THE STARTERspotted the backup in the crowded clubhouse and walked over to him. "Hey,so you think you can beat Ichiro's record?" he asked. ¬∂ "I don't know,man, it's going to be hard," answered the backup, who knew exactly what thestarter was chirping about: Ichiro Suzuki's 262 hits in 2004, the single-seasonmajor league record. ¬∂ "I think you can do it," the starter egged on."You should go after it." ¬∂ "It's going to be hard," the backupsaid, before barking back, "Why don't you go after it?" ¬∂ The startercracked a smile, and walked away. ¬∂ It was as long a conversation as the twosecond basemen had had since they were college teammates, cast in the sameroles: Dustin Pedroia, starter. Ian Kinsler, backup. Here they were last month,reunited as American League teammates in the All-Star Game at Yankee Stadium,each of them having splendid seasons—Kinsler of the Texas Rangers with anMLB-high 134 hits and an AL-leading .337 average, Pedroia of the Boston Red Soxright behind him, with 124 hits while batting .314.
This is an article from the Aug. 11, 2008 issue
Six years afterthey manned the same position at Arizona State, Kinsler, 26, and Pedroia, 24,are leading the best crop of second basemen the game has seen in decades(sidebar, page 35). While they were vying to become the third player at theposition since 1975 to win a batting title, the Florida Marlins' Dan Uggla, 28,and the Philadelphia Phillies' Chase Utley, 29, are challenging the alltimerecord for home runs by a second baseman, shared by Rogers Hornsby and DaveyJohnson (42). Four second basemen have won Most Valuable Player honors since1950, but with less than two months left in the season, Utley and Kinsler arefront-runners for the award in their respective leagues. Second basemen havenot won both MVPs in the same year since Hall of Famers Eddie Collins andJohnny Evers did so in '14.
"Ten yearsago the future was the very athletic, very dynamic offensive shortstop: A-Rod,Jeter, Nomar, Tejada," says Rangers assistant general manager Thad Levine."Now, the wave of dynamic offensive players dominating the game are secondbasemen."
No second basemanhas had a more remarkable season than Kinsler. At week's end the 6-foot,200-pound leadoff hitter—the table-setter for the most prolific offense in themajors—led the AL not only in hits (148) and runs (93) but was tied for firstin extra-base hits (56) and multihit games (44). He has a chance to become thefirst player to lead the league in hits, runs and total bases (236, second inthe AL) since Carl Yastrzemski did so in 1967, his Triple Crown season."Josh Hamilton is having a great season," says Seattle Marinersleftfielder Raul Iba√±ez of the Rangers' outfielder who leads the majors inRBIs, "but Kinsler is the engine that makes that offense go."
Five years agoMike Grouse, the Rangers' scout who signed Kinsler, projected that theinfielder would be a "solid major leaguer" who would hit .275 with 10home runs a season. You might say that, across the organization, theprojections have changed. Last week when Kinsler's name came up during ameeting of Texas front office executives, the team's director of playerdevelopment, Scott Servais, a former Astros catcher, predicted, "This kidis going to have a better career than Craig Biggio."
IAN KINSLER wasnever supposed to be the next Craig Biggio—or the next anybody, for thatmatter. Utley, Uggla and Pedroia were All-Americas at Division I programs—UCLA,Memphis and Arizona State, respectively. Kinsler, meanwhile, bounced amongcampuses, from Central Arizona to Arizona State to Missouri. Ask Tim Huson, hisfriend and former teammate at Central Arizona, to recall a moment when Kinslerdistinguished himself on the field, and there is a long silence before Husonoffers, "Ian was a good player, but ... I can't think of anything."
Kinsler hadalways played in the shadow of others. "When you look back on it, it'sdefinitely true," he says. Sitting in a restaurant near Rangers Ballpark inArlington, Kinsler puts down his burger and holds a 10-minute monologue inwhich he lists all the former teammates who received more attention than hedid. At Canyon Del Oro High outside Tucson there were the slugging Duncanbrothers, Shelley (now in the Yankees' system) and Chris (Cardinals). There wasalso Brian Anderson, an outfield star who went on to become a first-round pickof the White Sox in 2003. At Central Arizona, a junior college where Kinslerplayed his freshman year, there was Scott Hairston (Padres), who came from athree-generation big league family, as well as flamethrower Rich Harden (Cubs).And before his sophomore year Kinsler transferred to Arizona State, where hearrived on campus shortly after Pedroia.
No one has cast alarger shadow over Kinsler than the 5'9" Red Sox infielder. In 2002, uponhearing that the Sun Devils were planning to play Pedroia at second and were inneed of a shortstop, Kinsler had transferred to Arizona State, to play for aDivision I powerhouse and to be with his then girlfriend Tess, who is now hiswife. "The first couple games of the season, I played well," recallsKinsler of his lone season as a Sun Devil, "but then we hosted a tournamentearly in the season: four games in four days. I played like crap." Kinslereventually landed on the bench, replaced by Pedroia, who moved back toshortstop and was named first-team All Pac-10. Kinsler shrugs at the memory."That's college baseball," he says.
Regarding hisrelationship with Pedroia, Kinsler says, "It's just weird. No one reallyhas understood it. At the All-Star Game they would think, Oh, they playedtogether in college, now they're together at the All-Star Game, they'refriends. Pedroia went to ASU, was a Pac-10 Player of the Year, was a[second-round] draft pick and made the big leagues. It's pretty simple. For me,let's just say it was a process. It took me a while to figure thingsout."
Kinsler leftArizona State with a newfound determination. His father, Howard, a retiredprison warden, noticed a change the summer before his son enrolled at Missouri,when the two spent every day playing pepper. "One time, the ball took a badhop and hit him in the mouth," says Howard. "We both thought he chippeda tooth. But he just said, 'Keep 'em coming.'" Says his coach at Missouri,Tim Jamieson, "From the day Ian stepped through the doors here you couldsee it on his face: He was on a mission."
After a fine yearwith the Tigers (he hit .335 with a .416 on-base percentage and a .536 sluggingpercentage), Kinsler was selected by the Rangers in the 17th round of the 2003draft. He had an unremarkable first season in the minors, but then exploded in'04, hitting .345 with a .573 slugging percentage and 73 extra-base hits in 504at bats at the Class A and Double A levels. "I don't know what happenedthat year," says Huson. "I kept checking Baseball America box scoresand every night, he's going 2 for 3, 3 for 4. I'd call him and would ask,'Really, what did you do? What did you learn?' He'd say, 'Dude, I have noidea.'"
Early in '04Grouse, the Texas scout who signed Kinsler, watched the second baseman in aClass A game in Clinton, Iowa, and could see a difference. "He didn't bulkup and he wasn't huge, but he did look stronger," he says. "And theswing was different: more compact, quick through the zone, so quick that he wasable to keep the barrel in the hitting zone for so long." But even asKinsler was putting up big numbers during that season, the Rangers still didn'tappreciate what they had. That July they struck a deal with the Rockies to sendKinsler and another prospect to Colorado for Larry Walker—but the former NL MVPvetoed the trade.
The next springthe Rockies made another run at Kinsler. General manager Dan O'Dowd and Levine,then the Rockies' assistant G.M., were watching a spring training game betweentheir club and the Rangers in Tucson. "Our big leaguers were playingagainst their B team," says Levine, "but Ian still drives in five orsix runs, with three or four extra-base hits." During the game O'Dowd gaveLevine a list of players to offer Texas for Kinsler. "He wanted the dealdone before our bus got back to our camp," says Levine, who phoned hisfront office friend at the Rangers, Jon Daniels, then the team's assistant G.M.On the other line, Daniels just laughed.
PLAYERS ANDmanagers who have seen Kinsler often this season expect that he will continueto put up big numbers. "I felt he would come down to earth until I facedhim again," says Justin Duchscherer, the A's All-Star righthander, whosurrendered two hits in four at bats to Kinsler in a 9--4 Rangers' win on July26. "He's one of those guys you have to really mix it up on. Most hittershave [a location] that you can exploit. This guy has trouble with fastballs in.This guy has trouble with breaking balls down. [Kinsler] doesn't have a holelike that."
"He handles avariety of pitches, and he can really drive the ball," says Angels managerMike Scioscia. "As he gets more experience and starts to define whatpitchers are trying to do to him, he's going to become a tougher and tougherout."
Of all thenumbers that Kinsler has put up this season, his teammates and coaches saythey're most amazed by his stolen base percentage: At week's end, Kinsler had25 steals in 26 attempts. (His only caught stealing came when he was pickedoff.) Kinsler's success rate is surprising given that his speed is, accordingto Levine, "only a tick above average." That Kinsler is one of the AL'sbiggest threats on the bases is a testament to his innate instincts and, asscouts put it, to his "twitch speed." Says Grouse, "[Kinsler] goesfrom first to third faster than anyone, because he has that God-given abilityto read the ball so well off the bat."
Howard Kinslersaw his son's innate feel for the game early on. "I'd toss him fly ballswhen he was four, and he'd get under them like he'd been doing it his wholelife," he says. Howard pushed Ian hard, and—as you would expect from a manwhose job was overseeing 800 convicted felons—was never afraid to disciplinehis son, particularly on the baseball field, where he coached several of Ian'steams. Ian was 13 years old and the best player on a Pony league team playingfor a championship when Howard caught Ian rolling his eyes as his dad gaveorders to the team. "I benched him, without hesitation," says Howard."Everyone was like, 'What are you doing?' It was one of my warden moves.Don't roll your eyes or you're going into lockup." With Ian on the bench,Howard's team lost the game.
In the Rangers'clubhouse, no one pushes Kinsler harder than his double play partner, MichaelYoung, a five-time All-Star. The 31-year-old shortstop is soft-spoken in theclubhouse and even-tempered on the field, but he's not afraid to get inKinsler's face. "In Oakland [in July] he got pissed at me," saysKinsler. "One game we're up by six runs in the ninth. The pitcher fell 3and 0 on me, I swung and fouled it off. He comes up to me after the game andsays, 'Man, you don't need to be swinging 3 and 0 with a six-run lead.' So weargued about it." Kinsler adds, "Now, I think I agree withhim."
"They'reinseparable," Rangers catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia says of the two middleinfielders, who during the off-season worked out together almost daily inDallas. "I think Mike likes to take him under his wing because he sees alot of himself in Ian—hardworking, humble. Ian just follows him around like apup." Which is what Kinsler did at Yankee Stadium last month. "Hecouldn't stay still," says Young. "He called me about six times. He'sasking, 'Where do we need to be? What should I wear?' I'm like, 'It's six inthe morning. Go comb your hair.'"
Kinsler oftensays that he's trying to model his career after Young's, which is why he tookin the shortstop as an adjunct adviser during contract negotiations with Texasthis past spring. Having identified Kinsler as the player they want to buildaround, the Rangers made it a top priority during spring training to lock himup to a long-term deal. The team gave Kinsler and his agents a list ofcomparable second basemen who had recently signed deals: the Diamondbacks'Orlando Hudson, a two-time Gold Glove winner (one year, $6.25 million); theReds' Brandon Phillips, one of two second basemen in history with 30 home runsand 30 steals in a season (four years, $27 million); and the Yankees' RobinsonCano, a career .304 hitter (four years, $30 million). Kinsler disputed thecomparisons. "He said he had more power than Hudson, was a morewell-rounded player than Phillips," says Levine. "He was a littlestumped with Cano and actually impressed by the numbers. But by then we decidedthrowing him comparables wasn't getting us anywhere. Ian fancies himself as aunique player, as a one-of-a-kind. And that's what he's proven himself tobe."
Eventually thetwo sides settled: five years, $22 million. At the time the contract—thelargest ever given by the Rangers to a homegrown product—appeared to be riskyfor a young hitter with 250 career games under his belt. Today it's regarded asone of the best deals in baseball.
Kinsler has afledgling fan base. There are a handful of Facebook groups devoted to him, fromthe "Sorry Dustin Pedroia, But You Ain't Got Nothin' on Ian Kinsler"group (62 members) to the "Ian Kinsler Fans!" group (275 members). (Inthe interests of full disclosure, the "Dustin Pedroia Eats Thunder andS---- Lightning" group has 944 members.) But Kinsler can still walk thestreets of Dallas without causing too many heads to turn. Out for lunch lastweek, he and Tess patiently waited 20 minutes for a table in the middle of abustling waiting area and went unnoticed. Told that an elderly woman in a blueKinsler number 5 T-shirt had just left the restaurant, Kinsler looked relieved."I like interacting with the fans," he said, "but it's kind of niceto blend in, too."
He'd better enjoyit while it lasts.
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