“We see leg injuries like this all the time… from motorcycle accidents.”
He was next in the lineage of the great Ranger sluggers. He was supposed to cement his name next to Juan Gonzalez, Ruben Sierra, Jose Canseco and Pudge Rodriguez.
He had a cup of coffee in 1999, but 2000 was supposed to be The Year. He was the #6 overall prospect in baseball after hitting .336 in AAA, Oklahoma City as a 22 year old. He was overflowing with baseball skills- a legitimate five-tool talent.
He is and was, Ruben Mateo. His cool name was his sixth tool, this man was born to play baseball, and play it very well and look very good while doing it.
Since 1990, there have only been six Rangers prospects rank among the top 10 overall prospects in baseball, (as ranked by Baseball America), and Mateo was right in the middle of all the hype, hope and expectations for Rangers fans:
Mark Teixeira #1, 2003
Hank Blalock #3, 2002
Juan Gonzalez #4, 1990
Ruben Mateo #6, 2000
Ivan Rodriguez #7, 1991
Neftali Feliz #9, 2010
To The Scene of the Crime
The Buck Showalter led Diamondbacks strolled into Arlington to face the 27-25 Rangers, who were one game out of first place in the AL West. Tied at 3, going into the seventh inning, Jay Bell hit a solo shot off Rick Helling, to put the D’Backs ahead, 4-3.
The Rangers responded by sending their 5-6-7 hitters up. David Segui grounded out to shortstop, Tony Womack, on two pitches. Then Chad Curtis used two pitches to pop-out to Craig Counsell, at second base. Then came Mateo.
Mateo was sporting a .291 average, and was on his way to a 20-20 season in his rookie year. Mateo swung first-pitch and hit a grounder in the hole to Counsell, who fielded it cleanly, and threw Mateo out, but Mateo was able to make it close. So close he broke his leg, stretching to beat it out. He failed. He fell, and was out for the rest of the season.
June 2, 2000 was the last game Mateo played that season.
Going into June 2, 2000 the Rangers were one game out of first place, at 27-25. A few days after, the Rangers went on a nine-game losing streak, which buried them in the standings. After Mateo broke his leg, the Rangers went 44-66, finishing at 71-91. The Rangers fell to last place shortly after that day, and stayed there for a few years.
Mateo rehabbed in the off-season and by Spring Training, it appeared Ruben was his old-self. The only Ranger to have more home-runs that spring, in Port Charlotte, Florida, was the newly-christened Ranger- “Mr. 252”, Alex Rodriguez.
In Mateo’s rise through the farm system, to become one of The Game’s best prospects, General Manager Doug Melvin, was pestered by many other GM’s who wanted Mateo, and wanted him badly. Melvin was as consistent as they were persistent. No, every time.
Jim Bowden, of the Reds, at the time, was one GM in particular who fancied Mateo. And Mateo’s injury history didn’t dissuade Bowden.
June 15th, 2001, Melvin and Bowden agreed to deal Mateo and recently drafted 3B, Edwin Encarnacion for the Red’s top pitching prospect, Rob Bell.
The throw-in, Encarnacion, eventually became the most successful player in that trade, playing seven somewhat productive seasons in the majors.
Bell gave the Rangers, 199 innings of 6+ ERA pitching in his two seasons in Arlington.
Mateo never found his way after June 2, 2000. He never reached the 20-20 plateau in a season, or in his career- he finished his MLB career with 21 home-runs and 11 stolen bases.
Sadly, June 2, 2000 isn’t the worst part of this story. It is only part of the “Don’t wait too late to deal your prospects” warning. Grievously, we know how much Mateo could have netted at his peak trade value.
Roger Clemens was traded from the Toronto Blue Jays, February 18th 1999, to the New York Yankees for David Wells, Homer Bush and Graeme Lloyd.
Just before that deal was completed though, Melvin had finalized a deal to acquire Clemens for Ruben Mateo and pitchers, Esteban Loiaza and Johnathan Johnson.
This is what Doug Melvin had to say about the deal:
“It would have been a risky deal, but we basically agreed on it,”. Gord Ash, Toronto’s GM, told me he was ready to make the deal, but he wanted to go back to the Yankees first. ”He said he needed to make one more call, but he didn’t think they’d give him the player he wanted,”. The Yankees, however, surprised Ash. They said yes to David Wells.
I commend Melvin for (nearly) making this deal. He was spot on with his timing, it just fell through, unfortunately.
But even more unfortunately, the Rangers faced Clemens in the playoffs, eight months later. The game Clemens started was the last postseason game the Rangers played until, 2010.
On October, 7th, 1999 the Rangers died a decade of baseball death.But the funeral didn’t take place until eight months later, on June 2, 2000. The Rangers were dead and they didn’t know it, until the Mateo crumbled in pain, on the first-base line that fateful day.
Clemens in Ranger Red
The ‘99 ALDS composed of these pitching match-ups:
Game 1: Aaron Sele/Orlando ‘El Duque’ Hernandez,
Game 2: Rick Helling/Andy Pettitte
Game 3: Esteban Loaiza/Roger Clemens
It was an extra phone-call away from being:
Game 1: Clemens/El-Duque
Game 2: Sele/Pettitte
Game 3: Helling/David Cone or Hideki Irabu
Clemens allowed 3 hits, over 7 innings, in Game 3. Just imagine if that was for the Rangers and not against them. Sure, the general public has great disdain for Clemens now, but in 1999, only people in Boston hated him. Texas would’ve embraced the Longhorn in him.
From 1999 on, Clemens pitched another nine seasons, winning two Cy Young Awards, was elected to four All-Star Games, and finished as high as eight in the MVP voting three times in that span.
As toxic as Clemens is now, he could have kept the Rangers alive and relevant during the dark 2000s. And furthermore his salary might have prevented the Rangers from spending $252 million, on the aforementioned Alex Rodriguez.
During the 2000s, the Rangers were in the desert wandering through baseball oblivion, with no pitching to lead them to a land of milk and honey.
Clemens could have been The Guy. He could have been the answer the Rangers desperately searched for in Chan Ho Park, Rob Bell, Colby Lewis (the first time), Vicente Padilla, Brandon McCarthy and Kevin Millwood.
If you’re able to get the right guy, the first time, you save yourself immensely in money and prospects. If they had Clemens, maybe they wouldn’t have had to fight the, “Nobody wants to pitch in Arlington” label. Maybe a legitimate starting pitcher would’ve said “Yes” to the Rangers. Instead the Rangers begged Chan Ho to rob them blind.
Who knows where it would’ve gone. But in the in end it doesn’t really matter. The Rangers were horrible for a decade, and now they have learned from their earlier miscues and are poised to contend for a World Series for years to come. The 2000s in an odd way prepared the path for the current team.
The Reversal of Fortunes
Those ten years, are what I like to define as “The Curse of Mateo”. And it was reversed in exact opposite order of how “The Curse of Mateo” unfolded.
Current general manager, Jon Daniels, was able to close the deal on an “ace” starting pitcher, Cliff Lee. They gave up the top prospect, Justin Smoak, at the right time, and just before he was hindered by ailments, just like Mateo.
Since the trade Smoak has dealt with the death of his father, a thumb injury and a broken nose. He was also rumored to be traded again, as the Mariners might have found his replacement in Jesus Montero, which ironically was a player the Mariners almost traded Lee for.
Just like Toronto, Seattle had a deal finalized (with New York, this time) only to call Texas to see if they would part with whom Seattle really wanted, Smoak.
And Cliff Lee did what Clemens wasn’t given the chance to do- beat the Yankees in the playoffs.
The Rangers went from an embarrassment of a pitching staff, to now an embarrassment of pitching riches. The unqualified Park, Bell, Lewis, Padilla, McCarthy and Millwood are replaced by the more than adequate, Derek Holland, Matt Harrison, Neftali Feliz, Alexi Ogando, Yu Darvish, Martin Perez and Lewis again.
The Mateo story is a painful one to recount, but with the back drop of his story, it makes it even more fulfilling to watch Elvis Andrus wield his glove at short, and Feliz blow easy-heat by all-stars and Derek Holland blossom in the playoffs.
Mateo’s story serves as a guide, a caution and reference for the Rangers. It’s depressing when the top guys miss, but you have to appreciate the ones that do and let go of the ones that fell short.
What we are in the midst of as Rangers fans, is something we narrowly might have missed in the 2000s. We’ll never know, but we ought to enjoy what’s in front of us now, before the “Ghost of Mateo” returns to hang over the ballpark like a Tom Hicks-darkcloud.
The “Curse of Mateo” and the current “Blessings of Smoak”, that we live under now, are tales of what can happen when you are able to close that huge deal.
No offense to Doug Melvin, but Jon Daniels was the man to not only end “The Curse of Mateo”, but he reversed it. He’s a deal-maker, he is truly The Guy.
The Rangers could soon be at a crossroads of a curse or blessing once again. Shortstop, Jurickson Profar, left-handed pitcher Martin Perez, and third baseman Mike Olt are the Rangers top prospects that teams are after. If Cole Hamels, Tim Lincecum, James Shields or someone else of that ilk becomes available, you can guarantee the Rangers are in it.
I don’t think JD would blink if he had to include some of his top prospects in a deal, to add that kind of firepower to the rotation. He of all people knows firsthand, how those deals materialize.