Wednesday, October 5, 2022 Oct 5, 2022
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Baseball

Jon Daniels Made the Rangers Matter

Take it from someone who has been watching almost as long as the team has been in Texas: that's no small feat.
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The former president and general manager's teams didn't deliver a World Series, but they did bring meaningful baseball to North Texas. Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports.

There’s always a shelf life. Tom Brady as a Patriot. Tom Landry as a head coach. Serena. Jellyfish. Better Call Saul.

Jon Daniels had a remarkable shelf life. It can be (and has been) suggested by some that it was too long and by others that it was not long enough. On the one hand, JD was the architect of what was easily the greatest era in the Rangers’ half-century of existence. On the other, 17 seasons (well, 16.7 seasons) as general manager without so much as a single championship borders on unheard of.

Tasked with writing this column, I was stuck at first. Not because I’m at a loss for what to say, but because I didn’t know where to start. I kept thinking about 2010 and 2011—as one should when reflecting on JD’s time in charge—and specifically each of those Octobers. An editorless blogger at the time, I knew I was bound to write 5,000 words a day as the Rangers made those playoff runs, and so by 2011, as Texas embarked on the postseason defense of its 2010 pennant, I decided to put governors on my columns: the first post would cover “11 Things”; if and when the Rangers won a playoff game, the next article would be called “10 Things”; and so on. If the month went particularly well, by the time they needed only the last of those 11 wins to claim their first championship, my preview story that morning would be confined to “One Thing.” It was the only way I could think of to (arguably) rein myself in and avoid going all Very Poor Man’s David Foster Wallace on my readers. 

(I don’t have to remind you how close I was to writing a “Zero Things” column in 2011.  Maybe one day.)

So how do I structure this retrospective? Pay homage to the five postseasons Daniels’ Rangers entered with an “11 Things” essay? Jeopardize my standing with D Magazine by throwing down “42 Things,” a tribute to the number of playoff games the Rangers played from 2010 through 2016 (exceeded only by the Cardinals and Giants)? 

Neither. (I’m hearing Mike and Mark’s editor voices.) I’m going with One Thing. Because that’s where the Rangers’ postseason mythos is frozen–and where Daniels’ legacy is as well. Is one strike away a triumph? Or is it a tragedy? 

Yes.

And it’s happily so foreign to what I grew up with.

The origins of my relationship with baseball date to the mid-1970s. The Rangers were decent in the years when I cared most about Topps wax packs, Mike Hargrove autograph appearances, and Bat Night. They were bad in the ’80s, when I started to care about wins and losses. The ’90s started out fine. In four of the first six years of the decade, the Rangers finished above .500, and in one of the two they didn’t, they won their first division title … in a season when it didn’t matter because a players’ strike wiped out the playoffs.

Then came 1996, 1998, and 1999, which were amazing: playoff baseball! But all three seasons ended with loud, brutal reminders that Texas didn’t really belong on the same stage with the Yankees–and maybe not with playoff teams in general. The Rangers won their first playoff game. They lost the next nine.

The impossibly bad A-Rod years led to John Hart as general manager, which led to Jon Daniels as baseball operations assistant, which led to 28-year-old Daniels becoming the game’s youngest-ever GM after the 2005 season, which led to a spectacular rebuild from 2007 through 2009 and the aforementioned World Series runs in 2010 and 2011.

So here’s my One Thing: I’m a fan as much as I am a journalist. And as a Rangers fan, I am grateful for Jon Daniels.

Am I biased? Yep. In the same way I’m biased about Adrian Beltre, Jimmy Johnson, Radiohead, and queso. It’s unassailably true that JD is the best GM the Rangers have ever had, and he’s in the conversation for the most accomplished in the North Texas market over the last generation.

But he didn’t win. The Jimmy Johnson/Jerry Jones duo did. Donnie Nelson did. Bob Gainey did.

The two World Series appearances kicked off six years out of seven in which the Rangers, who hadn’t won a playoff series (or a second playoff game) in their first 38 seasons, played past Game 162. Of course, JD is not the reason they didn’t complete the mission in 2011. (He signed 32-year-old Endy Chavez to non-roster deals before both the 2010 and 2011 seasons, for exactly one reason.  Alas….) But he would have been a big reason had they won.

Hiring Ron Washington, Thad Levine, and A.J. Preller. Trading Mark Teixeira. Trading for Josh Hamilton. Signing Beltre. Signing Yu Darvish. Quietly trading for Nelson Cruz and Mike Napoli. Trading for Cliff Lee, without whom Texas wouldn’t have been a World Series team in 2010. Trading for Cole Hamels, without whom the Rangers wouldn’t have won the division in 2015 and maybe not in 2016 (when the Rangers won 24 of his 32 starts). Trading for a number of prospects who in the last couple years have helped the farm system rise considerably in stature.

Daniels conducted his job with integrity, decency, and selflessness, as quick to redirect credit as to accept blame. That selflessness extended to a willingness to show up every year at our Newberg Report Night events for lengthy, candid Q&A sessions with Rangers fans—without which we wouldn’t have raised more than $200,000 to support the Do It For Durrett Foundation, Ronald McDonald House, Genesis Women’s Shelter, Dallas Police Department, several scouts and their families dealing with life-threatening illness, and other deserving causes. That’s not meant to be a humblebrag; I know a lot of you showed up only because you had the chance to be in a room with JD and ask him questions, questions he would always answer. And that’s more than OK.

Should Daniels have been allowed to serve out the final month and a half of his contract? Should he have been given the opportunity to step down in what has been a disappointing but still improved season? Maybe, but it’s probably less of a sore spot for Daniels than for the columnists critical of how things transpired last week. Regardless of the timing or the circumstances of his departure—understandable given the team’s lack of competitiveness in the division since 2016 (much of which has seemingly been by design)—the Rangers are headed in the right direction. With Corey Seager, Marcus Semien, Jon Gray, and a vastly improved crop of young players already on board, they should be on the right side of .500 and contending for the playoffs very soon. The rebuild appears to be going as planned. And the teams that ultimately win here, not to mention the man now charged with leading baseball operations, Chris Young, will carry Daniels’ stamp.

As a fan who grew up loving the game in the context of a perennially bad and largely invisible baseball team—and who knew no different—it meant a lot to me to watch this team emerge from that morass of irrelevance into more than half a decade of importance, to have their chances at the best kind of history. The Daniels teams won 20 playoff games in a seven-year span, after winning one such game in 38 years. They won at least 90 games in a season five times, after having logged only three such campaigns in franchise history.

I’m grateful for all of that. And I’m grateful for JD, whose impact will almost unquestionably outlast his shelf life. 

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Jamey Newberg

Jamey Newberg

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Jamey Newberg covers the Rangers for StrongSide. He has lived in Dallas his entire life, with the exception of a…

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