THE SEASON BEGINS in a kitchen 1,000 miles from Comerica Park. Two new baseball gloves -- black leather with orange stitching and laces -- sit atop a granite countertop. It's early February in Dallas, eight days before Ian Kinsler goes to Florida for his first spring training with the Tigers, the team that acquired him in the blockbuster offseason trade that sent Prince Fielder to the Rangers. There's a nervous energy about the three-time All-Star second baseman. He's 31, going on 32, and he's been playing pro ball for more than a decade, yet he's filled with excitement and anxiety.
Kinsler, his hair short and mussed, a five-o'clock shadow dusting his face, slips a glove onto his left hand. The leather is stiff. "Damn," he says, smashing a fist into the pocket, "this is gonna need work." He admires the initials of his children -- 5-year-old daughter Rian and 2-year-old son Jack -- stitched next to his new number 3, and beside that, two words: "Prove it." It's a mantra that carried him from overlooked high school player to two-time college transfer to 17th-round draft pick to among the most productive middle infielders of the past decade -- and back to being overlooked. Kinsler is often viewed as the "other guy" in a trade largely perceived as a salary dump for the Tigers.
He looks at his glove and reads the words. They've never seemed truer. At every level, Kinsler has proved doubters wrong. Now, coming off two mediocre years, he is out to prove himself again -- to the team that traded for him and, especially, to the team that unceremoniously dispatched him after eight seasons and two World Series.
"There was no remorse from the Rangers," Kinsler says of the trade. "They did not care." He obviously still does. "The team had changed," he says. "It was not the same personalities, not the same players, not the same chemistry. To be traded, it was refreshing to start new."
LAST SEASON, KINSLER says, the Rangers didn't feel like his team anymore. It had been two years since the club won 96 games with Josh Hamilton, C.J. Wilson and Michael Young, one of Kinsler's closest friends. Young, the franchise's career leader in games played, hits, runs, doubles, triples and total bases, was dealt to Philadelphia in December 2012. "It hurt us," Kinsler says. "He held everything together." The Young trade was, in Kinsler's view, a misguided move that left a leadership void in the clubhouse.
That was the first strike. The second came soon after, when the front office asked Kinsler to move from second base to first. The idea was to make room for Jurickson Profar, a then-19-year-old infielder who'd quickly become one of baseball's top prospects. A shortstop by trade, Profar was blocked at the position by Elvis Andrus, who signed an eight-year, $120 million extension in April 2013. Andrus, then 24, was considered among the game's most valuable shortstops. Kinsler was coming off an unexceptional season. He was 30. He didn't need it spelled out.
But a second baseman who launches 30 homers and steals 30 bags, as Kinsler did in 2009 and again in 2011, is much more valuable than a first baseman who hits for power. In a moment of veteran pride and defiance of youth, Kinsler declared second his domain. "These guys gotta earn it; that's what I did," he says. "I was a 17th-round pick, so there was zero coddling. I had to put myself on the prospect map." In other words: No kid was taking his job.
"We backed off at that point," says Jon Daniels, Rangers president of baseball operations and general manager. "We presented it as, 'We would like you to do this,' and we left it up to him." With Kinsler staying put at second, Profar bounced around among five positions last season and struggled at the plate, hitting just .234 in 286 at-bats. Meanwhile, in Young's absence, Kinsler became the longest-tenured Ranger, the de facto clubhouse leader. It fell to him to police the clubhouse, making sure players got to meetings on time and didn't wear earrings in the weight room. "I was bogged down," he says. "They wanted me to lead these young players, teach them the way to compete, when the only thing I should be worried about is how I'm performing in the game." For a guy trying to bust out of a yearlong slump and re-establish himself among the game's best second basemen, it was exhausting.
ON THE FIELD, Kinsler posted respectable numbers in 2013 -- .277 BA, 13 homers, 15 steals, 4.9 WAR -- but nothing close to his 30/30 heyday. He berated himself for a poor play at second, for every bad at-bat. "He's a little intense," third baseman Adrian Beltre says of his good friend. "Sometimes he'll go overboard because he just wants to win and doesn't care about anything else." For Kinsler, the stress, pressure and frustration continued to build. "We were playing bad as a team," he says, "and when you're playing bad, everyone's on edge."
Finally, in a late-September game against the Angels, Kinsler exploded over what he saw as a lack of effort from Beltre and Andrus. "Base hit to left," Kinsler remembers. "Leftfielder throws it in to Elvis. Elvis and Beltre are talking about the play, and Elvis is just holding the ball -- like the game isn't even going on. It's not a dead ball. It's not timeout. The play is still live. I'm like, 'Hey! Let's f -- ing go!' And Adrian's like, 'Chill out. We're talking about the play.'" Beltre and Kinsler continued their argument in the dugout and even went down the tunnel to hash out their differences. "For the two leaders of the team to be yelling at each other in front of the squad ... it's not very cohesive to winning," Kinsler now admits.
The Rangers lost 15 of their first 20 games in September and fell out of the AL West lead. A late rally led to a one-game wild-card playoff, which they lost to Tampa Bay. Then it was over. Another season gone. There was more talk of Kinsler's decline, another elite second baseman who faded quickly, like Roberto Alomar, Carlos Baerga, Chuck Knoblauch and Brian Roberts. The rumor mill churned with trade talk.
In mid-November, it happened. Kinsler was vacationing with his family in Hawaii when a Dallas radio personality texted about Kinsler's being dealt to Detroit for Fielder. Kinsler searched for news online. Then Beltre, who was also in Hawaii, confirmed the trade with his agent, Scott Boras, who represents Fielder as well. "I want to be the one who tells Ian," Daniels explains, "but literally, the story breaks while I'm on a plane to Tucson. I feel bad that's how he found out."
Kinsler says Daniels was the last to contact him, leaving him a voice mail well after the deal had gone public. He never returned the call.
IN HIS EIGHT years in Texas, Kinsler saw the team emerge from an also-ran into a perennial contender. For that, he credits former CEO Nolan Ryan. "Nolan put us on the map. He brought respect to the organization," Kinsler says. By 2012, that reputation was fading. "I saw the two World Series teams, and the way we played, the toughness we had as a team, it had started to move away from that ... It's weird. In the past four years, Texas has been at the top, but no one says, 'What a great organization.'"
During that time, it was well-known throughout the game that there was a power struggle going on between Ryan and Daniels, who had acquired the title of president of baseball operations last March in a front office restructuring that ultimately led to Ryan's departure after the season. Kinsler squarely blames the man who traded him. "Daniels is a sleazeball," he says. "He got in good with the owners and straight pushed Ryan out. He thought all the things he should get credit for, Ryan got credit for. It's just ego. Once we went to the World Series, everybody's ego got huge, except for Nolan's."
When Daniels hears Kinsler's version, he refrains from returning fire. "I'm not going to justify that," he says. "He was a key member of the best teams in the history of the franchise. He's entitled to his opinion."
Kinsler says that with Ryan's role diminished the past couple of years, the Rangers lost the swagger and professionalism that had been a point of pride for the team. He believes the Rangers will regret yielding to Daniels at Ryan's expense. "Nolan s -- s gold here," he says. "Once the Rangers fall apart, he's going to s -- gold even more because they turned on him."
Now, the drama behind him, Kinsler has a chance to step back. "I'll miss all my teammates," he says. "I'll miss Elvis and Beltre, Mitch [Moreland], Matt Harrison and [Ron] Washington." But the frustration -- with his play, with the team, with the organization -- is still so raw. "To be honest with you, I hope they go 0-162. I got friends, and I love my friends, but I hope they lose their ass."
HOWARD KINSLER, A former Arizona prison warden who would hit grounders to his son for hours on end, calls Ian often. They talk about how change can be a good thing and about how Ian can return to being an elite player. "What you get back tells you how good the players involved were," his dad tells him. "You got traded for Prince Fielder, dude." In Detroit, waiting for Kinsler, is another chance to stop the slide, to erase the doubt, to recapture what Ian Kinsler is all about.
With about a week to go before reporting to camp, Kinsler is rolling through possible lineups and imagining what it'll be like to be on base in a tight game when Miguel Cabrera goes deep, or to play defense behind Cy Young winners Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander. But the best part? "In Texas, it was almost like my team," he says. "I go to Detroit, and it's Miggy's team, it's Verlander's team. I'm just a ballplayer. I can just go play and have fun."
He is most excited to work with Torii Hunter, the 38-year-old outfielder who defies age, who has managed to produce well past the time when legs slow and backs ache. "I can't wait to pick that dude's brain," Kinsler says. "His style is very similar to mine: very aggressive, takes a lot of chances -- educated, calculated chances." Kinsler wants to get back to that style.
The Tigers hope he can be a final piece to the puzzle, helping an elite team win the World Series title that has eluded it. Detroit GM Dave Dombrowski describes Kinsler as "a high-quality player" and an "everyday second baseman" who offers "good athleticism."
Kinsler also offers salary relief. Dealing Fielder saves the Tigers $76 million over the next seven years. That money certainly could help Detroit re-sign Scherzer, who becomes a free agent at season's end. Also important: Fielder's departure allows Cabrera to move from third base -- where the two-time AL MVP was one of the game's worst defenders -- to first.
Going from the hitters' haven of the Rangers' park to a pitchers' park in Comerica, Kinsler knows he will have to change his game as well. "I don't want to go 30/30," he says. "That's not ideal in that ballpark. I want to be more of a gap-to-gap hitter. I'd rather have 10 triples, 40 doubles and 30 bags and score over 100 runs. If I can get on base and steal and put myself in scoring position for great hitters behind me, that's the goal."
KINSLER IS ITCHING to get started. "I haven't been this excited about baseball in years," he says. "I've got a stomach-butterfly feeling." He has dropped nearly 15 pounds this offseason in hopes of getting back to the quickness and explosiveness that made him such a dynamic player just three seasons ago. "I want to prove to myself that these last two years are not the direction I'm going. Plus, I want to prove to everybody who thinks it is that I'm still an elite ballplayer."
To prepare, on this day he's headed to a Fort Worth suburb to work out with Rangers strength coach Jose Vazquez (still his offseason trainer), Andrus and new Rangers outfielder Michael Choice. The trio does some running, lifting and medicine ball work. Andrus has to leave early, but before he goes, he wraps Kinsler in a hug.
"When are you leaving?"
"All right. Good luck. I'll see you later."
In his Jeep driving home, Kinsler is still thinking about the trade. He recently heard something Dombrowski told reporters about him: "He's an all-around player. He's not known for his outstanding range, but we think he's a real steady second baseman."
Instead of focusing on the praise -- high-quality player and good athlete -- Kinsler sees another doubter, another slight to his ability. "I want to prove Dombrowski wrong," he says. "I want to surprise you. I'm going to impress you with my range."
He presses the accelerator. Another season, another chance.