It was 1:50 a.m. Rangers manager Buck Showalter was leaving the ballpark when he looked in the clubhouse and saw Hank Blalock sitting at his locker, drinking a beer and talking baseball with Laynce Nix and Brad Fullmer. "It brought a tear to my eye,'' said Showalter.
You don't often see that today. That love for the game is one reason why the Rangers consider Blalock, a third baseman, a special player. It's also one reason why they gave him a five-year, $15.25 million contract in the offseason. It was, to some general managers and agents, a confusing, controversial deal. Why would the Rangers give such security to a relatively unproven, 23-year-old player who was two years away from salary arbitration and five years from free agency? Conversely, why would a player with star potential lock in for five years when, chances are, he could make a lot more going year-to-year with his contract?
The Rangers are taking a risk. Had they not signed Blalock long-term, they would have paid him around $350,000 this year, and probably $400,000 next year. Instead, he got a $250,000 signing bonus, a $500,000 salary this year and an $800,000 salary next year. That's roughly $1.5 million more than the Rangers had to pay for a player who had only one year, 64 days of major league service entering this season. But it was a similar to some of the signings that Rangers general manager John Hart made in the mid-1990s as GM of the Indians.
The Rangers say the investment will be well worth it. Blalock would have been eligible for salary arbitration in 2006. The market has been re-set in the last year by the contracts signed by three players, Albert Pujols, Ichiro Suzuki and Alfonso Soriano, who were several years away from free agency. Those contracts could have significantly increased the salaries of comparable players in arbitration. In 2006, Blalock will make $3 million; he might have doubled that in arbitration. In 2007, he will make $4.75 million. In 2008, he will make $5.95 million. He could have made a lot more had he gone one year at a time.
The signing of Blalock and shortstop Michael Young to long-term deals "sends a message to the rest of the organization,'' says Showalter. It tells everyone that the best player on the team is going to be there for at least five more years. Now, Nix, first baseman Mark Teixeira, pitcher Colby Lewis, catcher Gerald Laird and the rest of the young Rangers understand if they play well, and do things the right way, they'll be rewarded.
"You hear some guys say 'oh, it's not about the money,' but with Hank it's really not about the money,'' says Showalter. "There is nothing materialistic or phony about Hank.''
The Rangers say there is little risk given the talent and the character of the player. Last year, Blalock hit .300 with 29 home runs and 90 RBI. He also hit a two-run home run off Eric Gagne in the All-Star Game that gave the American League a 5-4 victory. This season, Blalock is back at it, hitting .333 and with 18 RBI through Wednesday. Defensively, he gets better every day. When Showalter offers a compliment, Blalock says, "just doing my job, dude.''
"He's the only guy I let call me 'dude,' '' Showalter said, laughing.
Blalock is a Californian, he's a dude, but he's a grinder. He is Hank Joe Blalock, the son of a high school baseball coach, the kind of player who's going to do things properly.
Last year, when the Rangers marketing people asked Blalock what song he wanted played before each of his at-bats, he offered none, saying "hey, I'm a hitter, not a musician.'' He has become a team leader. When Rangers pitcher R.A. Dickey moved his wife, two children and a third on the way into an apartment near the ballpark, Blalock heard about it, and would hear nothing of it. He offered his house to Dickey, saying that a growing family shouldn't be cramped in an apartment; Blalock and his wife would find another house in which to live.
Blalock is not in this for fame or publicity, just to win and to hit, much like one of Showalter's favorite players, Don Mattingly. Former teammate Alex Rodriguez offered Blalock the chance to fly to last year's All-Star Game on A-Rod's private jet after the Rangers' game that Sunday. Blalock respectfully declined, opting to take a 7 a.m. commercial flight the next day with his wife. Blalock said he might never get back to the All-Star Game, and he wanted he, and his wife, to savor every minute of it.
Blalock will play in several All-Star games before he's done. Recently, Rangers officials asked him if, five years from now, when he's a free agent, and all offers were equal, would he want to stay with the Rangers. Blalock said "they don't have to be equal, I want to spend my whole career with the Rangers. I want to be like George Brett, one team for your whole career.''
We'll see about that. But for at least the next five years, Blalock will be mashing in Texas.