March 4th, 2014
This story appears in the March 7 edition of Sports Page Weekly, which is a free publication available in the Metroplex.
During the early portion of spring training for the Texas Rangers, much of the focus has been on a young second baseman who burst onto the pro sports scene in August 2012. He impressed observers with his skill and a cool sense of confidence which was uncanny for someone so young. His notability and importance have only grown because of recent events. Come late February, the Rangers, as well as fans, were wondering when they’d finally see him take to the field out in Surprise.
No, this discussion does not concern Jurickson Profar and his balky right shoulder. The above also applies to newly minted Super Bowl champion quarterback Russell Wilson.
Last December, the Rangers plucked Wilson, better known for his stellar work on the gridiron and whose pro baseball career had been on hiatus since 2011, from the Colorado Rockies in the minor league phase of the Rule 5 draft. The cost to formally acquire the baseball rights of the undersized signal caller? A mere $12,000, roughly the same amount of signing bonus money a team might allot toward a late round draft pick in June.
Throughout the off-season, we’ve read numerous stories about how the Rangers drafting Russell Wilson was not a gimmick. Let’s be clear: this whole episode has been a complete gimmick.
Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines the word “gimmick” with the following description: a method or trick that is used to get people’s attention or to sell something.
Enter the Rangers and Wilson. On March 3rd, the team held a “Russell Wilson Day” of sorts. The Seattle Seahawks quarterback traveled to Surprise, worked out with the team, fielded ground balls, took in the spring game against Cleveland (a 6-4 Rangers loss) and gave a speech to players within the organization. And, yes, Texas has begun selling Rangers jerseys with “3” and “Wilson” on the back, as well as other Wilson-themed merchandise. (I’m sure Frisco RoughRiders shortstop Luis Sardinas, whose jersey number is 3 on the Rangers’ 40-man roster, gave Wilson his blessing to temporarily use the number. Maybe Wilson even persuaded him with financial incentives.)
Now, no one inside or outside the Rangers organization expects Wilson to trade in his facemask and shoulder pads for a glove and some pine tar on a full-time or even part time basis. This was a singular opportunity to stage a cool photo-op, grab some friendly headlines and sell some Rangers gear. In other words, it was a gimmick. For his part, Wilson seems to sincerely enjoy baseball and his respect for those within the game is evident. But other than throwing out the first pitch sometime this summer, he’s not suiting up on a diamond again anytime soon (unless he somehow transforms into some sort of Anthony Wright clone). The Rangers knew this when they took him off the Rockies’ hands a few months ago.
But the fact that drafting Russell Wilson and having him spend a day at spring training was a gimmick does not necessarily make it a bad thing. I realize there’s a negative connotation with the word, but gimmicks can have positive value, as this one does.
First of all, the Rangers should be commended for recognizing and seizing a terrific promotional opportunity and making the most of it in a pseudo-organic way (at least compared with, for example, the Red Sox’ explicit marketing deal with Johnny Manziel, which brought the former Aggie to Fort Myers for a day, wearing a #2 Boston jersey to boot). Additionally, it has brought a bevy of positive attention to a club coming off a mildly disappointing season, fans are buzzing over their team’s connection with the best young quarterback in the NFL (go ahead, compare his numbers with Andrew Luck and tell me who comes out on top) and it allowed the players in the clubhouse to bask in the glow of a bona fide champion.
And therein lies a big reason why the Rangers want to be so closely associated with a second baseman who owns a career .229 batting average in 93 professional baseball games (all below the Advanced-A level). As this organization strives to maintain a team that consistently competes for championships, the hope is that through osmosis this group can absorb as many positive attributes as it can from winners like Wilson. Especially ones who are young enough for current professional athletes to relate to. That sort of thing can potentially go a long way toward developing a team’s culture and identity.
If Adrian Beltre is lifting the Commissioner’s Trophy high above his head come October, I’m not sure he’ll be pointing back to March 3rd and Wilson’s spring training visit as a big reason why, but it could be an intangible piece of the foundation that makes up this team’s season. Intangibles are immeasurable by definition. But in this case for the Rangers, it cost $12,000.
Yes, drafting Russell Wilson and bringing him to spring training was a gimmick. A gimmick that may already be worth the gambit.