IF A SINGULAR stone-tablet rule exists in sports, it reads that devastating losses result in devastating consequences. Teams that fail catastrophically do not rebound easily. The price is heavy, often paid over decades. The Rangers know this, and now a soaring franchise is suddenly on the brink, suddenly in danger of again being ordinary.
In 2010 Texas won the AL pennant for the first time, on the heels of securing a reported $3 billion TV deal over 20 years. The next season, crushingly, they came closer than any team in the history of baseball to winning the World Series without doing so -- a strike away from a title in two different innings, missed opportunities each player will take to his grave. In 2012 the Rangers rolled the AL West, stalled in September, lost the division to Oakland on the last day of the season and became a casualty of MLB's new win-or-die wild-card format.
If there is a second stone-tablet rule, it is a painful corollary of the first: The greatest threat to success is bitterness over who receives the credit in victory and the blame in defeat. The Rangers know this now too; bitterness and blame have placed the franchise in quavering transition.
Veterans Lance Berkman and A.J. Pierzynski are newly arrived, but the former de facto captain, Michael Young, is gone to Philadelphia, taking with him a piece of the team's soul. "He came to work every day, took no days off," manager Ron Washington says. "When we won, he talked to the guys about getting better. When we lost or when he wasn't playing well, he stood there and accepted responsibility, even though you knew it was eating at him. He never shrunk. He was the guy who made sure the other guys, the younger guys, were meeting the standard, and because he was there, the clubhouse was being policed. Now that he's not there, a lot of guys are going to find out just how much he protected them."
Protection is exactly what's needed now. There will be hard feelings toward former teammate Josh Hamilton, who gave the impression that he quit in a pennant race before signing with the rival Angels for $125 million. Meanwhile, the collaboration of CEO Nolan Ryan and GM Jon Daniels has been rattled by a puzzling power shake-up, the kind that usually ends badly and that winning teams often regret.
Ryan gave the Rangers bigness and credibility but now lives in an opaque limbo, his role as the top man in the front office supposedly muddled by Daniels' recent promotion to president of baseball operations. Ryan had not spoken over the course of the first month of spring training, and though he is the most recognizable baseball name in Texas, he is barely visible, ostensibly weighing his feelings and options.
Maybe the Rangers are simply entering a new phase, but it is a dangerous one, a rudderless one without Young. Second baseman Ian Kinsler, who signed a five-year, $75 million extension last April, has already told management (as Hamilton once did) that he doesn't want the responsibility of being the leader. Still, Daniels, who risks the Pyrrhic victory of presiding over a weaker product, has no reservations about taking the team in a new direction. "It is sort of 'evolve or die,' " he says. "The reality is that Oakland caught us. Seattle is better. Anaheim is better. We had to adjust, but the formula is the same. By no means is this a rebuild."
The hardest thing to do in sports is to reinvent an organization. Five years ago, the Rangers were an indistinct franchise that hadn't won a single playoff series. Ryan, Washington and Daniels turned Texas into a powerhouse by creating continuity among three tense components: the legend; the lifelong baseball man who understands people in a time of analytics; and the modern, Ivy-educated baseball exec who was once a ridiculed outsider but now wields immense power.
Now it is unclear whether Ryan will stay or go and what the issue is -- whether Daniels and Ryan suffered an irreversible rift over control, or whether being so close to winning finally kept the center from holding. Maybe the Rangers are simply evolving. Alternatively, maybe they stand at a juncture too common in sports: where they can regroup and rededicate together, or risk splintering into a thousand pieces.
Maybe the stone tablet has spoken, as it has for so many teams.