines that young Nathan Showalter drew were always straight and pure.

This was the criticism of Showalter when he managed in Arizona -- everything had to be too straight: the "A" on the cap was too big, so he sent them back. In Texas, Showalter has loosened up. He has given players, especially A-Rod, the freedom to operate. He no longer requires everyone, including A-Rod, to be on the top step of the dugout every night for the national anthem. He listens to his players, especially Rodriguez, but if an idea has no merit, he discounts it. A-Rod is bright, and he cares, and he really wants to win, but being A-Rod doesn't mean he's always right.

Despite the recent troubles, Showalter has enormous respect for Rodriguez. He has been the game's best player for several years, and he is on his way to becoming one of the greatest players ever. More importantly, he plays every day and never has a down-effort day. Never. He also is a slick, PR machine, half-corporation, half-superstar shortstop. No player better understands that there are opportunities beyond the field, and the best way to realize them is to know what to say and when to say it.

Showalter is not in a struggle for power with Rodriguez; the manager can't win that one. The benching of A-Rod late in the season was on A-Rod's request -- he told Showalter that his consecutive game streak was becoming an albatross; he was fried mentally and physically, and needed a day off. So he got one. Exactly why Rodriguez was walking around the dugout in the ninth inning with a bat in his hand is open to interpretation, but the breaking of the streak was not Showalter's and Hart's way of saying "we're in control here.''

None of this controversy would be happening if the Rangers were on the verge of signing Bartolo Colon and trading for Javier Vazquez. That would make A-Rod, and everyone with the Rangers, happier about the team's direction. But the Rangers are cutting payroll, not adding it.

Their future is Hank Blalock, Mark Teixeira, Michael Young, Kevin Mench, Laynce Nix and, above everyone else, 28-year-old Alex Rodriguez, who is going to hit 700 home runs in his career and win 10 Gold Gloves as a shortstop. The Rangers just want Rodriguez to play shortstop, which he does better than anyone in the game, and someday will be remembered as playing it better than anyone who ever played the game. They want him to invest in the program.

There are trade rumors involving A-Rod going to Boston, but how about this scenario? He doesn't get traded, the Rangers eventually turn things around, and Rodriguez is a big part of it. The honeymoon may be over, but the marriage can be saved.

Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and a regular contributor to Baseball Tonight. E-mail tim.kurkjian@espnmag.com.