Elvis Andrus and the Rangers have a lot of 2011 memories. But it's time to banish those and turn the page.(AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez, File)
Wednesday, Feb 15 at 10:34 PM
Have the Rangers done enough to forget about last season and move forward?
Despite a second world series appearance marking unprecedented success for the franchise, the disappointment of how the season ended still stings. The Rangers were as close as a team can possibly be to winning a championship without actually grabbing it -- and unfortunately, Nelson Cruz can take that statement all too literally. Fair or not, the sad truth of sports is that the shadow from last season’s conclusion will hang over Texas. They will be ultimately judged on how they respond to such a missed opportunity.
But the show goes on -- and so will these Rangers, as pitchers and catchers will begin filing in to Surprise, Arizona early next week. The pieces of the frustrating finish to the 2011 season are seemingly picked up, but it’s tough to know if that is ever truly the case mentally. The regular season will be perceived as meaningless for the Rangers, now that outsiders will only judge them based on their success in the playoffs.
That’s what happens when a franchise has nothing left to do but win a championship. For a case study of how a team may react after being within a fingertip’s length of a championship before letting it slip away, the Rangers need look no further than a few miles east on I-30: The American Airlines Center, whose resident Mavericks went through this in 2007-2008.
You all know the story. The Mavericks were minutes from going up 3-0 in the 2006 NBA Finals before the Miami Heat began pulling off miracles. The Mavericks snatched defeat from the jaws of victory and went into the offseason with the same disappointment that the Rangers are now feeling. The following year the Mavs faltered at first, but then turned the 2006-2007 NBA regular season into their own personal playground by rattling off 67 wins despite making next to no significant changes in the roster from the Finals team. (If you count Devean George, I’ll uppercut you.)
Everything seemed fine until the mental strain of the playoffs arrived. The Mavericks crumbled in the first round, and that version of the team was never the same. It worked out in the end, after moves to add Jason Kidd and Shawn Marion to the team's core, but the collapses from 2006-2007 doomed that specific group of teammates from ever succeeding together.
Baseball is a different sport and a different mindset, so it’s not fair to compare these Rangers players to those Mavericks as apples to apples. It’s also worth noting that high-strung Avery Johnson at the helm of the Mavericks wasn’t exactly the same calming influence that beloved Rangers manager Ron Washington seems to be in Arlington. Still, you have to wonder how much two consecutive heartbreaking ends to such successful playoff runs affect a team’s collective spirit. Bringing in Adrian Beltre’s fiery personality was a smart addition by Rangers brass to a team that needed it after being so close against the San Francisco Giants the year before.
Is there anyone to assume that role this season? Even more importantly, is that even something the Rangers need? Yu Darvish obviously could a huge addition statistically, but it remains to be seen what, if any, kind of effect he will have on clubhouse chemistry and camaraderie, an underrated aspect of a championship team.
Tyson Chandler eventually filled that role for the Mavericks by pushing everyone’s limits. The challenges he placed on his teammates and the passion he showed every night gave the Mavericks a rebirth during a time when things were getting a bit stale. Chandler crushed every perception that had been made about previous incarnations of the Mavericks. Now that he’s gone, the success he helped the Mavs reach has given them the belief that they know what to do in every situation in order to come out on top.
That’s the mentality and swagger that comes with being a champion and having faith in your team’s system. It’s why the San Antonio Spurs and Pittsburgh Steelers can never be counted out until their season is officially over. Obviously, the Rangers want to be that, but aren’t yet.
When the season starts, it will be interesting to watch if bringing in Darvish, making Neftali Feliz a starter, adding Joe Nathan to the bullpen or signing Brad Hawpe for depth will be enough of a stir to the Rangers’ drink that has been sitting for a while. Maybe even the addition of Don Kalkstein, the Mavericks' well-respected, long-time sports psychologist will keep minds at ease during this upcoming season.
Either way, Ron Washington and Jon Daniels certainly have a crucial task on their hands by having to monitor the state of the team and their response to being so very close. If need be, they’ll have to be able to pull the trigger on a major shakeup by the trade deadline.
That’s certainly an unenviable task, but we’ve seen firsthand with the Mavericks how hanging on too long can nearly derail a franchise. Whether it’s mental strength, having chops, or whatever you want to call it, this season will prove whether many of these Rangers have the ability to fight back and rise up after such terrible heartbreak.