Past Texas teams were known for their shoddy glovework: In the eight seasons before Oates arrived in '95, the Rangers never finished higher than 11th in the league in team defense. "If you're going to play for Johnny Oates," says general manager Doug Melvin, "you had better be able to make the plays. You don't have to be spectacular in the field. Just solid."
Among the upgrades that Oates made this season was switching Juan Gonzalez from leftfield to right and moving Rusty Greer from right to left, a decision that has brought out the best in both players. "If Rusty doesn't win a Gold Glove, there's something wrong," says Valle. Between Gonzalez and Greer is the team's smooth centerfielder, Darryl Hamilton, who through Sunday hadn't made an error in 142 games.
The poster boy for the defense is 32-year-old shortstop Kevin Elster, the former New York Met whose big league career appeared to be over in 1992 because of a chronically ailing right shoulder. After being signed and released by six other major league clubs and bouncing around their minor league affiliates for three years, Elster was begging teams for another chance last winter. When Elster's brother and agent, Patrick, called Melvin, he was told that Benji Gil was the Texas shortstop but that Kevin could compete for a utility job. When Gil went down with a back injury in spring training, Elster moved into the lineup—and has started all but six games this season. Without exceptional range or a powerful arm, he has anchored the Rangers' defense and had made only two errors in his last 56 games through Sunday. What's most astonishing about Elster were his 23 home runs and 94 RBIs at week's end—he had never hit more than 10 homers or driven in more than 55 runs in a season—all from the number 9 spot in the order.
Elster would have been the team's biggest story in a normal season, but in '96 he is just one of many Power Rangers. Through Sunday the Rangers had four players with more than 90 RBIs and six with 17 or more home runs. In the campaign for the league's Most Valuable Player, Gonzalez got a substantial bounce from the Cleveland series. In the opener he hit two solo home runs, his 40th and 41st, giving him a club-record 121 RBIs for the year. He knocked in two more runs in Texas's 6-3 victory last Saturday before going hitless in Sunday's 8-2 defeat, ending his 21-game hitting streak but leaving his batting average at .332.
"Everyone is talking about MVP, but right now I'm just concentrating on putting up numbers and winning games," says Gonzalez. "If we win the division and I don't win the MVP, that will be great."
Despite losing the series to the Rangers, the Central Division-leading Indians were not ready to concede the pennant or the MVP trophy. Cleveland still had the best record (81-55) in the league and still had Albert Belle, who hit his 44th home run last Saturday and finished the weekend with 130 RBIs, the most in the majors. After Sunday's win Cleveland was eight games ahead of the Chicago White Sox.
Still, the Indians haven't carpet-bombed the competition the way that they did in 1995. And on July 29 Cleveland general manager John Hart stunned much of the baseball world when he sent veteran second baseman Carlos Baerga (and utilityman Alvaro Espinoza) to the Mets for infielders Jose Vizcaino and Jeff Kent. Though Baerga was hitting only .267 at the time and had made a number of errors in an injury-plagued season, he had been a cornerstone of the '95 team, batting .314 with 90 RBIs. He also had been one of the most popular Indians among both fans and teammates. "A lot of people questioned our sanity, and to be honest, we questioned our own sanity," says Hargrove.
It was a move, like most made by the Hart-Hargrove administration, that has worked out just fine for Cleveland. Through Sunday, Vizcaino had hit .285 for the Indians and had proved to be a significant upgrade at second base. "We miss Carlos personally, but we're a better team with Vizcaino," says Hargrove.
The trade did not improve the Indians' luck against the Rangers, who ended up beating Cleveland eight out of 12 games this season. That doesn't bode well for the defending league champs if these two teams meet again in October. Texas seems to match up well against the Tribe, whose starting rotation, with the exception of Orel Hershiser, has been hit hard recently. Could last weekend's series have been a preview of coming attractions?
"I doubt it," says Hargrove. "From what I experienced last year, you can honestly throw everything out the window. The playoffs are the most different experience in life. You have to be there to believe it."