The player who is #47 on my list of the 50 greatest Rangers ever is a name that I think most Rangers fans will recognize. He's someone I had a real hard time ranking, and when I did my preliminary rankings, he didn't make the cut. The more I thought about it, though, and the more I looked at the numbers, the more I realized he had to be included, despite the perceptions of his career.
One of the things that I've noticed in following baseball is a seeming contradiction in perception of players, in the way the local fans perceive them versus the way the baseball community in general perceives them. A player who seemingly comes out of nowhere and exceeds expectations in establishing themselves, continually improving and getting better from year to year, are often loved by the hometown fans - Rusty Greer and Mike Young are two Rangers players that spring to mind. However, these players often tend to be overlooked and underrated by the baseball population at large, at least initially.
Players that are hyped as prospects, though, and burst on the scene playing well at an early age, but then plateau quickly, tend to be overrated by the general baseball public, while at the same time enduring a disproportionate amount of criticism by the local fans for not living up to the early expectations of greatness. Which is why Bobby Witt, once hyped as the savior of the Rangers' pitching staff, is considered a punchline among Rangers fans, even though he had a long, decent major league career. I think that is also why Hank Blalock is starting to catch flak among Rangers fans of late, despite the fact that he's had one fair and two good seasons as the Rangers' third baseman before turning 25 years old...he's not supposed to be fair-to-good, he's supposed to be great, and Rangers fans are disappointed that he's been playing like just another guy rather than the next George Brett.
And that's one of the knocks against #47 on my list...he was hugely hyped, burst on the scene quickly, and looked like he was going to be a superstar. He never was a superstar, of course...his career ended up flaming out much sooner than anyone could have expected, and I'd guess that most Rangers fans think back on him as a bust with a funny name. But he spent four quality seasons in the Rangers outfield, and even though he never really lived up to the hype, he is still probably one of the two best centerfielders in the Rangers' history.
And thus, we have the 47th greatest Ranger of all time, Oddibe McDowell.
Oddibe McDowell was the Rangers' first round draft pick in 1984. The early-80s were a dark time for the Rangers...after coming just one win away from finishing first in the A.L. West in the first half of the strike-split 1981 season, the Rangers began a downward spiral, going 24-26 in the second half of the 1981 season, and following that up with 64-98, 77-85, and 69-92 seasons. And these were awful offensive teams...the 1982 team finished last in the A.L. in runs, OBP and slugging, while the 1983 and 1984 teams were 13th in the A.L. in each category. The big problem was a black hole in the up-the-middle positions...while the 1984 team got OPS+s of over 100 for its starting corner infielders and outfielders, their starters at the four up-the-middle slots averaged an OPS+ of 56. None of those four starters posted an OBP of better than .300, and only one posted a slugging percentage in the .300s.
At the end of the 1984 season, the Rangers had a bad team, bereft of good young players, and with a terrible farm system. Jeff Kunkel, the #3 overall pick in the 1983 draft and the Rangers #1 prospect coming into the 1984 season, had been rushed to the majors in 1984 and had been clearly overwhelmed, posting a .204/.218/.324 line while striking out in almost a quarter of his plate appearances in a part-time role. Young outfielders Tommy Dunbar and George Wright were struggling in the major leagues. BA's top 10 prospect list coming into 1984 included such luminaries as Mike Rubel, Curtis Wilkerson, Al Lachowitz, Otto Gonzalez, and Dwayne Henry. With the organization adrift, in September of 1984, g.m. Chuck Klein was fired, Tom Grieve was promoted to general manager, and an organization in need of salvation began casting about for its savior.
And Oddibe McDowell appeared to fit the bill.
McDowell was one of the stars of America's 1984 Olympic baseball team, part of a tremendous collection of amateur talent that included the likes of Will Clark, Mark McGwire, Bobby Witt, B.J. Surhoff, Barry Larkin, and Billy Swift. He hit a two run homer in the semi-finals to propel the Americans to the gold medal round, where they were upset by Japan. Nevertheless, McDowell's Olympic performance had impressed all who followed the team, including the Rangers front office, who had selected the Arizona State outfielder with the 12th pick of the 1984 draft.
McDowell's Olympic commitment kept him from playing minor league ball in the Rangers system in 1984, but from the time he arrived in spring training, it was obvious that he was something special. The Rangers had veterans Gary Ward and Larry Parrish manning the corner outfield slots, with phenom-turned-disappointment George Wright penciled in as the starting centerfielder for the start of the 1985 season, but from the outset, McDowell looked like someone who wouldn't need much time in the minors before he'd be ready for the big leagues.
McDowell broke camp with Oklahoma, the Rangers' AAA affiliate, an almost unheard-of jump for a player with no professional experience. Nevertheless, McDowell was up to the challenge, starting the season on fire, and hitting .400, with 7 doubles, an incredible 8 triples, and 2 homers over the first six weeks of the AAA season.
While McDowell was tearing it up in his first exposure to AAA, the Rangers fell flat on their face coming out of the gate. The Rangers lost 5 in a row and 7 of their first 8 to start the 1985 season, before seemingly righting themselves by sweeping a three game series at Milwaukee and taking the opener of a home series against Baltimore to get to 5-7 for the season. The team cratered after that, though, going 4-16 over their next 20 before Tom Grieve finally pulled the plug on manager Doug Rader, replacing him with Bobby Valentine on May 17.
Bobby V. wanted to shake things up, of course. The offense was struggling, with the biggest culprits being Pete O'Brien, who had had such a promising sophomore season in 1984, posting just a .171/.258/.299 line, and centerfielder George Wright, who continued his inexplicable collapse, hitting an execrable .170/.220/.202.
But more than that, the team was descending into irrelevancy. The Rangers had tried to make a splash in free agency by adding veterans Cliff Johnson, Burt Hooton, and Dave Rozema, but rather than revitalize the fan base, those moves seemed to symbolize the ineffectualness of the organization. A team that had drawn barely a million fans in 1984 while finishing last in the A.L. West appeared on its way to another disappointing, demoralizing season, and Grieve and Valentine needed something that would energize both the fans and the teams.
And thus, on May 19, 1985, Valentine's third day as the Rangers' manager, the organization called up Oddibe McDowell, and Valentine installed him as the Rangers' leadoff hitter and centerfielder, a role he pretty well kept for himself for the rest of the season. And for Rangers fans, there was finally something to go out to the stadium for...the opportunity to see the young, fast, exciting star from the Olympic team, the guy who would be the cornerstone for the new, rebuilding Texas Rangers.
McDowell was an easy guy to root for. He was small, but he was also athletic and muscular...I remember seeing him, and being amazed that a guy that small could have thighs that big. He just looked like an athlete, someone who could play cornerback in the NFL if he wanted, or who could have been a good NBA point guard if he were a few inches taller. And he had a certain grace out on the field, a way of making everything he did out there look easy, look natural. He looked like he had been born to play baseball...and it seemed, to a 14 year old lifelong Rangers fan looking for something to cling to, that he'd been sent to save the Texas Rangers.
McDowell got off to a slow start, striking out three times in his major league debut, and getting hit by a pitch in his only other at bat...he'd have to wait one more day to even put a ball in play for the first time, much less get his first major league hit. But after starting out 1 for his first 23, McDowell finally had his breakout game on a Saturday night in Arlington Stadium against the Boston Red Sox, going 3 for 5 with 5 RBIs, including a bases-loaded triple off of Al Nipper in the 2nd inning that broke open the game and helped the Rangers coast to a 10-3 victory.
McDowell continued to gradually improve as the season went on, ultimately posting a .239/.304/.431 line, good for a .269 EQA and a WARP3 of 5.0 (due in large part to his excellent centerfield defense). For a 22 year old who had made his professional debut in April of that year, you couldn't ask for much more, particularly given how encouraging his progress was...his OBP improved every month, and September was easily his best month, posting a .275/.383/.549 line.
The most memorable McDowell moment, of course, came on July 23, 1985, in a game at Arlington Stadium against the Cleveland Indians. McDowell went 5 for 5 for the game, and with two outs in the bottom of the 9th, the Rangers up 7-4, McDowell hit a homer off of Indian reliever Tom Waddell, giving him the first cycle in Rangers history.
It is one of a handful of Rangers moments where I can vividly remember where I was when it happened...I was at Toledo Bend with my family, on vacation, and staying in some little cabin near the lake. We were fishing, but I kept running in to check on the game and see how the Rangers were doing. Once McDowell tripled in the fourth inning, making him just a home run away from the cycle, I increased the frequency of my trips, making sure that I would be by the radio when it was close to McDowell's time to hit...I had to see if McDowell was going to be able to do it.
Still, McDowell was one of the only bright spots of the season for the Rangers in 1985...the Rangers finished last in the A.L. West at 62-99, a whopping 11.5 games back of 6th place Seattle, and veteran Buddy Bell, a fan favorite and one of the few remaining links to the good Rangers teams from the late-70s, was dealt to the Cincinnati Reds. Coming into the 1986 season, most prognosticators were predicting another last place finish for the Rangers, although a few conceded that, with a good year and some regression by the Mariners, the Rangers could finish 6th.
1986 was probably the most special season for me, as a Rangers fan, in my life. In a lot of ways, it was similar to the 2004 season, and I believe I probably look back on that season the way a lot of today's young Rangers fans will look back on the 2004 season years from now. It was a season where nothing was expected of the Rangers, where they were written off before spring training even started, where, as in 2004, Rangers fans were expecting to take comfort in nothing more than seeing if some young players could step up and fighting the Mariners for last place.
Instead, with a lineup that featured Toby Harrah, Gary Ward, and a bunch of kids, with a rotation that had the 38 year old Charlie Hough anchoring a group of rookie starters, the Rangers actually found themselves in a pennant race. They spent the early part of the season hovering around the .500 mark, winning a couple, dropping a couple, but impressing if only because a .500 record seemed so far beyond what they were capable of.
The turning point came on June 2, 1986, and McDowell was a major part of it. The Rangers came into Chicago with a 24-24 record, having just been swept in a three game set at Kansas City. The sweep put the Royals in a tie for first with the Rangers, with the California Angels just a half-game back, and conventional wisdom said that the Rangers were now done...they had a nice little run, but with the arrival of June and the summer heat, they would fade back into mediocrity, letting the Royals and Angels slug it out for the A.L. West title.
McDowell led off that June 2 game at Comiskey Park by drawing a walk. He was bunted over the second base by Scooter Fletcher, and Pete O'Brien drove him in with an RBI single. That 1 run ended up holding up, with Charlie Hough pitching the Rangers to a 1-0 victory.
But more importantly, that win was the start of a hot streak by the Rangers that would vault them into first place, as the Rangers took the next two at Comiskey as well, and then sweeping a four game series against the Mariners at Arlington Stadium to win seven in a row, as part of a 10-1 stretch.
And McDowell kept coming up big throughout that run. He started a rally on June 4 in the third inning that led to Pete Incaviglia's go-ahead homer in the third, and homered in the 9th to give the Rangers an insurance run. In the opener of the 4 game series with Seattle, McDowell tripled in Curtis Wilkerson early in the game to give the Rangers a 2-0 lead and scored later that inning, then doubled home Geno Petralli in the bottom of the 10th to give the Rangers a come-from-behind, 6-5 victory. In the opener of a doubleheader with Seattle on June 7, McDowell led off the bottom of the first with a homer off of Mike Morgan. The next day, McDowell started the Rangers off with a triple off of Mike Moore to lead off the first, scoring the Rangers' first run in a 5-4, extra-innings victory. And on June 11, in extra innings at Minnesota, Oddibe (who had come into the game as a pinch-hitter in the 11th) hit a three-run homer in the 16th inning to give the Rangers the lead, and the win, against the Twins.
The next day, the Rangers won at home against the A's, 2-1, to go 34-25 on the season, and giving them a 4.5 game lead on both the Royals and the Angels. Alas, it would be the high mark for the season...it would not be until September 23, with the season basically over, that the Rangers would hit 9 games over .500 again. Texas lost their next five in a row, including three in a row to the Angels, bringing them back down to Earth. Like a lot of young teams, they continued to be streaky, winning several in a row, and then going on a losing streak, but managed to hang with the Angels for a while.
As late as July 8, they were 45-38, a half game back of the Angels, and it still seemed like this magical team would be able to hang on. But they lost 10 of their next 12, falling well behind the Angels, and seemingly were finally dead for good. The Rangers never quit, though, and after an Angels loss on August 23, the Rangers were just 3 games back, breathing some hope back into the Rangers fans who wanted to believe in this young team. Unfortunately, California heated up then, winning 9 of their next 10 and putting the Rangers away for good, although the Rangers ended up in second place, five games back, with an 87-75 record.
For Oddibe McDowell, though, it looked like a step forward after his 1985 rookie season. He finished 8th in the A.L. in runs and 6th in steals, and had an impressive 6.6 WARP3 for the season. He was 4th on the team in VORP, behind Pete O'Brien, Larry Parrish, and Scott Fletcher, and at age 23, he was becoming the poster child for the new, young, exciting Texas Rangers, the team that seemed to embody the personality of their brash, arrogant, 36 year old manager, Bobby Valentine. It looked like the Rangers had a bright future in front of them, and that Oddibe McDowell was going to be one of their rising stars.
Alas, as it turns out, 1986 was Oddibe McDowell's best season as a major leaguer...incredibly, he would spend just four and a half more seasons in the major leagues, and would never again match what he did for the Rangers in 1986. 1987 was a disappointment for McDowell and the Rangers...their offense improved, but the pitching fell apart, with phenom Eddie Correa succumbing to injuries, and a bullpen that had been stellar in 1986 coming back down to Earth. The team started the season 1-10, digging themselves an enormous hole from the very beginning, and although they managed to fight back to a .500 record once, hitting 49-49 on July 27, they were never really in the race, and they finished tied for last at 75-87, albeit just 10 games out of first place.
McDowell regressed from 1986 to 1987, with his VORP dropping from 31.3 to 18.6, his EQA dropping from .277 to .272, and his WARP3 dropping from 6.6 to 4.7. He missed a fair amount of time - if I'm not mistaken, I think 1987 was the year he was shelved after he sliced his hand open buttering a roll at the Rangers' Welcome Home Luncheon - and while he wasn't exactly a bust, he did not take the next step towards stardom so many were expecting.
It only got worse in 1988, both for the Rangers and for McDowell. This was the first year of the Bash Brothers dynasty in the A.L. West, and Oakland ran away with the division, ultimately winning 104 games. The Rangers once again started slowly, but fought their way back to mediocrity, sitting at 37-39 at the end of June. Once again, though, they fell apart in the second half, going 33-52 from July 1 on, finishing in sixth once again, with a 70-91 record.
While there was plenty of blame to go around for the Rangers' poor record - they were 12th in runs scored and 8th in ERA - McDowell's season was particularly disappointing. McDowell got off to an abysmal start, and hovered around the Mendoza line the first couple of months of the season. Finally, the organization, having run out of patience with Oddibe and his .205/.285/.310 line, sent him to AAA on June 17.
McDowell only spent three weeks in Oklahoma before being recalled, and he played much better on his return, ultimately posting a .247/.311/.355 line for the season, with a .260 EQA and a 3.1 WARP3. Still only 25, it seemed like there was still time for him to harness his incredible physical gifts, to get his career back on track.
The Rangers, though, had run out of patience with the guy who at one time had been the future of the franchise. Tom Grieve knew that he needed to make significant changes to this Rangers team, and on December 6, 1988, he traded McDowell, Jerry Browne, and Pete O'Brien to the Cleveland Indians for Julio Franco, just one move in what was one of the bigger overhauls the team has undergone in one offseason.
McDowell continued his downward slide with the Indians, sporting an OBP and slugging percentage each below .300 in the first half of 1989, prompting the Indians to send him to Atlanta for Dion James in July. McDowell blossomed in Atlanta in 1989, putting up a .297 EQA in 76 games and leading some to think he was just a late-bloomer who was finally putting it all together. Unfortunately, he regressed the following year, and ended up being released.
McDowell bounced around in the minors after that, spending some time in the Angels' and Orioles' organizations before returning to the Rangers in 1993. He ended up contributing off the bench for the 1994 Ranger team, putting up a .263 EQA in a season that was cut short due to the player's strike. That ended up being his last hurrah, as he retired after the season.
Oddibe McDowell never had the career a lot of us Rangers fans hoped he would. It was a bitter lesson for me, as a young fan, to accept...that many of these players that you think will be great never end up being as good as you want them to be.
But McDowell ended up having a nice, if short, major league career, one better than most of those coming up through the minor leagues will ever have. And while the story of his career may be one of great expectations gone unfulfilled, that shouldn't take away from the fact that he was a productive player for several years, and one of the better players to ever don a Rangers uniform.