Strike Two

With two chances to win the World Series with a single strike, the championship slipped away from the Rangers for the second year in a row.

By the time the last out was made, Rangers fans knew what was coming. They had felt the tide shift in the late innings of Game Six, which will surely go down as one of the most torturous losses in World Series history—not one, but two blown chances to win the championship on a single pitch.

So when they saw David Murphy’s playable fly ball fall into the left-fielder’s glove, they took little solace in the fact that the team had just delivered, in partnership with the St. Louis Cardinals, one of the most exciting World Series ever. For most of the series, the Rangers had expected to win—a change from last year, when they looked happy (and mildly surprised) just to be there. By the time Murphy stepped into the box, though, everyone had resigned themselves to the familiar old expectations.

One of the great mysteries of sports is why some teams win and others lose. Is it talent? Fate? Character? Karma? With the exception of an ugly Game Three, the Rangers and Cardinals had been so evenly matched that the differences in the two teams seemed infinitesimal—a matter, as they say, of inches.

If catcher Yadier Molina’s throw to second in the ninth inning of Game Two is a millisecond faster or a foot lower, Ian Kinsler gets caught stealing and the Rangers probably go down two games to none.

If the arc of David Freese’s bat travels on a slightly different plane in Game Six, his home run drops into Josh Hamilton’s glove. If a rainstorm had not made it impossible to play that game on the scheduled day, Chris Carpenter, the Cardinals ace pitcher, would not have gotten the precious extra day of rest he needed to hold the Rangers at bay in Game Seven.

Such is the margin, sometimes, between victory and defeat. Does it occur to the players—as it does, often miserably, to the fans—that their success or failure depends not upon how hard they play but on the gods of baseball, who are blithely casting dice to determine the game’s outcome?

Rangers fans (and I am one) have long suspected the existence of these cruel and unresponsive deities—and this series did not undo belief. Why were the Cardinals favored with their eleventh World Series crown, while the Rangers, who have never won one, were allowed, like Moses, to view the promised land from the distance of a single strike, only to be denied entrance twice?

And yet, for the Rangers faithful, a more consoling lesson was there to be found—not in the narrow misses, but in the sight of team president Nolan Ryan, dressed impeccably in a suit, tie, and overcoat, watching grim-faced from the stands.

The truth it is that metaphysics doesn’t win championships. Management does.

Recently, North Texas has been the best place in the world to learn this lesson. The Rangers became a powerhouse when the financially strapped owner Tom Hicks sold the team to a group headed by Ryan, who now runs an excellent farm system that ensures the team will be contenders for a long, long time.

The Mavericks were longtime losers, winning just 28 percent of their games in the 1990s, the most futile record of any team in any pro sport. Then Mark Cuban took over, and the team quickly became a force. They made the playoffs in Cuban’s second year as owner, and earlier this year they won the NBA championship. Both Ryan and Cuban share not only a keen professionalism, but a deep emotional investment in their teams.

Then there are the Cowboys, who continue to struggle under their owner, Jerry Jones, who runs the club more like a large bank than a sports team. Of the three, the Cowboys, winners of five Super Bowls, are unquestionably the most storied. But since 1997, America’s Team has a 1-7 record in playoff games.

So Rangers fans should take heart in those images of Ryan, clenching his jaw as the game slid away, already planning, no doubt, his next few moves. If anyone can do battle with the merciless gods of baseball, it’s him.

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