ARLINGTON, Tex. -- Two hours before the first pitch, Mark McLemore popped his head into Johnny Oates' office.
"You're either playing left field or second base, I don't know which," Oates said.
"Imagine that," McLemore replied, smiling.
It has been that kind of season for the Texas Rangers, a season of devastating injuries, makeshift lineups and unending fun.
"It's a great transfusion," Rangers president Tom Schieffer said.
The Rangers are 42-32, tying the best mark in club history after 74 games. They trail the California Angels by two games in the AL West. And Schieffer is so encouraged, he recently gave Melvin the approval to trade for another starting pitcher, even though the Texas farm system is so thin, it might not be possible.
To think, Melvin's first major move as GM was so unpopular. He recalls going out to dinner with his wife, Ellen, only to be told by a restaurant employee: "You traded Canseco. Thirty home runs." That deal, however, was the first step in a plan to rebuild the Rangers with pitching and defense, and no one is criticizing the Orioles' former assistant GM now.
Then there's Oates.
Freed from the threats of Peter Angelos, relieved by his wife Gloria's recovery from exhaustion, he's back to the Johnny of old, mingling with players, maximizing his talent and managing so deftly, Baseball Weekly depicted him as a chess master under a story headlined, "All the right moves."
tTC "Last year was a tough year for him, for all of us," said McLemore, one of four 1994 Orioles with the Rangers, along with Oates, pitching coach Dick Bosman and third base coach Jerry Narron.
"We'd come to the ballpark one day and see in the paper he might get fired. The next day, things would be fine. Then we'd lose two in a row, and he'd be back to getting fired again. That would wear on anybody, I don't care who you are."
Said Mickey Tettleton, another former Oriole: "I think Johnny has probably had just as much fun as we've all had. We have a little get-together every day 20 minutes before batting practice. It's three or four guys to start off, and the next thing you know, the whole team's out there, having a few laughs."
Laughs? Oates? Believe it. His rules are strict -- no earrings for Juan Gonzalez and Ivan Rodriguez -- this season, but he approved Will Clark's suggestion that the Rangers wear white cowboy hats on a recent road trip and said that Clark pierced one of Jack Voigt's batting helmets with a hunting arrow, creating a trophy that is awarded to any Ranger who makes a bonehead play.
The Rollicking Rangers? Well, not quite. Still, the mood is a far cry from the tense atmosphere that Oates created with the Orioles last season. As Voigt put it, "He doesn't have someone over his neck," referring to Angelos. And, as McLemore put it, "There are clowns all over the place, talented clowns."
Twenty-five clowns, all contributing. Not once has Oates put his projected Opening Day lineup on the field, and with third baseman Dean Palmer likely out for the season, he probably never will. But no longer is this a team of burly power hitters, one-dimensional and undisciplined. From the start, Melvin had a plan.
"We had some very talented people come through here in years past, but we've never had a team like we've had this year," Schieffer said. "It's the best team we've ever had -- not necessarily the best talent, but the best team."
It started with the Canseco trade. Melvin recalled how improved outfield defense revived the 1989 Orioles. He first tried to acquire Steve Finley in a three-way deal with Houston. He wanted pitcher Ken Ryan in any trade with Boston. But he wound up getting a 36-year-old center fielder (Otis Nixon) and a third-base prospect (Luis Ortiz) instead.
"I took quite a bit [of criticism]," Melvin said. "I think even people in baseball said, 'Geez, how can you give up a power hitter like Canseco and get back what you did?' But there was more to it than that. You had to look at the big picture."
Four days later, Melvin used the money saved on Canseco to sign McLemore and pitcher Kevin Gross, in essence receiving four players for one, all of whom are contractually obligated to Texas for at least two years. Gross finally is showing improvement after a horrible start. McLemore has been the Rangers' MVP.
All winter, Melvin and his assistants huddled in a room across from his office at The Ballpark in Arlington, scrawling possible rosters on magnetic boards. Walt Jocketty, the other finalist for the Texas job, made splashier moves in St. Louis, acquiring Ken Hill, Danny Jackson and Tom Henke. But Melvin put together the better team.
He never attempted to re-sign Kevin Brown, knowing his price would be too high. Then he chose to keep Kenny Rogers over John Burkett, knowing he couldn't afford arbitration with both. Rogers was left-handed, and a product of the Texas organization. He became an All-Star, while Burkett wound up with Florida, where he is 6-9 with a 4.98 ERA.
As the season approached, Melvin was approximately $2.5 million under his budgeted $32 million payroll. In a span of four days, he signed his No. 2 starter (Bob Tewksbury) his designated hitter (Tettleton), his closer (Jeff Russell) and the American League leader in appearances (Roger McDowell).
"I don't know how Doug got those last four or five guys," Oates said.
Actually, Melvin had help from the players, and from Schieffer. After signing Tewksbury for $1.5 million, he had approximately $1 million to offer Tettleton, Russell and McDowell. Tewksbury deferred $250,000 of his salary. Tettleton and Russell deferred their incentives. And Schieffer gave Melvin approval to sign Tettleton for the same price as the others, $500,000.
Some of this was luck. Melvin made simultaneous offers to Tewksbury and Zane Smith, saying he'd sign whoever got back to him first. And Rogers made a reasonable request in arbitration, ensuring that the Rangers could keep him for $3.7 million. Now Tewksbury, Rogers and Gross could fulfill a Melvin prerequisite for contention, giving Texas three 200-inning pitchers.
In the end, the Rangers' turnover was nearly as substantial as the Orioles', but from Nixon to Tewksbury to McLemore, virtually every new player had a connection to Oates. They wanted to be with Texas, and they wanted to win in Texas. Gonzalez missed 35 games, Palmer's season ended June 3, and the Rangers kept rolling.
Oates is the perfect fit for a team that needed a firm hand, a team that was accustomed to self-serving managers like Bobby Valentine and Kevin Kennedy. Gonzalez and Rodriguez were expected to be his biggest problems, but Oates took them each to lunch in the off-season and discovered "they had the same desires Doug and I had."
Former Orioles manager Joe Altobelli once told Melvin, "Give me a team with three star players and the rest who know how to play the game." That's the kind of club Melvin constructed. Earlier this month, Oates used five backups and Terry Burrows as his starting pitcher, and Texas beat Cleveland, 7-6.
It's Orioles South.
It's the Ranger Way.