Saturday, October 23, 2010

Yanks Yammer for Mercy from Rangers

I am not a Texas Rangers fan. I grew up outside of Dallas and went to a fair number of Ranger games as a kid, but I never developed an emotional connection to the team. If anything, I resented the Rangers for being so lousy. More on that in a bit.

When I was in the third grade, circa 1983 (actually, it was 1983), my teacher handed out in class one day some sort of little newspaper. In it, there were tips about how to write headlines for news stories. (Why we had this, I have no idea, but we did.) The hypothetical story this little newspaper offered headlines for involved the Texas Rangers beating the New York Yankees 10-0. (It was, I assure you, purely hypothetical.)

The main thrust of these headline tips was that alliteration was a cracking idea for headline writers. The first title the little paper offered for its fake story was "Rangers Rip Yankees 10-0." Not bad. But the second one is the one I've never forgotten for whatever bizarre reason. It said "Yanks Yammer for Mercy from Rangers." And that brings us right around to current events.

The apocalypse is surely upon us. Winged donkeys are flying. The sky is raining fire. I'm about to sprinkle rock salt where hell froze over. The Texas Rangers are going to the World Series. And they're going because they beat, in six games, the mighty New York Yankees, until Friday night the defending world champions. Presumably, by the ninth inning, with the Rangers in command of Game Six, the Yanks were indeed yammering for mercy from the Rangers.

When I was a kid, the Rangers tried to play up some sort of rivalry with the Yankees, which, of course, never existed. But then the Rangers would do just about anything to sell tickets--which they did, in enough numbers to stay afloat and stash a little money into the pockets of their various owners. What they almost never did, though, was compete.

For most of the 1970s and 1980s, the Texas Rangers did not play baseball; they inflicted it on the innocent sporting public of Dallas-Fort Worth. In blast-furnace heat, in a minor-league stadium that was still dumpy by minor-league standards, the former second coming of the Washington Senators stumbled to losing record after losing record, trading off good young players and bringing in washed-up old veterans who were out for one last payday.

Many moments stand out in Texas Rangers infamy--too many to name here. My personal favorite occurred when Bert Blyleven (born in the Netherlands, incidentally) famously endeared himself to Ranger fans one day by responding to their booing with a middle finger that he administered evenly to every fan in the park by slowly turning 360 degrees on the pitcher's mound. Even when the Rangers weren't bad, they were mired in constant chaos. And when they were bad, they were absolutely horrible.

So bad were they that the franchise kept a constant stream of promotions going to keep fans coming to the park. I went to Arlington Stadium on cap night, bucket hat night, bat night (yes, full-size bats, not those little novelty jobs), plastic batting helmet night, Arlington Stadium commemorative pin night... I could go on. There were, to my memory, 81 promotions for 81 home games a year, some of them more intriguing than others.

For years, I had a Louisville Slugger Buddy Bell bat from bat night. I had gone to the game with my friend, Todd, and his father, who was rather a crusty fellow from Chicago. On the way back to Midlothian, we stopped at Braum's for milkshakes. At some point during the ride home, while Todd and I were rolling around in the back of a station wagon that had the seats down (wow, have times changed on that front--we were probably eight years old), I accidentally spilled my shake on his bat. Todd was furious; he insisted that we trade bats, and despite being scared to death of his dad (who did not intervene), I refused. He swore after that that his bat didn't work properly because the shake had softened it or something. It didn't matter much; he was a pretty darn good ballplayer, and I was awful. But I did have, perhaps, the superior bat. 

Of course, I do have some nostalgic thoughts about the old Arlington Stadium and the old Rangers. The games were cheap and easy to attend--sellouts were extremely rare, and it was very possible on a given summer night to walk up to the stadium entrance and pay maybe $10 to get into the game and sit just about anywhere. Traffic was never bad. The nachos were decent. Arlington was much easier to get to and around than Dallas or Irving. Drunken fights in the broiling outfield seats provided entertainment when the Rangers didn't.

I used to be able to drive by the old stadium on Collins Street in Arlington and look at the scoreboard in a gap between the stands to see how badly the Rangers were losing. When I worked at Six Flags Over Texas in the summer of 1990, I could hear, from the depths of the Six Flags parking lot, the very occasional roar of the Arlington Stadium crowd, as the stadium and the amusement park were next to each other. The Ranger TV broadcasts used to be entertaining only because Steve Busby, the play-by-play announcer, called the games in the same way a singer at the Airport Hilton lounge belts out The Impossible Dream. I'm not really sure how else to explain that. He should have worn a half-unbuttoned disco shirt and a medallion in the booth.

Nostalgia, though, always gives way to a bit of resentment when it comes to the Rangers. With their lousy field and terrible teams, they deprived me of a real baseball experience in my childhood. Texas was a baseball outpost, a searing stop where real teams picked up a few wins, got dehydrated and moved on without fanfare. I took as a kid to cheering for the New York Mets, in part because the National League--then largely inaccessible on local television--fascinated me and in part because New York seemed like a real baseball city. (Don't ask me why I didn't cheer for the Yankees, but I'm glad I didn't.)

When the Rangers finally built the Ballpark in Arlington (or whatever it's called now), they ceased to be completely irrelevant and became only somewhat irrelevant. But it was too late for me by then--I was in college, and my interest in baseball had waned considerably, never to return in any serious way. So, it was with mixed, even confused, emotions that I watched the Rangers win the American League Championship Series and vanquish the hated Yankees. I'm happy for my cousin Roy and for my childhood best friend, John, both great guys and lifelong Ranger lovers. I'm happy that the Yankees lost. I do hope that the Rangers will go on to win the World Series.

But other than Nolan Ryan--whose son, Reese, was a classmate of mine at TCU and a very nice guy--I don't know who these Rangers are. Their uniforms are different. I've only been to the "new" Ballpark once, the year it opened. The fans are young, suburban and seemingly pretty middle-class, not like the crusty drunken fighters of years past. Men like former owner Brad Corbett, a pill of a man to whom I once sold socks at Neiman-Marcus in Fort Worth, are long gone. Eddie Chiles is no longer mad. The Rangers are good, very good, and completely unfamiliar. A generation of Texas baseball fans is growing up with real team that plays real baseball in a real ballpark. I can't help but think that that generation doesn't know what it's missing--and probably doesn't want to know.

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