Thiel: Mariners fans get to see what top looks like

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by Art Thiel

SportsPressNorthwest

Posted on May 22, 2012 at 10:31 AM

What would it be like to watch a major league baseball team with replica players of Mickey Mantle andPedro Martinez in their primes?

Not bobblehead replicas, which are the specialty of the Mariners. Human replicas, as in Josh Hamilton and Yu Darvish, who are the specialties of the Texas Rangers.

Find out Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday what it looks like to aim high in MLB  -- and hit it.

The first 2012 visit of the two-time defending American League champs provides a glimpse at what it is to want to win a World Series -- and not be the Yankees or Red Sox. The Rangers (26-16) have slowed a little from their blistering start but remain the consensus favorite in the AL for a third consecutive appearance in late October.

The look starts at the top, with one of the most cutthroat hombres in baseball history, Nolan Ryan, as president and part owner in a group that bought the Rangers out of bankruptcy court in August, 2010, for $608 million. Instead of recoiling after the purchase price, the Rangers reloaded with a new cable TV deal that allowed them a $120 million player payroll for 2012 (compare Seattle at $82 million).

The look continues with Hamilton, who turns 31 today as the game's best position player, and goes through Yu Darvish, on the mound tonight against Felix Hernandez as the Mariners begin a six-game homestand.

After just eight starts, it's apparent that Darvish (6-1, 2.60 ERA) is already among the top 10 pitchers in baseball, on the way to justifying the $51.7 million posting fee to his Japanese team and his $56 million, six-year deal that costs the Rangers just $5 million this season.

Tom Verducci of si.com suggested that Darvish's repertoire and competitive toughness is comparable to Martinez, the Red Sox star who dominated the Mariners for a decade. Hamilton's combination of premier athletic talent and psychological vulnerability is a strong reflection of Mantle, who, when sober and healthy, was in the 1950s and '60s what Hamilton, sober and healthy, is 50 years later.

Besides the raw talent, Ryan, Hamilton and Darvish exude a relentless desire to win that seems to permeate the Rangers, who a few years ago were in bad shape financially and as competitively inert as the Mariners' operation.

In the 10 years prior to winning the AL title in 2010, the Rangers had eight losing seasons, and had never been to the Series as either the Rangers or Washington Senators. Now it's going to be hard to keep them out of it.

Nor is it merely the stars who sustain the enterprise. Among the Rangers' usual eight position players in the lineup are seven hitting above .265 -- Ian Kinsler (.276), Elvis Andrus (.325), Hamilton (.389),  Adrian Beltre (.306), Michael Young (.280), David Murphy (.271) and Nelson Cruz (.268). The Mariners have two --  Kyle Seager (.292) and Ichiro (.281).

The Rangers' long-term weakness, pitching, was resolved some time ago. The team ERA is third in baseball and first in the AL at 3.24 while the Mariners' 3.96 is 18th.

Barring multiple injuries or another tumble off the sobriety wagon for Hamilton, the Rangers are solid as sequoia. But Hamilton's angel/devil personal matchup makes the Rangers all the more compelling a story, particularly because he's in his contract year, and it doesn't sound as if the Rangers are going to try to his extend his contract during the season.

Ryan told reporters late last week that any deal to keep Hamilton a Ranger will have to wait until November or December.

"Those kinds of impact players don't come along very often," Ryan said. "You can count them on one hand. So he's definitely a very special player that means an awful lot to any organization and very much to our organization.

"We're going to make every effort to do what we can do, whether that works out or not, we'll just have to wait and see."

In case you missed it, Hamilton leads the AL in average (.389), RBI (46) and home runs (18, including four in one game last week).  In 64 career games against Seattle, he has a .924 OPS that includes a .286 average with 16 home runs and 44 RBI.

Let's not even engage the discussion about a Mariners' bid for Hamilton in free agency. After the Prince Fielder non-event during the last free-agent period, it's clear that current ownership doesn't have the stomach for the battle.

The neglect can always be defended by saying he's a risk for relapse and that his reckless, all-out play has helped keep him from a full season in all but one of his MLB years. Then again, Hamilton is an unlikely candidate to leave a hitter's park and a franchise committed to winning for  . . . something else.

At least he'll be in town this week. As a Mariners fan, there's no requirement to cheer him, but as baseball fan and fellow strider of the earth, feel free to enjoy one remarkable dude whose daily battle is about more than a Hernandez fastball at the knees.

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