A New Beginning in Surprise
It’s always exciting to hear the crisp crack of a bat, to smell the tart aroma of pine tar, to feel the cool spring breezes of Arizona or Florida, to see a bunch of grown men acting like children. My annual spring time taste of baseball is a real treat.
This year things feel different in Surprise, Arizona, which is no surprise considering the Rangers have a new manager. Jeff Banister has set a tone at camp that is as refreshing as the aforementioned breezes. He is positive, optimistic and realistic. “Of course we haven’t had any adversity yet,” was the new skipper’s response to a question about the tone set in camp thus far. But he knows that there will be tough times in a long baseball season.
He is ready for anything. He’s seen it all in 29 years in the Pirates organization. While watching him during the first couple of weeks of camp, Ranger great Michael Young wondered, “Why hasn’t anyone hired this guy to be a manager before?” Banister looks and acts like a guy who has been doing this job for years.
He is a “walk around” manager on the order of what Jason Garrett has become for the Cowboys. Banny, as he will be called, doesn’t throw much batting practice like his predecessor Wash did. He has a brand new fungo bat with his name on it (the bat companies just don’t make those for bench coaches), but two weeks into camp his bat didn’t have a mark on it. Rather than hitting fungoes and throwing 56 mph pitches Banister is walking around and talking to coaches and scouts, and watching everyone and getting to know his team. “Communication is the most important thing I do,” Banister said when asked to rate his daily tasks in his new job.
The tone set in the manager’s office seems to have already made it’s way into the clubhouse – the two best examples of that are Prince Fielder and Yu Darvish. Let’s start with Prince, whose locker is closest to the path players must walk to get to and from the practice fields. Last year Prince barely looked up as his teammates walked by, this year he barely shuts up as they make their way to and from the fields. Prince has a comment, a joke and a smile for everyone. His explanation for the change is simple, “Oh it’s my second year man,” he said. Maybe it’s as simple as that, but it looks like he’s had a personality transplant. When a team leader like Prince is having that much fun, it translates.
Darvish will be the ace of the staff again, but to take the next step in his development as a pitcher, he knows what he must do. And he said it, not me – “Learn English.” To show how serious he is about it, when he sat down with Emily Jones, myself and the rest of our Fox crew last weekend, he did the interview in English. It was the first one he had done, but since he has done several more. Don’t get me wrong though, he isn’t learning English just so he can talk with the media, he is learning it to better communicate with his teammates. He knows that to be the leader Banny is expecting him to be, he must be able to communicate better.
Will any of this mean more wins for the Rangers? I don’t know, but it do know what will – health. Last year we were pretty sure that this same collection of characters would be able to compete. If they stay healthy this year they are right back to that level of expectations. For now I’ll enjoy another day of cool spring breezes while freezing rain, ice and snow is forecast back in the Metroplex.