You don’t always expect the coach who booted a star baseball player off his team to later offer that player a ringing endorsement, but not all coaches have the kindness of an Andy Lopez — and not all baseball players have the hitting acumen of a Willie Calhoun.
Shortly after the 2017 MLB trade deadline, Keith Meister — the Texas Rangers’ team doctor and Lopez’s longtime friend — called the former Arizona coach to inquire about the one-year Wildcat. Lopez held nothing back.
The Rangers had just acquired Calhoun, then the Los Angeles Dodgers’ fourth-rated prospect, as the top prize in a sizable haul for Yu Darvish, perhaps the most coveted pitcher on the market. Meister wanted to know what the Rangers were getting in Calhoun.
“When Doc called me, I said, ‘Keith, the guy can hit. He wakes up and can hit,’” Lopez said. “I knew he was a big-time hitter as soon as he got to the plate. He was gifted. You could just feel he’d really hit. I told Keith, ‘He was a joy to work with. I think I just had him at the wrong time. We would have left on fantastic terms … if he would’ve gone to class.’”
And now you begin to understand how one of the most talented Wildcats in recent memory lasted just one year in Tucson.
• • •
Life is finally starting to calm down for Calhoun, who is now the Rangers’ most promising young player.
After a tumultuous two years bouncing up and down from Triple-A to the majors, Calhoun has hit his groove. Seeing regular playing time in left field and batting in the coveted third spot in the lineup, Calhoun has hits in 20 of his last 28 games, and as of Wednesday’s 10-9 win over Tampa Bay, has hit in five straight games and seven of nine. He’s had three multi-hit games in his last five.
All that is to say: He is unburdened.
So why, then, does he look quite so stressed on this early September afternoon in the Bronx, his fingers moving across his cellphone screen a mile a minute?
Easy answer: The Rangers had their fantasy football draft the night before at a ritzy steakhouse in New York, and Calhoun is full-on wheelin’-and-dealin’ a few hours before game time. His prey was Rangers pitcher Taylor Guerrieri and his target was Rams running back Todd Gurley.
The Rangers aren’t exactly playing fantasy football for peanuts, so Calhoun was glued in.
The rest of his teammates better watch out. Now we’re seeing what Calhoun can do when he’s glued in.
“The last two years, I felt like I had to get six hits every game to be able to play the next day,” Calhoun said. “Being able to play loose and relaxed is much better; it almost feels like the minor leagues again, when you know you’d go to the field and you’d play. Having the coaching staff believe in you is the best thing.”
If he hasn’t always felt that way, it’s understandable.
Calhoun gained some confidence at the tail end of a mid-September 2017 call-up , finishing the year on a five-game hitting streak and an 8-for-18 stretch. But he began the 2018 season in Round Rock, Texas, with the Rangers’ Triple-A affiliate. He was called up in late July, but after batting .269 in his first 21 games, he platooned for the rest of the season and only played sporadically. The off days toyed with his psyche, and he finished the season batting just .222, including .100 in September.
In his exit meeting at the end of last season, the Rangers were blunt with him.
“Pretty much they said I wasn’t good enough, that if I’m supposed to be an offensive-first guy, I need to put up the numbers to justify that,” he said.
“That kind of got me in check: ‘Well damn, maybe I do need to take heed of what they’re saying.’ In the minors, I’d been elite. Being a top prospect coming up, you kind of get babied. That was eye-opening for me. It woke me up when they told me that. I didn’t know what to say. You have to take constructive criticism and build from it. Biggest thing for me — can’t take it personal.”
It wasn’t the first time one of his coaches delivered bad news.
And it wasn’t the first time he’d respond to it.
• • •
By Lopez’s penultimate season at the UA, he says, “I was a dinosaur.”
Strict but not unfeeling, Lopez had a simple rule.
“Miss study hall or class and you can’t suit up for either a practice or a game,” he said. “I lived by that rule. I had starting pitchers not get to start because they didn’t go to study hall. I’m not gonna have a student manager walk a player to class.”
For Calhoun, Lopez said, “it wasn’t a major issue, but it was big enough to cost him his grades.”
There’s been some speculation about what caused Calhoun to eventually exit Arizona. It wasn’t as if Lopez didn’t want him. Calhoun hit .247 as a UA freshman, starting 43 games on a team that featured future big-leaguer Kevin Newman and top prospect Bobby Dalbec.
“He put up spectacular numbers, comes from a good family — mom and dad were dynamite,” Lopez said. “I wish we had him at a different time of his life.”
For Calhoun, it was his first wake-up call.
“‘Lopes’ got rid of me, and I’m glad he kicked me out,” Calhoun said. “I’m happy he did. It flipped my life upside down. I had no scholarship, nothing. It was juco or get a job. A friend of mine at Yavapai (College), Chandler Eden, said, ‘We have a spot for you; you should come here and play.’ A few days before the semester, I said, ‘I’m gonna go for it.’”
Calhoun batted .432 with 31 home runs and 85 RBIs, becoming a coveted prospect. The Dodgers drafted him in the fourth round.
“I definitely grew up,” Calhoun said. “I got wiser. Instead of pointing the finger at other people, I point it at myself. Instead of blaming others, you kind of have to look at yourself and put your ego to the side.”
A bit wiser and still with braces in his mouth, Calhoun is baby-faced but brimming with confidence. He’s even starting to sound like his coaches.
“Two words — one extreme is blaming and the other extreme is ownership, and that’s what he learned,” said Rangers hitting coach Luis Ortiz. “Before, it was more blaming — I’m not playing because of this. Now he understands that accountability is not done to him, it’s done for him.”
Ortiz has taken a special interest in Calhoun. The two worked on his grip during the offseason, but more importantly, Ortiz implored Calhoun to take every day as a challenge.
“He realized he needed to develop some different habits,” Ortiz said. “That’s all it took. One of the messages we give the guys is greatness is good repeated, and failure is mistakes repeated. Wisdom is just applied information. We know this stuff, but do we apply it or do we leave it for later? When you take ownership, your life has to change.”
On this Tuesday afternoon in New York, the conversation in a hitter’s-only meeting revolves around criticism, something to which Calhoun is no stranger.
“Today when we had our meeting, we talked about the difference between constructive and destructive criticism,” Ortiz said. “The No. 1 difference between the two is who’s the messenger. Does the messenger want to tear you down, or build you up? He realized all the information he received in his exit meeting — even though it was painful — was for his own benefit. He took it upon himself to lose weight, to get better at defense. He’s a talented kid with an ability to accept coaching the right way. The sky is the limit.”
• • •
Calhoun’s Zen approach paid off earlier this year.
In March, when he was told he would not be making the big-league club out of spring training, Calhoun pouted. Instead of playing in a split-squad game that day, he sat out and sulked. He was called up in mid-May, but in mid-July, after being sent down once more to make room for Hunter Pence, he reacted positively.
Initially, Calhoun was left speechless by the demotion, but he resolved to turn it around.
The Rangers recalled him 10 days later. Calhoun had eight hits in his next 20 at-bats.
“The biggest thing I learned this year is that there is always something to get better at,” Calhoun said.
“Every single day, don’t be complacent where you are. Always have that chip on your shoulder. Even though as a pro athlete you feel like you got to where you are because you’re good, they can put you back into reality. It was told to me in my exit meeting (that) you have to get better. I finally bought in and listened and it’s good to see it paying off this year.”
If anyone can commiserate with Calhoun, it’s Joey Gallo.
The Rangers’ massive masher yo-yoed between Triple-A and the majors in 2015 and 2016 before finally getting his shot in 2017. He hit 41 homers as a rookie.
“I was in the same situation, sent up and down,” Gallo said. “It was like, ‘you can’t play at this level.’ That is something I always try to remind him of. We all knew he was good. He’s one of the best pure hitters I’ve played with, ever. Just his ability to put the bat on the ball, the power he has — he’s a great hitter. What’s tough, there just wasn’t room. He’s definitely grown up, and he’s starting to see the ups and the downs, they help you. It makes you stronger. When he got sent down, he dedicated himself and now you’re starting to see that. He’s one of the best players on the field every time we step on the field.”
That’s no surprise to Lopez. He’s been following Calhoun’s progress, and he’s happy to see it.
That alone would surprise Calhoun.
“Andy kicking me out — I haven’t talked to him ever since, and he’s probably wondering how I’m doing,” Calhoun said. “I wish I could speak to him today, to thank him for kicking me out. It changed my life.”