Like season openers in Mexico in 1999 and Japan in 2000, this game was envisioned by Major League Baseball as a precursor to a World Cup-type tournament, which would be a commercial boon to the big leagues. Merchandising sales in Japan last year, for example, rose 40% after the Chicago Cubs and the New York Mets played their opening two-game series there. On Sunday three announcements were made in the first five innings encouraging fans to purchase T-shirts and caps.
Nonetheless, beneath the quaint corrugated roof of tiny Hiram Bithorn Stadium, the 19,891 fans showed a respect for the game that is seldom seen anymore in major league ballparks. The game was played to an impromptu soundtrack of joyful singing to the sounds of trumpets, bongos and maracas while vendors shouldered trays of pi�a coladas and concession stands served shots of hard liquor without incident. The highlight of the sun-scorched afternoon occurred after one spectator in the bleachers quickly put an end to that favorite diversionary pastime of bored fans, the batting around of a beach-ball. After the ball had popped into the rightfield bullpen area, which was not enclosed, and was returned to the seats by Blue Jays reliever Kelvim Escobar, something wonderful happened: As the fan held the ball to the ground instead of directing it elsewhere, the rest of the crowd cheered with delight. "Can you imagine what would have happened in the States?" Rangers manager Johnny Oates said after the game. "These are good baseball people. They want to see baseball."
Nary a boo was heard during the afternoon, not even when Alex Rodriguez seemed to be playing shortstop in his socks on freshly waxed linoleum. Though Texas signed two other free-agent hitters, third baseman Ken Caminiti and DH Andres Galarraga, to join holdovers Palmeiro, leftfielder Rusty Greer and Ivan Rodriguez, it's A-Rod, the youngest among those veterans, who's putting his stamp on the Rangers.
For instance, righthander Rick Helling, Texas's Opening Day starter, who took the loss, says he's impressed by how much time Rodriguez gives to "mentoring the young players." John Blake, the team's public relations director, says Rodriguez has flawlessly handled a media crush even larger than the one that Nolan Ryan faced as a Rangers icon. "And he's 25; Nolan was in his 40s," Blake says. Then last Thursday, during a workout in Port Charlotte, Rodriguez gave a 15-minute pep talk to Tim Crab-tree, the righty reliever trying to graduate from setup man to closer. "When I was with Seattle, we used to say you were the last guy we wanted to see coming out of the bullpen," Rodriguez was seen telling Crabtree. "You've got closer's stuff." Says Oates, "Unless you're around players all the time, you don't understand what winning means to them. That's what I've been most impressed about with A-Rod: just how committed he is to winning. He's not afraid to pull people aside if they're not pulling their weight and say, 'Hey, you're not just messing with your career. You're messing with my career.' He's always talking baseball. What's the pitcher trying to do? What pitches are you looking for? He walks through the dugout and people listen. That's something we haven't had around here for the past couple of years."
Still, Texas did virtually nothing to improve its dreadful pitching over the winter. Rodriguez signed with the Rangers—after the Mets had stunned him by disavowing interest in him three days into the free-agent period—largely on the faith that Hicks can address that shortcoming by spending more money. Hicks is a globe-trotting leveraged-buyout specialist who built the Dallas Stars into Stanley Cup champions.
"At one point last December it was only me and him sitting on a couch in the clubhouse, and he told me he wanted to sign me and Mike Hampton," Rodriguez says. "I said, 'You mean me or Hampton?' And he said, 'No, both.' I liked the look in his eye. I said, ' Mr. Hicks, if you're as serious as you seem, we have a good chance of getting a deal done.' He's an owner for the right reason. He's trying to win a championship." (Free agent Hampton met with the Rangers but ruled them out early before signing an eight-year, $121 million contract with the Colorado Rockies.)
Hicks says that "the cachet Alex brings" already is making him money. For instance, group sales have risen 41% from last year, merchandising revenue has increased 25%, and the 1.6 million advance tickets sold before the season began were the most since 1994, the honeymoon season for The Ballpark in Arlington. Based on that preseason sale, Hicks says the Rangers could draw three million fans for the first time in franchise history. "Our revenues are up nine million to 10 million dollars, without factoring in the playoffs," he said. "Our [payroll] for the year is 81 million to 83 million dollars, our revenues are 155 million to 160 million dollars; assuming 55 percent to 60 percent of total revenue goes toward payroll, we can still make a 10 percent profit."
Moreover, Hicks's efforts to secure corporate naming rights for The Ballpark and to develop land around it for entertainment use "have become an easier job for us because of A-Rod." Forbes recently listed the Rangers as the sixth most valuable franchise in baseball, worth $342 million. (Hicks paid $250 million for them four years ago.) "We were never that high without A-Rod," Hicks says. "What I don't understand is people bashing the contract. This guy is the best asset in our game. We should be celebrating the deal. It's a big number because it's long-term."
Says Rodriguez, "People criticized me for coming to Texas and saying we don't have pitching. I didn't sign for one year. I saw what happened in Seattle when we were close and management didn't get the big player that can put you over the top. I'm convinced Mr. Hicks will do what it takes to win. There is nothing I would like to do more than to prove him right about my contract."
Hicks advanced Rodriguez $1 million of his $10 million signing bonus "so he could buy a house in Dallas and become part of the community," Hicks says. Rodriguez complied, settling into a $2 million home in posh Highland Park, the same Dallas suburb as Hicks. Rodriguez would still like to buy the Ferrari convertible he's always desired as well as an apartment in New York City, his birthplace and one of his favorite cities. As his first day as a Ranger hinted, however, turning Texas into an elite team won't be as easily attained. This much already is clear for Mr. 252: Rodriguez needs Hicks as much as Hicks needs him—not to mention a new pair of shoelaces.