The resurgence was sparked, however, by one of the game's best old players, the 40-year-old Downing, who was leading the league in batting (.390) and on-base percentage (.488) at week's end. Until late March, Downing, who was not offered a contract after finishing last season with the California Angels, was jobless. He also had grown his hair long and had stopped shaving. "I'm a biker," says Downing. "I was enjoying life, riding my Harley, watching my kids play Little League for the first time. I had given up hope of playing. It was killing me, but I had planned a Harley trip with some friends to Nevada."
Instead, Downing took a plane from California to Florida when the Rangers invited him to camp on March 28. Injuries sidelined him for the first three games of the season, but he then reached base 20 times in his first 24 plate appearances. It was his screaming leadoff home run off Roger Clemens in Game 6 of the streak that highlighted a 13-5 rout of Boston and got Rangers fans believing.
Another big contributor has been rightfielder Ruben Sierra, who, after a subpar 1990 caused in part by a series of nagging injuries, has reemerged as a force. Sierra enjoyed a monster 1989 (.306, with 29 homers and 119 RBIs), but slipped to .280, 16 and 96 last year, when he also committed 10 errors. "Ruben has a lot of pride," says Texas general manager Tom Grieve. "He does. He doesn't want to mess up in front of 30,000 people. So he worked hard."
Sierra is dying to be a great player. Around his neck this year he's wearing a pendant of a horse's head, which he calls a caballo—Spanish for horse and, for him, symbolic of his being the Rangers' main man. In Puerto Rico, where Sierra was raised and still lives, one doesn't strive to be the caballo unless one means it. Sierra means it. Through Sunday, he was hitting .335 with eight homers and 31 RBIs, and each of his seven steals—he had nine all of last year—had come at key times. Defensively, he has yet to commit an error.
"I want to show people that I'm the best," says Sierra. "Last season people forgot that I was hurt. Now I'm playing like I'm capable of playing."
No team has a more formidable quartet of hitters than Texas has with Sierra, Gonzalez, first baseman Rafael Palmeiro (.323) and second baseman Julio Franco (.296). More important, the entire lineup is more versatile and flexible than in recent years, when the Rangers lived by the home run, died by the strikeout and grounded into a lot of double plays. This spring, Valentine stressed being more selective at the plate and trying to create runs rather than swinging for the fences. His tutoring has paid off. As of Sunday, Texas was leading the league in sacrifice bunts and was on pace to strike out 215 fewer times and to ground into 36 fewer double plays than it did in 1990.
The lone Ranger who resisted the new philosophy was Incaviglia, which is one reason that he was released. The jury is still out as to whether dropping Incaviglia, a productive but free-swinging player who's now striking out on a regular basis for the Detroit Tigers, was a wise move, but it certainly helped to change the Rangers' image. "They're out of that swing, swing, swing thing," says Minnesota Twins manager Tom Kelly. "They're taking a lot of pitches, and that makes them a better offensive team. And they're not chasing pitches the way they used to."
What they are chasing are opposing pitchers. "Everyone knows our one-through-six batters are going to hit," says Downing. "But the seven, eight, nine hitters have really helped, too."
To wit: Third baseman Steve Buechele, who usually bats eighth, was hitting .293 with eight homers (five in his last eight games) and 25 RBIs through Sunday. With just one error at week's end, Buechele has been brilliant in the field as well.
Valentine and his coaches deserve some of the credit for the about-face. "I'm sure everyone understands how good the Oakland group [manager and coaches] is, but I'll match our knowledge base with anyone's," says House. Though Valentine's prowess as a game strategist is second to none, some observers say he is too emotional in dealings with players. He lost the support of some of them when he released the popular Incaviglia, but Valentine has gotten all of them back.