ARLINGTON, Texas – On a rare patch of green in central Texas, against a backdrop of confetti streams and honky-tonk reverb, there came the dawning of a baseball franchise.
A warm wind howled over the walls of Rangers Ballpark, whipping scraps of colored paper into tiny hurricanes. Ginger ale plumes filled the sky.
On a football Friday night in a football town, more than 50,000 folks swooned at the slider that froze Alex Rodriguez(notes) – of all people, Alex Rodriguez – and finished off a 6-1 victory over the New York Yankees in Game 6 of the American League Championship Series.
Born on the East Coast a half-century ago, drifters who had found an unassuming life near Big D, the Texas Rangers had beaten the defending champions and were going to the World Series.
And team president Nolan Ryan cleared his throat and quieted the crowd and shouted, “It’s unbelievable. You never know where life takes you.”
To a man, to a ballplayer, they rejoiced at being here, in a place where baseball long went to overheat and die, where the organization had gone through more organizational strategies than dip cans, where just three weeks earlier their entire history added up to a single playoff game victory.
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Then vagabond Colby Lewis(notes) threw the eight innings of his life, and rookie flamethrower Neftali Feliz(notes) slayed the final inning, leaving the prodigal A-Rod standing at the plate. And Guerrero lashed a two-run double, and Nelson Cruz(notes) homered for two runs, sending home the Yankees.
The Rangers had won, and what resonated was the band of men strewn across the infield still an hour later.
The new owner is a Pittsburgh guy who’d been raised on Clemente and Stargell and Sanguillen. In fact, Chuck Greenberg’s wife promised on the birth of their third son that he could be named after her husband’s boyhood hero. “The only thing,” she said, “Roberto Greenberg?” They settled on the two sharing a middle name: Walker.
The president was a baseball and Texas icon, but whose namesake thoroughfare – the Nolan Ryan Expressway – gives way to the larger and better-traveled Tom Landry Highway. Of course. He’d pitched in and won a World Series in 1969, when he was 22, then added 312 wins and 5,483 strikeouts but did not return. “Seems like another lifetime ago,” he said. “Guys, I can’t tell you how happy I am tonight.”
The general manager, Jon Daniels, was a Mets fan from Fresh Meadows, Queens, who at 28 had taken over the baseball operations, found his way, found his kind of players and had the ballclub go bankrupt in the midst of it all, and still found October.
The manager, Ron Washington, is a good man and a baseball lifer who’d shocked his world when it was discovered his middle-aged bucket list included a dalliance with cocaine, but whose humility and grace saved him. He’d talked about baseball like it was religion. Hell, around here, like it was football. There was a way to play, and there were players who played, and they did for him.
Cliff Lee(notes), the mercenary left-hander who’d topped off their starting rotation. C.J. Wilson(notes), who’d come from the bullpen to become a starter. Lewis, who’d remade his career in Japan. Josh Hamilton(notes), the series MVP and likely league MVP, who’d fought drug addiction – sometimes well and sometimes not – to stand on that podium Friday night. Cruz, who’d once cleared waivers. Guerrero, given up as over-the-hill in Anaheim. Feliz and shortstop Elvis Andrus(notes), the spoils of the Mark Teixeira(notes) trade. Young, who for a decade watched them all come and go, and not three weeks after his first playoff game qualified for his first World Series game.
They ran in circles on a field trampled by friends and family, guzzling the ginger ale that honored Hamilton’s demons and waving to a crowd that couldn’t believe it was seeing this and refused to leave it.
Until the clock struck nine minutes past 10, these Rangers had borne the sins and failures of a half-century. They’d failed in Washington as the Senators. They hadn’t won in Texas. They were the epicenter of the steroid era, and were the oldest of the three franchises – the Montreal Expos/Washington Nationals and Seattle Mariners being the others – to never reach the World Series.
“I understand that being written,” Ryan said, “because that is the history of the organization. But this is a different group of players.”
And they share a different journey, and so a different course. They’d outplayed the more accomplished and celebrated top end of the AL East – the Tampa Bay Rays before the Yankees – and will play either the Philadelphia Phillies or San Francisco Giants. And they intend to alter their local pigskin ecosystem, along with that of the franchise. They’ve changed everything, for more than just a night.
“All throughout the game,” said Hamilton, who’d felled the Yankees with four home runs and seven RBIs across six games, “I was tearing up. Is this going to be it tonight? And thinking where I was, and everything I went through.”
“They never believed in us,” he said, meaning the people wearing the antler hats and the claw shirts and the red everywhere. “They never truly believed.”
He was not being critical. Thirty-eight years is a lot to knock out in one baseball season.
“We proved it to them,” he said. “And now we’re going to make this a baseball town. I mean, they had nothing to hold onto. And we gave them something tonight. It’s not a football town anymore, I’ll tell you that. We’re going to turn this into a baseball town.”
- Nolan Ryan
- World Series
- Alex Rodriguez