Five hours before the first pitch of last night’s elimination game between the Texas Rangers and the Tampa Bay Rays, a colleague casually asked whether I was ready. It was just casual office chitchat, but I could tell by the halting way I said “yes” and the slight twitching of my left eye that Game 5 of the playoff series was making me more nervous than I had realized.
Can you blame me? I’ve been a Rangers fan since I was a kid and can mark the stages of my life by what happened during trips to the old Arlington Stadium. My first Rangers hero was Jeff Burroughs, an outfielder who was named the American League’s Most Valuable Player in 1974, when I was eight years old. It was perfect: Our first and middle names were the same, and we had the same last initial. The following season, when a man in the stands suggested the Rangers mow the patch of outfield Burroughs patrolled into the shape of a star, it sounded like the greatest idea I had ever heard.
As a teenager, we’d drive the thirty miles from East Dallas down the turnpike to see the occasional gem of a game—though it was often played by the opposing team, as when Cal Ripken Jr. hit for the cycle. Years later, I lived in a condo in the shadow of the stadium. When I signed the lease, the manager mentioned that some of the Rangers lived there the year before, including their new young catcher, who turned out to be future MVP Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez. That summer, I was in the stands when Nolan Ryan pummeled Robin Ventura in the face, holding the youngster in a headlock like he would one of the steers from his ranch. I went crazy along with the rest of the crowd, but my three-month-old son snoozed through the whole thing in his baby carrier.
Even as those moments stood out, the common thread that ran through all of those seasons was doubt. There was always a nagging feeling that something, somehow, was going to happen to torpedo the Rangers’ hopes. Will they wilt in the Texas summer heat? Will a key player break down with an injury? Will the pitching staff simply collapse? Time and again the answer was yes. It didn’t help that this season was marred by the fact the manager Ron Washington admitted to using cocaine in 2009 or that the team went through bankruptcy proceedings before landing in the hands of a group led by Nolan Ryan. So as the Rangers faced elimination from the playoffs on Tuesday in Tampa having dropped two straight games at home, there was reason to feel nervous. Thirty years’ worth of reasons.
Luckily, pitcher Cliff Lee carried none of that doubt. The baggage of a franchise that had never won a postseason series since moving to Texas in 1972 didn’t appear to weigh on his shoulders. Or the fact that in baseball history, no team had won every road game in a best-of-five series. Last night Lee delivered a masterful performance: a complete game six-hitter with no walks and 11 strikeouts. Couple that with his six-hit, 10-strikeout performance in Game 1 of the series and you’ve got a AL Division Series record 21 strikeouts and proof that he’s the team’s most important mid-season acquisition ever.
This year’s squad has sparked their own craze with the Claw and the Antlers. Rather than a decent name for an English pub, the Claw and the Antlers are two in-house gestures the players developed to congratulate one another on good plays. The Claw, a long-distance high-five with the fingers slightly curled, comes after a big offensive play. The Antlers, done with both hands above the ears to look like a deer, comes after a player makes something happen with their speed.
The Antlers were on full display Tuesday night, accounting for the Rangers’ first three runs. Elvis Andrus scored from second on a groundout in the top of the first, Nelson Cruz steals third and scores on a bad throw to put Texas up 2-1, and Vladimir Guerrero came around to score from second on a double-play ball in the sixth. Even Bengie Molina—the slow-footed catcher that even I could outrun—stole his first base in four years. Something big was in the works.
But despite a two-run lead and Lee at his finest, it took an Ian Kinsler home run that put the Rangers up 5-1 in the final inning to put all of those years of doubt to rest. Eight hours after first realizing that nerves had me on edge, Kinsler’s drive into the left-field stands allowed me to breathe easy again. Suddenly, everything about the team felt different. We no longer had that asterisk beside our name for having never won a playoff series. We might—dare I say it?—win the World Series.
“It’s our time,” Ron Washington said before the game. And now I believe. So give me the Claw. Give me the Antlers. Give me the Yankees.