Once More Unto the Breach
A letter to the long-suffering Rangers fan.
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Welcome to the 2008 Texas Rangers season! We’re glad you’ll be joining us for year 36 of our eternal rebuilding project. You’re one of the hardy few who still make the trek out to Arlington, lay down $70 for an infield seat, and by the third pitching change of an error-filled, 12—3 blowout are lying facedown in the Jose Cuervo Gold Club. (An actual stadium club, mind you, not Rangers fans taking the bottle.) We’re writing to salute you, Rangers fan. You have a special psychological condition that has allowed you, in the face of utter hopelessness, to remain, well, slightly hopeful.
You might have noticed a small uptick in optimism among your fellow Rangers fans last year. This is what George W. Bush, our former co-owner, would call the soft bigotry of low expectations. For your optimism was not due to any on-field success; the Rangers went 75-87 and never seriously challenged for the playoffs. It was because, by late summer, wunderkind general manager Jon Daniels had decided the team should become what baseball writers cheerfully call a “seller”—meaning, we decided to trade away our valuable players because we thought that they wouldn’t be around by the time we got good again. Mark Teixeira, perhaps the best corner infielder ever to stride through Arlington, now plays first base for the Atlanta Braves. Eric Gagné, the hard-throwing reliever, left for the World Champion Boston Red Sox. You Rangers fans saw the mass de-accessioning as a step forward. No longer were we under the delusion that we would be good, but we were facing up to the gruesome reality and thereby lowering expectations.
Note that word: “expectations.” A special part about being a Rangers fan is walking into the stadium with that giddy feeling of uncertainty. It’s like circling the mall parking lot for years at a time with no brake light in sight. Season after season you watched as we larded the roster with veterans—Alex Rod-riguez, Adam Eaton, Carlos Lee—and acted like the Yankees. We never actually contended, and we traded a lot of valuable young players, like Chris Young and Francisco “Coco” Cordero, in the process. Whoops! So we attempted a rebranding. The Rangers were not a rich team but a middle-class team, not a group of salty veterans but a team of promising prospects.
Just a few years back, we had three up-and-coming pitchers down on the farm: Thomas Diamond, Edinson Volquez, and John Danks, a six-one, two-hundred-pound fireballer from Round Rock High School. (The trio was known to the Rangers faithful as “DVD”—which should serve as a warning, kids, about players who earn nicknames before they set foot in the major leagues.) You Rangers fans were patient, all right. You kept trudging out to the ballpark until . . . we abruptly traded away Danks and Volquez. Poof, just like that! On the bright side, Diamond underwent Tommy John surgery last March, which means he is probably untradeable.
In times like these, a mildly desperate baseball fan would allow his mind to wander to happier times. Memories of powder-blue unis and pennants past. Well, here at the Rangers we have no pennants. We’re one of only four teams in the majors never to have made a world series. The seventies were immortalized in a book called Seasons in Hell. (Former manager Whitey Herzog: “This team is two players away from being a contender—Sandy Koufax and Babe Ruth.”) The eighties featured the last growls of Nolan Ryan, but no taste of the postseason.
The nineties, of course, produced three playoff trips in four years, the only oasis in the Rangers’ gloomy epoch. But even these look slightly iffy thanks to Jose Canseco—former Ranger—who wrote in his book, Juiced, that he personally injected Juan Gonzalez and Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez, two of the most beloved players in franchise history, with steroids. What, you think Canseco took one too many fly balls to the head in Arlington? Well, what about former Rangers star Rafael Palmeiro? Palmeiro told the United States Congress, “I have never used steroids. Period,” and then, five months later, tested positive for steroids. Guess he never got the expectations thing down either.
The Rangers were begotten by the Washington Senators, another sad-sack team about whom it was said: “First in war, first in peace, last in the American League.” But that’s not us, no sir. We’re George W. Bush’s team, and the first two thirds of that refrain sound awfully optimistic. Bush, of course, was managing general partner when we traded away future Hall of Famer Sammy Sosa. Heckuva job, Bushie!
But where were we? Right, the future. Well, we’ve named Nolan Ryan team president in order to stoke the small flame of hope he brought with him when he arrived two decades ago—a flame that would have completely died out long ago were it not for Jamey Newberg, a Dallas civil litigation attorney who is perhaps the team’s most die-hard fan. Newberg keeps a running diary at the Web site NewbergReport.com, which he reprints in book form at the end of every season. Flipping through his chronicle of 2007, his tales of malaise and woe reminded us less of The Boys of Summer than Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year. Here’s poor Newberg last May, a month in which the Rangers went 9-20 and effectively tanked their season: “There have been plenty of years in which the most frustrating thing about this team was an inability to throw strikes.” Oh, have there ever. “Other years it was ninth-inning troubles.” Yeah, we remember those too. “Other years, it was Kevin Gross or Mark Clark or Roger Pavlik in the first inning.” Please, Jamey, don’t keep us in suspense—in what peculiar manner do the Rangers flamboyantly suck this year? “I can’t believe the defense this team plays.” The defense! A supposed specialty of new manager Ron Washington, the Rangers defense was one of the worst in the league through the first month.
But even after all this, Newberg—a guy who might know more about the Rangers than either Daniels or Ryan—is still optimistic. He says some smart drafting, along with the trades of Teixeira, Gagné, and Kenny Lofton, effectively rekindled the Rangers’ youth movement; in the span of a few months, the Rangers went from Baseball America’s twenty-eighth-best farm system to its fourth. We have young pitchers—young pitchers!—like Irving’s Blake Beaven, a skinny kid with a dastardly slider, and Eric Hurley, a righthander with a plus fastball. There’s Taylor Teagarden, the former University of Texas catcher; a couple young shortstops; several promising outfielders.
Asked when Arlington will bear the fruits of this movement, Newberg says it will be two to three years. Two to three years! By that point, of course, you season ticket holders will be like Nolan Ryan looking for Robin Ventura. Kenny Rogers looking for a cameraman. Pete Incaviglia looking for a buffet.
This is your special cross to bear, Rangers fans. This is you. Thanks for joining us at the Ballpark at . . . er . . . Ameriquest Field . . . er . . . Rangers Ballpark. (We’ll get it right sooner or later.) And if you’re an Astros fan and this letter has reached you in error, you have our permission to feel a little better about yourself.