Jeff Passan, ESPNNov 2, 2023, 02:40 PM ET
- ESPN MLB insider
Author of “The Arm: Inside the Billion-Dollar Mystery of the Most Valuable Commodity in Sports”
PHOENIX — AROUND 1 A.M., just hours after he managed the Texas Rangers to their first World Series championship in 63 years of existence, Bruce Bochy hoisted himself from a chair and ambled toward the door at the back entrance of the Arizona Biltmore hotel. Bochy moves in slow motion these days, lurching more than walking, but before heading to his room for the night, he wanted to bid farewell to the men he’d spent the previous 8½ months preparing for this very moment.
When Bochy poked his head into McArthur’s restaurant, he saw the spoils of his work: drinks being downed and laughs being had and success being rewarded. Almost every Rangers player was present, the room packed to the gills with family and friends, and once they noticed who had come to pay homage to this moment decades in the making, they cut off their conversations and started to chant themselves hoarse.
“Boch! Boch! Boch!” they yelled in unison.
About 30 minutes earlier, Bochy sat outside, nursing a beer and talking about Game 5 of the 119th World Series, a 5-0 victory against the Arizona Diamondbacks that ended with a swarm of Rangers moshing around the mound. Less than a year ago, he was spending his retirement in Nashville, Tennessee, coaching his grandson’s T-ball team, and now he was the owner of a fourth championship, only the sixth manager with as many.
“The whole thing just doesn’t make a lot of sense,” Bochy said.
On one hand, Bochy is correct. This year, this October in particular, the Rangers drove through a thunderstorm and emerged dry. They finished the regular season with 90 wins. One fewer and they’d have spent the postseason at home. They beat a 99-win team and two division champions to get to the World Series, where they faced an 84-win Arizona team whose own kismet came with an expiration date. They went 11-0 on the road in the playoffs, a record unlikely ever to be matched.
On the other, it makes all sorts of sense. The Rangers were no accident. They were a master plan executed to a gilded end. They played exceptionally clean baseball. They hit for average and power. They pitched enough not to drag down their strengths. They let neither the gravity of October nor that of their past subsume them. They won because they played better than everyone else for a month, something they’d nearly done once before — something that haunted them for the past dozen years until a called third strike Wednesday finally delivered the peace they’d long sought.
THE MASTER PLAN began on Dec. 4, 2020, when the Rangers, “sick of losing,” hired Chris Young as their general manager. Young, a Dallas-area native, had spent 13 years pitching in the major leagues, including his first two for the Rangers. He had worked as an executive at Major League Baseball, where he was beloved, and now would work alongside Jon Daniels, the Rangers’ president and architect of their World Series teams in 2010 and ’11.
Over the next year, Daniels and Young carried out an audacious objective. They were going to spend their way back to relevancy. Despite three last-place finishes over the previous four seasons, they believed the heart of the organization — drafting, signing international free agents and developing players — was strong. Free agency done right could accelerate the process.
In a 24-hour period from Nov. 28-29, 2021, the Rangers signed second baseman Marcus Semien, right-hander Jon Gray and shortstop Corey Seager for a combined $556 million. Never before, nor since, has a team committed so much money in such a short timespan. For Seager (10 years, $325 million) and Semien (seven years, $175 million) in particular, the choice to sign with a Texas team that looked to the industry like it was going nowhere fast registered as puzzling.
“We told them, ‘This is an immense challenge. Are you up for this? You don’t have to be. You can go anywhere you want. Are you up for this? It’s going to be hard,’ ” Young said. “They each sat up in their chair and looked at me with this competitive edge and said, ‘I’m not afraid of that.’ And you could just see it in their eyes.”
Their first season with Texas last year left those eyes bloodshot. The Rangers went 68-94. On Aug. 15, they fired manager Chris Woodward, and two days later, owner Ray Davis let go of Daniels, too, leaving Young in charge. The Rangers understood that as seminal as the 2021-22 offseason was, the next winter would prove every bit as important. Because after shoring up their offense, the second part of the plan included finding someone who could lead Texas where it intended to go.
That process started one year and two weeks ago, when, for seven hours, over crustless egg salad and chicken salad sandwiches cut into triangles, Chris Young and Bruce Bochy talked baseball. Young had flown to Nashville to convince Bochy to return to what he did better than anyone in his generation: manage a big league team. Young had played for a year under Bochy with the San Diego Padres, and the experience stuck with him. Nobody amalgamated baseball knowledge with human touch quite like Bochy. He’d won three World Series with the San Francisco Giants and already etched his eventual Hall of Fame plaque. Young’s only hope was that the competitive fire in Bochy still glowed.
“We laughed, we shared stories, our vision for what the game should look like, the balance of people versus front office influence,” Young said. “And it was a great conversation. I left there thinking there may be a chance. He had studied. He knew our organization. He was asking about prospects. He asked me about our R&D department. He said, ‘I need information. I need to know, are you guys good in this area?’ I could tell just like everything, and now I see it on a daily basis, he just listens and processes and synthesizes and then makes great decisions.”
Bochy agreed to a three-year deal on Oct. 21, 2022, a week before the World Series began, and got to work immediately. His presence alone didn’t lead to a roomful of people chanting his name. Leadership change is all well and good. But going from 68-94 to contender would take a bevy of arms and another boatload of money.
WHEN HE TOOK the GM job with the Rangers, Chris Young warned his wife, Liz, and their three kids that life was going to get a little weird. Running a team takes a special sort of freneticism, a working-at-all-hours motor.
Even though he had signed the best pitcher on the free agent market, Jacob deGrom, to a five-year, $185 million contract and added left-hander Andrew Heaney for $27 million over two years, Young lived by the credo that a team can never have too much pitching. And it just so happened that Nathan Eovaldi, the veteran right-hander whose postseason excellence earned him a reputation as one of the game’s great warriors, remained unsigned in late December, even as the rest of the industry had lavished more than $3 billion on free agents.
Hearing Young talk invigorated Eovaldi. It wasn’t just their shared experience as pitchers and the shared language they spoke. Young spoke about the Rangers with the certitude of someone who ran a team that had gone 94-68 the previous season, not 68-94.
“Our talks in the offseason, it was all about winning the World Series championship,” Eovaldi said. “The offense was there. CY was really adamant about adding pitching, and when they signed deGrom and Heaney, I thought I was done. And then Christmas, we were able to make it happen.”
Eovaldi was Davis’ two-year, $34 million Christmas gift to the Rangers. The team had already spent half a billion dollars on a pair of middle infielders. Not chasing it with more money, more talent, would have been the half-measure to end all half-measures. As much as the industry scoffed and saw Texas as the most OK team money can buy, something bigger was happening.
Seager and Semien were the centerpieces, yes, but Adolis Garcia had evolved into an All-Star-caliber right fielder and Jonah Heim had emerged as a solid catcher and Nathaniel Lowe won a Silver Slugger at first base. Josh Jung, drafted by Daniels in 2019, had developed into an excellent third baseman, and Evan Carter, whose selection in the 2020 draft prompted guffaws from MLB Network analysts who had never heard of him, was one of the best outfield prospects in baseball, perhaps a year or two from the big leagues. Complementing that group with an overhauled pitching staff, and tapping Bochy to play alchemist, added up to something interesting.
That interesting turned good in a hurry. The Rangers swept Philadelphia, the defending National League champion, in their opening series. During Seager’s early-season five-week absence with a hamstring pull, Texas scored more runs than every big league team. The Rangers led the American League West every day of the first half but one. As the Aug. 1 trade deadline approached, Young assessed the Rangers’ current state of affairs — still light on pitching after deGrom’s season-ending elbow-ligament tear — and wondered if he should add more.
The Rangers’ front office decamped to Young’s house in San Diego, where the team was playing a three-game series, for the deadline. He surveyed his staff about the proper approach. How aggressive should they be? Is this a team that can win the World Series? Answering such questions vexes baseball-operations departments around the game. For many, baseball is too damn unpredictable to mortgage the future for a present so sodden with randomness. Young does not abide by this approach, and his subordinates share that aggressiveness. If they could win, they would try to win.
So first the Rangers acquired Max Scherzer, the 39-year-old future Hall of Famer, from the New York Mets for Luisangel Acuna, a top prospect and brother of Atlanta star Ronald Acuna Jr. A day later, they dealt a pair of prospects, infielder Thomas Saggese and right-hander T.K. Roby, to St. Louis for left-handed starter Jordan Montgomery and right-handed reliever Chris Stratton. Other teams saw it as a coup for the Cardinals, and with the deals completed in the midst of San Diego’s three-game sweep of Texas, flickers of self-doubt emerged in Young.
“What am I doing?” he asked Liz.
What needed to be done, it turns out. Because Young was right. You never can have enough pitching. Eovaldi’s elbow started barking and sent him to the injured list. Without Scherzer and Montgomery, the Rangers’ late-season swoon — which included an eight-game losing streak — might have turned into a full-on collapse and thwarted any sort of October appearance, let alone a championship run.
“It certainly didn’t guarantee this, but it gave us a better chance of this,” Young said. “And these players deserved that. Boch deserved that. Our ownership and our fans deserve that. And that’s what we’re here to do.”
AT THE BEGINNING of spring training, Young and Bochy introduced a set of organizing principles — simple-to-grok ideals scalable across the organization, from the front office to the field and beyond. They had settled on three pillars.
Dominate the fundamentals.
Compete with passion.
Be a good teammate.
“It’s the things that we know for us to be successful we have to do, and pretty much every component of what we do on a daily basis falls into one of those, whether it’s your behavior, your play, how you work,” Rangers bench coach Will Venable said. “It’s overall accountability, and as much as they might sound corny sometimes, they’re what guide us. [Bochy] creates an environment where people feel they can be themselves. He challenges the staff but is really open-minded and inclusive. So I think everyone just feels empowered to come every day having critically thought about things and is confident to voice their opinions. And he always gets to the best stuff because he asks questions. He’s open, he’s adaptable. He’s amazing.”
Those tenets were signposts throughout the season, and they also made it easier for the Rangers to remain impervious from any panic surrounding their September swoon. As the postseason began, Eovaldi’s elbow had healed. So had injuries to Garcia, Heim and Jung, who had gone from rookie with questions about his defense to All-Star Game starter and Gold Glove-caliber fielder. Garcia’s knee strain had prompted the early ascent of Carter, who thrived at 21 years old and earned an everyday role. Scherzer and Gray were out with injuries, and the bullpen was thin, but Texas’ tenets offered them solace.
They were good teammates, as the 99-win Tampa Bay Rays found out when Texas swept them in the wild-card round.
“A teammate is a person that will do anything to win the game regardless of the situation,” Rangers designated hitter Mitch Garver said. “If Boch told me to bunt” — he last laid down a sacrifice in 2018 — “I would do it. I’m willing to sacrifice my own career to better the team.”
They competed with passion, as the 101-win AL East champion Baltimore Orioles learned when the Rangers swept them in the division series.
“The fact that I’m one of those that shows it outwardly, passionately,” Garcia said, “doesn’t diminish the others who also compete with passion as well in their own way.”
Said Seager, whose outward stoicism is every bit the defining characteristic as his excellence as a hitter: “Being with your teammates. Being out on the field with your guys trying to accomplish one goal. I would say that’s what passion is for me.”
And they especially dominated the fundamentals. While the other two ideals necessitated only effort, dominating the fundamentals took an attention to detail few teams emphasize. The Rangers fixated on limiting errors after committing 96 in 2022. They followed the lead of Semien, who for the fourth consecutive full season played every game and did so because, he said, inactivity stimulates sloppiness. Texas made only 57 errors, the third-fewest by a team in major league history.
“We’ve just got obsessed dudes that are obsessed with their work, that are obsessed with winning, that are just obsessed with the day-to-day,” said catcher Austin Hedges, another trade-deadline acquisition. “I think that’s what baseball’s all about. It’s the day-to-day. We play 162 games plus another whatever in the playoffs, plus spring training. If you don’t love showing up to the field every day with the boys, then it’s not going to go well. But when you truly look forward to it and you have a group of guys you look forward to seeing, those things happen. If you don’t have that obsession, you might as well not even write those things down.”
After winning the AL pennant in spectacular fashion — taking all four road games of the seven-game series against Houston, which beat Texas for the AL West title via head-to-head regular-season record — Texas advanced to a World Series against the team with the second-fewest errors ever: Arizona. And in the course of their five-game romp, the Rangers became the first team since the 1966 Baltimore Orioles to win a World Series without committing an error.
Defense alone wouldn’t carry the Rangers, though. Garcia won ALCS MVP with a historic performance, driving in 15 runs in the series and hitting homer after epic homer. His strained oblique and Scherzer’s locked-up back ended their World Series after the third game, leaving Texas shorthanded. They’d been there, of course, whether in April and May without Seager or later in the season with the injury deluge. They dropped five runs with two outs in the second and third innings of Game 4 and romped. On Wednesday, one day later, Eovaldi threw six scoreless innings and held the Diamondbacks hitless in 10 plate appearances with runners in scoring position. Arizona starter Zac Gallen was even better over those six innings, holding Texas hitless.
“Getting no-hit in the seventh, we still find a way,” Montgomery said. “I mean, I think that sums up the grit of our guys and the battle. There was no panic in that dugout. Because here’s the thing. We’ve still got Corey Seager and Marcus Semien.”
Seager, who would go on to join Sandy Koufax, Bob Gibson and Reggie Jackson as the only two-time World Series MVPs, squibbed a single to left field to lead off the seventh. Carter, hitting behind him in the lineup because Bochy surmised that Arizona manager Torey Lovullo would not use his best relievers — all right-handers — instead of attacking back-to-back left-handed hitters with a lefty reliever, doubled Seager to third. Garver smashed a fastball through a drawn-in infield. After 19 at-bats of futility, Texas needed only three to score the game’s first run.
After Josh Sborz, a 29-year-old with a career 5.08 ERA who emerged as Texas’ best of a thin relief corps this postseason, threw a scoreless eighth, Bochy approached him in the dugout, wary of throwing closer Jose Leclerc for a third consecutive day for the first time since July 26-28, 2019.
“You wanna finish it?” Bochy said.
“Let’s do it,” Sborz said.
The Rangers’ hitters were exceptionally good teammates in the top of the ninth. Jung and Lowe led off the inning with back-to-back singles against Arizona closer Paul Sewald, and both scored when a Heim single up the middle slinked underneath the glove of center fielder Alek Thomas and rolled to the wall. Semien followed by blasting his second home run in two nights, and Texas’ 1-0 lead was quintupled.
Sborz emerged for the ninth, struck out Geraldo Perdomo looking on a curveball, induced a popout from Corbin Carroll and ended the World Series by snapping Ketel Marte’s 20-game postseason hitting streak by snapping off a two-strike curveball that landed in the top of the strike zone. Marte stared at the pitch, and so began a celebration that would last deep into Thursday morning.
If there was one error made by Texas in the World Series, it was the team’s continued fixation with 1990s alt-rock band Creed. As the Rangers sprayed bubbly and doused one another with beer, “Higher” strained through the clubhouse speakers and provided the soundtrack for their revelry. Whatever they might lack in musical taste they made up for in baseball acumen and righting wrongs.
“This,” Scherzer said, “is baseball nirvana.”
He was not wrong. Carter, all of two months into his career, looked around and said: “How spoiled am I?” The answer was very — a fact that two other attendees of the party at the Biltmore know well.
Two hours after that locker room celebration, next to fire pits and underneath string lighting and surrounded by fountains, Adrian Beltre and Michael Young sat across from one another and reminisced. They played together on the 2011 Rangers, a team that wound up on the wrong side of one the greatest World Series games ever.
In the Metroplex, Game 6 are curse words. What’s a story of triumph in St. Louis is one of horror to Rangers fans: One strike away from a win, the Rangers gave up a two-run, score-tying, ninth-inning triple to David Freese, blew another two-run lead in the 10th and lost on a Freese home run in the 11th.
“It was the worst day of my life,” Beltre said.
Every day since, he said, he has carried it with him. Young concurred. The sting of the moment eventually faded into an ever-present ache. Nothing short of a championship would salve them.
No one in the clubhouse would dare suggest this reached the levels of Boston in 2004 or Chicago in 2016, but the Rangers have disappointed generations of people. This win, Beltre said, “takes a weight off my shoulders — off all our shoulders.”
About 20 feet away sat Bochy, holding court before the team serenaded him. The daughters of pitching coach Mike Maddux, who had never before won a World Series in his 30-year career playing and coaching in the major leagues, congratulated and thanked him. Coaches and scouts paid homage. Bochy deferred credit, aw-shucks as ever, even as he joined a list of the greatest managers in history — Casey Stengel, Connie Mack, Joe McCarthy, Walter Alston and Joe Torre.
On the other side of the bar, Young held court with the front office. During games in Young’s suite, they’d developed a habit of high-fiving every good play — “positive touches,” they called it — and the camaraderie was clear. Winning a championship bonds people forever. Winning the first championship in the 63-year history of a franchise immortalizes them.
Which is why back inside at McArthur’s, Lowe asked for the music to be turned down so he could deliver a speech. He arrived via trade in 2021, and from that team, only Lowe, Garcia, Heim, Sborz, center fielder Leody Taveras and right-hander Dane Dunning were on the World Series roster. Lowe witnessed the birth of the plan, its execution and the fruit it bore. And it gave the Rangers, he said, “the best f—ing ships.”
He paused slightly before delivering perhaps an even better walk-off than Garcia’s home run that won Game 1.
“Friendships,” Lowe said, “and championships.”
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