Instructional leagues in Arizona and Florida are conducted in relative obscurity at the end of each minor-league season, with teams sending their better prospects to their spring training facilities for intensive instruction and games against other clubs' prospects.
The scouts almost always outnumber the spectators at the games. Occasionally, there might be as many as 25 fans in the stands.
Yet it was during one such low-key time at the Rangers' 2007 instructional league camp that general manager Jon Daniels and his staff had a bit of an epiphany. Daniels had just finished his second season as the Rangers' GM, and his team was coming off a last-place finish in the American League West.
A franchise that had made only three post-season trips since its inception in 1962 and had never won a playoff series seemed to be going nowhere once again under the youngest GM in baseball history. That is when Daniels realized it was time to change the culture of the organization and addressed the young players in the clubhouse at the Rangers' facility in Surprise, Ariz.
"Obviously, the organization had success in the mid- and late-'90s, but outside of that, all the history of the Rangers was on individual accomplishments, it wasn't really team accomplishments, and I think that was a driving force," Daniels said. "We kind of talked to the guys in the room at the time about how much talent was in the room and what they had the chance to accomplish if they could kind of change that mindset and not worry about individual stats and things of that nature."
The mindset has indeed changed in the organization, and the Rangers are the two-time defending AL champions. The only thing missing from their run of success is a World Series title, as they lost in five games to the Giants last year, then suffered an excruciating seven-game loss to the Cardinals this year, punctuated by twice being within one strike of wrapping up the series in Game 6.
The Rangers are now considered among the game's elite franchises less than two years after Hall of Fame pitcher and club president Nolan Ryan and Pittsburgh sports entrepreneur Chuck Greenberg bought the team out of bankruptcy court. In addition to having a talented major-league roster, the Rangers' farm system is rated among the best in baseball, and their lucrative television contract with Fox Sports Southwest begins in 2015.
As manager Ron Washington said, "We don’t just want to win for two years. We want to sustain excellence, and I think we are in position to do that." That is certainly Daniels' goal, and he feels the Rangers are well-positioned to contend deep into the decade.
"We've said dating back to whenever we started we want to be an organization that isn't in and out, not a one-hit wonder, where we can sustain it over time," Daniels said. "That doesn't mean you're going to be in the World Series every year. You're going to have years where injuries get you or moves don't work out, but where you don't have to take a three-, four-, five-year step back to rebuild. You want to keep that window open as long as possible. That's where we've got a foundation now at the major-league level. We also have a foundation throughout the system where we feel we've got those pieces coming. Our scouts and our coaches have done such a good job throughout the system where you might be able to lose a Cliff Lee but you've got Derek Holland and Matt Harrison and Alexi Ogando step up.
"We talk about it in waves. We need the next wave, and we've got to accelerate their development. That's our thought process on the development side. You marry that with an ownership group that's committed to winning and kind of understands the unique position we're in right now in our local market with a fan base that is dying to come out and support us, and it's all coming together at the right time."
The Rangers also believe they have the right man to steer their club in the right direction in Washington. While Washington justifiably drew criticism for his strategic moves in this year's World Series, he has an upbeat presence that keeps the clubhouse light while also having accrued enough credibility as a player and coach to command respect from his players.
"He is who he is," Daniels said. "There's no pretense. There's no BS. He is a true blue baseball man with a tremendous heart. One of the tougher spots to fill in the game today is major-league manager. There aren't that many qualified candidates. You're talking about doing that over 162 games and 183 days, plus six weeks of spring training, plus hopefully a month in the postseason, 200-something games with all the different personalities and all the other issues that go along with it, and at the same time to be a teacher, and for me Wash has filled all of those perfectly. He's been an ideal fit for our organization."
In February, the Rangers will reconvene in Surprise and attempt to make another run at winning it all in 2012. When Daniels and his staff begin spring training by meeting in the same conference room in which they talked about changing the culture five years ago, he will look at the walls and take satisfaction about how far the organization has traveled.
"In that room, we always had the pictures of the best players and best moments in franchise history," Daniels said. "As we get better moments, they change, and right now all the pictures are of the last couple years. As a team, that's what it's about. We still have individual accomplishments and great things happening, tremendous players and staff members, but it's within the team concept."