On being a Texas Rangers fan
Sun October 23, 2011 12:12 pm

Enough of politics. Let’s get to the things that matter, namely, baseball. The New York Times published my article today on the long sufferings of Rangers fans.

SLOWLY MAKING A NAME FOR THEMSELVES

The lot of a Rangers fan has never been an easy one.

Of all the teams in major league baseball, the Rangers may rank lowest on the cachet scale. Cleveland is the main competition, but at least the Indians’ futility has been the subject of a Hollywood film. The Rangers have no such pizazz in their history.

This is a franchise that originated as the Washington Senators, whose record over the years was so bad it inspired a vaudeville joke, based upon a paean to George Washington: “First in war, first in peace, last in the American League.”

The Rangers’ fundamental problem was not of their own making. They were a baseball team seeking love in a football-crazed community that was the home of the most successful sports franchise of its time. The Dallas Cowboys have a worldwide following, but the Rangers have never been more than a regional team, and a small region at that: two Texas cities, Dallas and Fort Worth, that don’t like each other, with a suburb and an airport in between.

In 1971, the franchise relocated from Washington to Arlington, Tex., which was best known as the home of a popular amusement park. Its roller coasters became an apt metaphor for the team’s fortunes. Their new home field was a minor league ballpark that seated 10,000, with the less than magical name of Turnpike Stadium.

To make it suitable for major league play, the capacity was expanded to 35,000, but many of the new seats were in the outfield. Night after night, a hot wind blew off the West Texas plains out to right field, sapping the strength of perspiration-soaked pitchers. Many a first pitch was thrown when the thermometer was pushing 100.

The first real spark of fan interest came in 1973, when the Rangers signed David Clyde, a high school pitcher from Houston with an 18-0 record who had allowed only three earned runs in 148 innings. Clyde was the Stephen Strasburg of his day, and he won his first start. The scene that night resembled the finale of “Field of Dreams,” with a line of cars that stretched back to the turnpike.

Alas, there was no second act. The Rangers owner Bob Short was more interested in using Clyde to boost attendance rather than taking the time to develop him into a staff ace. Overworked as a rookie, Clyde developed arm trouble. His major league career lasted only five years. It was a portent of things to come.

Short was the first of several eccentric Rangers owners who didn’t have the slightest clue about how to run a baseball team. His first act was to name himself general manager. He was followed by an oilfield pipe magnate named Brad Corbett who was said to cry when the Rangers lost, which was often.

Corbett was succeeded by Eddie Chiles, an oilman who briefly gained fame in Texas with TV ads that said, “I’m Eddie Chiles and I’m mad.” If only he had been as mad about the Rangers’ lack of pitching as he was about the federal government’s energy policies.

In the mid-’80s, the oil business was in the dumps, and Chiles sold the team to a group headed by George W. Bush, who was beginning to contemplate a political career. By this time the Rangers had been fielding teams for 23 years without once making it to the postseason. The streak would eventually reach 25 years before the Rangers won three Western Division championships in four years (’96, ’98, ’99), only to find themselves matched against the Yankees each time in the first round of the playoffs. Result: one victory against the Bronx Bombers, and nine defeats.

The most frustrating thing about being a Rangers’ fan is that the team has always had good players. The sluggers Juan Gonzalez, Will Clark, Ruben Sierra and Rafael Palmeiro. Catcher Ivan Rodriguez. The Hall of Fame pitcher Nolan Ryan, who threw the last two of his record seven no-hitters for the club.

But management didn’t seem to know how to fit the pieces together to fashion a championship team. Something was always lacking. One year it would be speed. Another year it would be bullpen depth.

The Bush ownership stabilized the franchise. The owners built a new stadium that lacked only one thing — a roof to keep out the Texas heat. They turned the Rangers into a regular threat to win the American League West. But Bush by this time had things on his mind besides baseball, and the group sold the team to a local investor, Tom Hicks, in 1998.

The Rangers promptly regressed to the days when their biggest problems were in the owner’s suite. In 2001, Hicks signed Alex Rodriguez to a 10-year, $252 million contract. Rodriguez posted great numbers for the Rangers, but he was only one player. Hicks’s business had financial difficulties at the same time, and the Rangers had to borrow money from Major League Baseball to make their payroll.

When Hicks put the Rangers up for sale in 2009, the winning bidder was a group headed by Ryan. The new management has assembled a team that has everything — power, speed, defense, bullpen depth, a closer, and talent in its minor league system.

The Washington Senators have found cachet at last.

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