By BILL PETERSON
Editor at Large
Personal character counts in baseball, but not as much as the mouths would have us believe.
More to the point, character doesn’t count. Only manifestations of character count.
The Texas Rangers figured as one of baseball’s worst clubs this year as they develop a future contender in their farm system. In order to patch through the 2008 season, the Rangers made some acquisitions who raised red flags.
As it turns out, the character issues have issued victory for the Rangers, who are winning about as often as they lose. Players who came to the Rangers with character questions are performing at Triple Crown levels and, for extra good measure, they’re otherwise laying low.
Last December, the Rangers traded pitching prospect Edinson Volquez to the Cincinnati Reds for outfielder Josh Hamilton, who missed five years of pro baseball with drug problems.
Hamilton, who made a heartening comeback last year with the Reds, has been worth the trade for Texas, which is quite an achievement considering that Volquez has emerged as one of the National League’s best pitchers. Hamilton leads the American League in home runs (17) and RBI (71), while batting .316 with a .950 OPS
Later, the Rangers signed free agent outfielder Milton Bradley, whose temper displays have run him off from five other clubs despite his undeniable talent. Bradley leads he American League in batting (.333) and OPS (1.082), while hitting 14 homers with 45 RBI.
Right hander Vincente Padilla is generally thought to be a grump and a hot head who has run into trouble for throwing at batters. This year, Padilla is the Rangers’ best starting pitcher, 8-3 with a 3.89 ERA.
In all three cases, the Rangers have enjoyed all of the performance and none of the problems. The character that might have caused their problems might still be there, but the manifestations are missing.
When manifestations of low character arise, the Rangers have been more than eager to send the player packing. Case in point: Sidney Ponson, who rang up a 4-1 record with a 3.88 ERA for the Rangers, who recently showed him the door, anyway.
As it turns out, Ponson is in the grip of a drinking problem. One night recently in St. Petersburg, Ponson reportedly was cut off at a hotel bar, he challenged the bartender to a fight and teammates had to intervene. Ponson was scheduled to pitch the next day.
Later, Ponson reportedly lost his cool when the Rangers moved him up in the rotation a day to accommodate Kevin Millwood, who had to address a family issue. By one account, Ponson might have even challenged Manager Ron Washington to a fight.
The Rangers had seen enough.
“Some of the things he said about the staff, other players in the clubhouse, it wasn’t even a decision,” Rangers General Manager Jon Daniels told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. “It was a very easy decision.”
A lot of clubs might have put up with Ponson, needing his production. But the Rangers aren’t truly contending this year. They’re more interested in developing a winner through time, which requires that they send the right messages to their young players.
In particular, character issues aren’t enough to deny a player his chance with the Rangers, nor is performance enough to guarantee they will keep him.
Willing to overlook character issues, the Rangers have benefited nicely this year for giving players second chances. Third chances are another matter.