What Do You Think of the Rangers Now?

Ever since I was a kid, I've gotten blank stares when I told people I was a Texas Rangers fan. My hometown team was the definition of mediocrity and missed opportunities. But then came last season's inspiring run to the World Series, fueled by new owners, a superstar slugger who was a former crack addict, and a manager who admitted to using cocaine. Say hello to America's newest idols.
Illustration by Mark Ulriksen

I am a Texas Rangers fan …

I looked like a Rangers diehard, right down to the vintage baseball cap (the superior 1972–1985 model, with the red bill and the block T). But I had a dirty secret. Once a Rangers-mad kid, I’d bailed on the team long before its “claw and antlers” renaissance. I still rooted for the Cowboys, who had won three Super Bowls in my four years of high school. In the same period, the Mavericks had been operatically bad, which, perversely, bound me to them for life. (You could score loads of autographs after the games: “Right here, Mr. Mashburn!”) But the Rangers? How to explain what had made them, for a kid coming of age in the early nineties, so uncool?

First, the old Rangers were not a good baseball team. The only memorable book written about them is called Seasons in Hell. Around the country, mentioning you were a Rangers fan typically solicited … nothing. But it was an unsatisfying kind of loserdom. Look at some of the names that percolated up through the franchise over the years: Mark Teixeira, Alex Rodriguez, Iván “Pudge” Rodríguez, Juan González, Sammy Sosa, Kevin Brown, Kenny Rogers, Rubén Sierra, Julio Franco, and Nolan Ryan—not to mention Jeff Burroughs, Al Oliver, Fergie Jenkins, Gaylord Perry, and Bobby Bonds. The Rangers had great talent, and they wasted it. They were doomed to be what pro-wrestling promoters call a mid-carder, a nice-enough team that would contend for second or third place in the AL West. “Not horrible,” said one of the team’s new owners. “Just kind of there.”

The culture of the franchise didn’t help either. Arlington was an absurdly friendly place, full of kind men who tucked polo shirts into khaki shorts. “If a player ever got booed in Texas,” Al Oliver says, “it was his fault.” As a teenager, I had my own growing anxieties about Dallas–Fort Worth life. And that friendliness—that sunny contentment as the world passed by—was just the kind of thing I was anxious about. I left Texas behind, and with it, the Rangers.

Now in my thirties, I had returned. I had become exactly the kind of sports fan I hate: a bandwagon-riding poseur who waits for a team to win and then shells out a few hundred dollars for the best (obstructed-view) seat in the house. Jeff Francoeur, a former Rangers outfielder who is now with the Royals, told me a story: On Sundays this past fall, he watched fans filing out of Cowboys Stadium, which sits across from the ballpark. These fans would walk a few feet and then shed their Cowboys jersey for a Rangers jersey underneath, molting like the North Texas cicada. I laughed. But deep down, I knew that jersey-changer was me.

No matter. These Rangers made coming back easy. The team’s culture was one of self-improvement, redemption, and recovery. After his cocaine revelation, Washington repented loudly and profanely (“I f—ed up,” he told a newspaper columnist). Left fielder Josh Hamilton, a former crack addict, was leading a national Christian revival tour. The team’s number two starter was “straight edge,” a salesman for an abstinent life. This kind of stuff is not uncommon in sports. But the Rangers were so open about it that it had become a mantra. The Rangers were an AA meeting in spikes.

I am a Texas Rangers fan …

The lethargic sensibility that so offended me had changed too. Jim Sundberg, a talented catcher who started playing Arlington in 1974 and is now a team executive, imagines an intensity scale that ranges from one to ten. Today’s Rangers? “We’re at an eight,” he says. And what about the old Rangers? “Maybe a two.” The transformation, he explains, was due to Nolan Ryan, who was sitting on the front row at my right. Ryan joined the Rangers as the team president in 2008 and then, last fall, bought the club with several partners. Ryan already had a highway in Arlington and a field at spring training named after him; like no other Ranger, he seemed to radiate legitimacy. “People in Texas agree with everything that comes out of his mouth,” says second baseman Ian Kinsler. George W. Bush impishly observed that the team had tapped Ryan to throw out the first pitch in game three of the series. The former leader of the free world would have to wait till game four.

I am a Texas Rangers fan …

Yes, they looked like the same old Rangers that October night, letting a young pitcher for the San Francisco Giants named Bumgarner and a stingy home plate umpire tie them in knots. The following night, in game five—I’d moved out from behind the post and into the upper deck—they got only three hits and lost the Series. We fans stayed for a while, chanting, “Let’s go, Rangers!” while the Giants celebrated. Something significant had happened: The Rangers had set themselves up to be contenders for many years to come. They had finally made their mark on baseball—and, well, on me. After rediscovering them, I set out with the zeal of a convert to find out just what it is that makes them tick. To write a Boys of Summer treatment for a team that never, ever deserved one. In turn, they rewarded old and new fans alike by starting 2011 as if the previous season had never ended. So yell it out with Chuck Morgan: Ladies and gentlemen, your (profoundly interesting, oddly moving) Texas Rangers!

***

Ted Williams was the first manager of the Rangers. He lasted all of one season in Arlington. “He’d take off his hat and scratch his head and mumble words you never heard before,” says Dick Billings, who played catcher for the Rangers from 1972 to 1974. “He liked the barbecue and the fishing. That’s about it. He wanted to get out of there.”

Williams liked to instruct his batters to hit the top of the baseball early in the game and the bottom of the ball in the late

More Texas Monthly

Loading, please wait...

Most Read

  • Viewed
  • Past:
  • 1 week