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Original Issue


In a Texas-sized flip-flop, the Rangers have vaulted to the top with newcomers like Julio Franco and Nolan Ryan

At 4:03 p.m. on sunday, In the lengthening shadows of Toronto's Exhibition Stadium, a sudden stillness fell upon the crowd as it awaited Nolan Ryan's emergence from the Texas Rangers' dugout. It was the bottom of the ninth inning, with the Blue Jays losing to the Rangers 4-0. And the man for whom ordinary clocks will never do—he measures the passing of time with radar guns—had spent the afternoon on the mound floating weightlessly, defying the gravity of his years. Just 11 days earlier in Milwaukee the 42-year-old Ryan, who's in his first season with the Rangers, had thrown a no-hitter for seven innings while fanning 15 batters, a franchise record for a nine-inning game, in an 8-1 win. Now here he was, in another cold-water port, mowing them down again. He had held Toronto hitless through eight innings; he had struck out 12, walked 3 and allowed only 4 Jays to hit the ball out of the infield.

His performance was wondrous to behold. In his earlier effort against the Brewers, Ryan had been unable to get his curveball over. On Sunday he was in the zone with all three of his pitches: the heater, the hook and the change. Mixing things up, changing speeds, hitting spots, he made his pitching seem like art.

Toronto catcher Bob Brenly had seen a lot of Ryan over the years—for the last eight seasons Brenly was a San Francisco Giant and Ryan a Houston Astro—but he had never witnessed a Ryan quite like this. "I've seen him with a better breaking ball," said Brenly. "I've seen him with a better fastball. I've seen him with a better change. But in all the times I've seen him pitch. I've never seen him have all the pitches. Usually you can eliminate one pitch. To me, it's the best game I've ever seen him pitch."

At 4:04. Ryan popped up the steps of the dugout and broke into a trot toward the mound. Before the eighth, he had heard a man taunting him. "No-hitter! No-hitter!" There was none of that now. Instead, the crowd rose as one to its feet and rendered a sustained ovation to the old man who was three outs from his sixth big league no-hitter.

Ryan got Lloyd Moseby, the leadoff hitter, to hit a foul pop to third baseman Steve Buechele. Nelson Liriano came to the plate. Ryan got him to swing at a curve and then fed him an inside fastball for ball one. Now was the time to go outside. "I don't know him, but the way he approaches the ball, I've got to believe he likes the ball down." Ryan would say of Liriano, who was 15 years old when Ryan, then a California Angel, last worked against the Jays. "I do know he tries to pull the ball."

Tom Seaver once said that in every pitcher's life there are deliveries, made in critical moments, that have doom written across the seams at the instant of release, and that the pitcher wishes he could reach out and snatch them back. There was something of that in the righthanded Ryan's third pitch to the lefty-hitting Liriano. Ryan saw the ball drift left, from the outside corner to the middle of the plate. Liriano whipped the bat into the ball, and the crack sounded as if a gun had gone off. The ball rose on a hard line over first, hit the ground in fair territory and careered toward the corner. Ryan's head snapped down in anger: "Damn!" Liriano raced to third, quite pleased with himself. "I just do my job," he said afterward. "I'm not sorry."

"That's his pitch to hit," said Ryan, "and that's what he did. It's hard to have a game like that and come out disappointed, but that's the way I am."

As surely as the no-hitter had been there, it was gone, a fading apparition at a seance of 31,473 people. "A shame," said Rangers assistant pitching coach Dick Egan. "He's getting near the end of his career and when he gets that close to a no-hitter, it's almost as bad as losing." But as the shock of history denied wore off, there was a sense of exultation among the Rangers. "It was just so, so thrilling to play behind him," said Buechele. "It's like he could do it every time he goes out."

The high excitement in the Texas locker room stemmed from more than Ryan's 10th career one-hitter. With the 4-1 victory, the Rangers, at 13-4, owned the best record in the majors and were off to the fastest start in the Texas franchise's 18-year history. Said Jim Sundberg, the 15-year veteran who caught for Texas from 1974 to '83 and returned to the Rangers this year. "I go back a long time, longer than anybody, and I have never seen anything like this. Something is happening here."

And it's being felt all the way from Texas to Toronto to...well, the White House.

Earlier this month, while in the midst of orchestrating a deal for the purchase of the Texas Rangers. George W. Bush picked up a Dallas newspaper one morning and saw a picture of his father, George Herbert Walker Bush, jogging around the nation's capital wearing an Astros cap.

Forty-two-year-old George W., the President's eldest son, couldn't resist the chance to put the needle to his father. He called the White House. The President was busy, but Bush did talk to his father's secretary, Patty Presock. "Patty. I saw my father jogging in an Astros hat!" he complained. "That stuffs got to quit. Not only that, but from now on, anybody that asks him, he's got to say he's a Texas Rangers fan. That's the new rules in the family."

While Bush made the call to the White House in jest, it was in keeping with the message he had been giving out in the months preceding last week's approval of the purchase of a majority interest in the Rangers by Bush's 14-member group, which bought Eddie Chiles's 58% interest in the club for $25 million, plus $9 million in assumed debt. If Bush has his way, the whole of north Texas—not to mention large segments of Oklahoma, Arkansas and Louisiana—will one day be donning the blue hat with the red T. The way things have been going in the last few weeks, that day may come sooner than anyone dared to dream. Indeed, Bush and his associates couldn't have picked a more propitious time to buy the Rangers.

On the day of Ryan's most recent gem, the Dallas Mavericks ended their season by failing to make the NBA playoffs for the first time in six seasons; that civic disaster came on the heels of the Cowboys' dismal 3-13 season in the NFL. The decline of the Mavs and Cowboys only accentuates the Rangers' sudden ascent. Through some deft winter trading and a notable dip into the free-agent market to acquire Ryan, Texas finds itself fielding the best club in its history, one with a solid five-man rotation, a couple of .300 hitters, two others with serious power, and some speed on the bases. The Rangers have never been so rich.

And high time. The club, which migrated from Washington. D.C., for the 1972 season, has never won a division title. Like all floundering franchises, it has pulled its share of major gaffes. For the Rangers, the granddaddy of them all came on a day that Texas general manager Tom Grieve will remember forever. It was the spring of '82. Grieve, then the assistant farm director, was in a meeting in Florida with farm director Joe Klein when word came that the Rangers' front office had traded Ron Darling and Walt Terrell, the two best young arms in the team's minor league system, to the Mets for outfielder Lee Mazzilli. "Joe was so upset, he left the room," Grieve says. "That was the end of the meeting. It was a pivotal moment in our franchise. A real bad day."

Four years later, the Rangers flashed some momentary pizzazz—finishing second, five games behind the Angels—but then slid to a tie for sixth in 1987. Last year, they drowned under the Oakland tidal wave and finished alone in sixth, 33½ leagues under the sea. Even without the likes of Darling and Terrell (or Dave Righetti and Tom Henke, two other good arms the Rangers let get away), Texas pitching wasn't the villain in '88; the staff gave up fewer hits than any other in the American League. But the offense was as stagnant as the Rangers' annual payroll—at $6.5 million one of the lowest in the majors. Last fall, Grieve and team president Mike Stone developed plans to acquire some big league talent and then appealed to Chiles and Texas's chief minority owner, Edward Gaylord, for a $4 million increase in the payroll, to $10.5 million. The 78-year-old Chiles, who had owned the Rangers since 1980 and had been looking to sell them, agreed. "If that's what you need, you got it," Chiles said.

Says Grieve, "It was up to us to justify the added expenditure." And it seems they have. In a nine-player deal with the Chicago Cubs during the winter meetings in December, Texas gave up three pitchers, including ace reliever Mitch Williams and starter Paul Kilgus, for starter Jamie Moyer and outfielder Rafael Palmeiro, who finished second in the National League in hitting (.307) and doubles (41) in 1988, his first full season in the majors. Since Palmeiro could play first, too, that left Rangers first baseman Pete O'Brien as trade bait. And the Cleveland Indians bit, taking O'Brien, infielder Jerry Browne and outfielder Oddibe McDowell in exchange for gifted second baseman, Julio Franco, a .309 hitter over the last three seasons.

Franco, in the Indians' view, had an attitude problem. After the trade was made, Texas manager Bobby Valentine says a number of his peers approached him as if offering condolences over the acquisition of Franco. "They said things like, 'Good luck with that one,' " Valentine says. All Valentine knew was that he was getting a superb hitter who looked like Lionel Richie, could steal 30 bases a year and practiced a work ethic that Valentine had come to appreciate late last summer when Cleveland visited Texas in fiery-hot weather and Valentine watched Franco work out in the weight room every day. But even Valentine had no clue that instead of an attitude problem he was getting an upbeat, animated clubhouse leader who would take under his wing the Rangers' best young player, 23-year-old slugging rightfielder Ruben Sierra.

"I saw the two of them shake hands the first day in spring training," says Texas pitching coach Tom House. "Pretty soon they were Mutt and Jeff." Franco, 27, who was born in the Dominican Republic, became the mentor that the Puerto Rican-born Sierra had been seeking. "He talks to me and I listen and I learn," Sierra says. And learns well: After 17 games. Sierra was hitting .375, with four homers and 15 RBIs—the fastest start of his career. Last April, he hit .167 and complained that he had trouble hitting in cold weather. Franco told him, "Don't worry about the cold. Just swing the bat." Meanwhile, Franco the Guru has led by example: His 18 RBIs at week's end were a team high.

The Rangers knew precisely what they would be getting in Ryan, whom they leapt at when he and the Astros had a falling out over contract talks. "No one expected him to leave Houston," Grieve says. "Scouts who saw him said there wasn't a significant drop-off from the way he pitched." Texas signed him in December to a guaranteed one-year, $2 million deal. "Forty percent of our additional budget went to Nolan Ryan," says Grieve. Ryan was an ideal complement to the Rangers' young starters—Bobby Witt and Kevin Brown, both 24, and Moyer, 26—who can learn from him, and he would provide an intriguing contrast to Texas's 41-year-old knuckleballer, Charlie Hough. One night an opponent sees Hough's 73-mph floater and the next, Ryan's gas. The addition of Ryan to the staff also allowed Valentine to put starter Jeff Russell in the bullpen as a closer.

The lineup wasn't the only thing changing in Texas. At about the time the Rangers were cutting their deals. Bush was becoming interested in buying the team. After spending 18 months campaigning with his father, he had returned to Dallas to get back into the oil and gas exploration business—and maybe to make a run for governor in 1990. Gaylord, the owner of Gaylord Broadcasting, was making his second attempt to buy the team from Chiles: the league owners had turned Gaylord down once before, fearing he would turn his KTVT-TV in Fort Worth into a superstation with the Rangers as one of its programming mainstays. That could undercut the gate and TV revenues of teams in other cities. Gaylord was facing the same resistance again. In a passing conversation with Bush, John McMullen, the owner of the Astros, said, "Mr. Gaylord is in trouble with the owners committee, and you might want to think about the Rangers."

"So I started thinking about it," Bush says, and he found that the idea appealed to him. His great-uncle, George Herbert Walker, was one of the original investors in the New York Mets. "He got me interested in the business side of baseball," Bush says. Bush also played the game in his youth and had a cup of coffee with the team at Yale. "I wasn't very good," he says. "I pitched middle relief against Harvard my freshman year. I was kind of a junk-ball artist."

Bush certainly had the inside track with Chiles. "Eddie and my dad knew each other through business," Bush says. "He's known me since I was six." In mid-February, Bush met with then baseball commissioner Peter Ueberroth, but Ueberroth rejected Bush's first syndicate of buyers, telling Bush that too much out-of-state money would be used to make the purchase. "We want you to have more local investors, more Texas roots," Ueberroth said. Bush called Fort Worth financier Richard Rainwater, then Dallas businessman Edward (Rusty) Rose, and the core of Bush's new group was formed, with Bush becoming managing general partner.

When American League owners turned down Gaylord's bid to buy the Rangers on March 9, the Bush group stepped in. Though he declines to be specific about his piece of the action. Bush does say. "I'm putting in a significant amount of my net worth." Gaylord, who will keep an interest in the Rangers, expressed relief that they didn't fall into the hands of interested buyers from Florida and New Jersey. "It would have been awful for a bunch of foreigners to buy them," he says.

Meanwhile, the Rangers themselves began the season playing like a bunch of foreigners—foreign, that is, to anything the franchise had seen in its other Aprils. Hough pitched a five-hit shutout on Opening Day at Arlington Stadium, and Texas won 10 of its first 11, with centerfielder Cecil Espy stealing bases at a team-record pace, leftfielder Pete Incaviglia providing timely power and Russell getting four saves.

On April 8, Moyer struck out 13 to beat the Jays 5-4 and went on to win his next two starts. Witt struck out eight Brewers on April 13 and five days later four-hit Milwaukee to win his second. Brown, a rookie, was 1-1 in his first three starts with a 2.61 ERA. "There isn't anybody easy on this pitching staff." says Sundberg. "Often your ninth and 10th guy is there just to pitch when a game gets out of hand. Not on this club."

It also helps if the first guy is Ryan. Moments after Ryan gave up the triple on Sunday. Valentine strolled to the mound. Texas had just dropped two games to Toronto, and this was no time to do a swoon over glory lost. He and Ryan cursed the Fates together, just to clear the air, and then Valentine said, "Hey, we've got a game to win." With that, he turned and walked away. Ryan, the old pro, calmly went back to work; five pitches later, the game was his.

"As surely as the no-hitter had been there, it was gone, a fading apparition."



Despite the best efforts of Toronto's Kelly Gruber, Franco completed this double play—one of his many contributions.





With all his pitches working, the 42-year-old Ryan went 8‚Öì innings without allowing a hit.



Bush (right) is enjoying the fruits of Grieve's deal-making.



Rick Leach (left) aided Ryan with the run that put Texas up 4-0 before Liriano, here being picked off on Saturday, spoiled the party.



[See caption above.]



Franco, who arrived in Texas with a dubious rep, has not only done the job at the plate...



...but also served as adviser to the multi-talented Sierra, who is off to a flying start.