The opening of the Dallas Cowboys' training camp each July
signals the end of serious local interest in the Texas Rangers.
Some Cowboy preseason scrimmages have gotten better TV ratings
in Dallas-Fort Worth this summer than Ranger regular-season
games, and a Cowboy exhibition game attracted more viewers than
the 1995 All-Star Game played at The Ballpark in Arlington. "I
don't get it," says Ranger righthander Bob Tewksbury, who is
spending his first season with Texas. "The Cowboys only play on
Sundays. Why can't the fans follow us the rest of the week?"
Because they don't trust the Rangers, Bob, that's why. Too many
of them know the hilarious history of the club. Remember, in
1977 Texas had four managers in six days. A year later reliever
Roger Moret went into a catatonic state, standing in the middle
of the clubhouse in his underwear, holding his shower shoes, for
about 30 minutes; after he snapped out of it, he slapped general
manager Eddie Robinson across the face. And don't forget manager
Doug Rader, who, during a golf outing in '83, playfully took a
shotgun out of his bag and blasted a golf ball that one of his
coaches had hit into his group.
More recently this has been a team with a lot of style but very
little substance. It was a star-studded band of power hitters
(Jose Canseco, Julio Franco, Rafael Palmeiro, Ruben Sierra) and
strikeout pitchers (Nolan Ryan, Mitch Williams, Bobby Witt) who
could bludgeon an opponent and at the same time make four
errors, walk 12 batters and run the bases like blind men.
The bottom line was that Texas had never come close to playing a
postseason game in its 23-year history. The only year it didn't
finish at least five games out of first was 1994, when, despite
a 52-62 record, the Rangers were leading the American League
West at the time the players went on strike and the postseason
So during the off-season Texas did what it does best: fired its
general manager, gave its manager the boot, turned its roster
inside out and got a new religion--more substance, less style.
Now the Rangers have mostly fundamentally sound players and
veterans who have been associated with winning. This team can
bunt, steal bases, throw strikes and make routine plays look
Instead of playing like the wild bunch, the Rangers this year
have the look of a wild card. At week's end they may have been
7-1/2 games behind the California Angels in the American League
West, but in the more hotly contested race for the wild card,
they were hanging on to a half-game lead over the Milwaukee
Texas's new resilience was in evidence last Saturday night in a
10-3 victory over the Kansas City Royals. After the Rangers lost
the first two games of the series--their first back-to-back
defeats in a month--they stormed back against Royal ace Kevin
Appier, scoring eight runs in the first three innings without a
home run. Seven Texas players got hits and six drove in runs
during that outburst.
But this team had showed early on that it could handle
adversity. Texas started the year without new manager Johnny
Oates, who took a 16-day leave of absence to attend to his
ailing wife. Injuries decimated the lineup: Three of the
Rangers' best players--outfielder Juan Gonzalez (back, shoulder),
first baseman Will Clark (elbow) and third baseman Dean Palmer
(torn biceps, out for the year)--started together only three
times all year. Then, following the All-Star break, there was
the 10-game losing streak that cost Texas seven games in the
Tewksbury, who himself spent nearly five weeks on the disabled
list with a rib-cage injury, got the win on Saturday night in
his first start since rejoining the team and said, "We don't
have the most talent in the world--just enough to win--but we have
as much character as any team in baseball."
The transformation of the Rangers began last October when they
hired Oriole farm director Doug Melvin as their new general
manager. His first move was to fire manager Kevin Kennedy and
hire Oates, who had been canned by the Orioles a month earlier
despite a .544 winning percentage over three seasons. Kennedy,
who could wind up as Manager of the Year for the job he has done
with the Boston Red Sox this year, was 138-138 in two seasons in
Texas, but several Ranger players say he was too strident after
losses yet not enough of a disciplinarian.
By comparison, Oates has a no-nonsense approach (caps cannot be
worn backward, and earrings are prohibited during games) and is
one of the best-prepared managers in baseball. But his work
ethic took a toll on his family. In mid-April, Oates's wife,
Gloria, suffered from emotional and physical exhaustion. He left
the team for the last 10 days of spring training and the first
five games of the season to be with her. Melvin says his manager
returned to the Rangers with a new perspective on baseball. When
Texas was losing 10 in a row, Oates stayed calm and made sure
his team didn't fold its tent.
"Last year I wasn't wrapped as tight as people thought, but I
was very defensive, and I took things personally," Oates says of
his disagreements with the Baltimore front office and his
run-ins with the media there. "And I wasn't being a good
husband. I had a mistress...a mistress called baseball. I was
more concerned about what a writer wrote or what the owner
[Peter Angelos] said in the 'Style' section. My family was
crying out for help, but I wasn't listening."
The '94 Rangers had more talent than this year's club, but
according to All-Star pitcher Kenny Rogers (12-6 through
Sunday), "Everything went wrong. A lot has gone wrong this year,
too, but a better attitude and a better atmosphere make a world
Melvin's first major player move, on Dec. 9, was to trade
Canseco to the Red Sox for Otis Nixon and third baseman Luis
Ortiz. In dealing the popular power hitter, Melvin upgraded the
Rangers' speed and defense, made the team more versatile
(Canseco could only DH) and freed up enough money (he made $5
million) to sign a few free agents.
Leadoff-hitter Nixon may be 36 and look like he's 46, but he has
performed like he's 26. In addition to playing exceptional
defense, he has had his best year offensively. At week's end he
was hitting .291 with career highs in hits (134) and RBIs (38),
and had 19 bunt singles (matching the team total for 1994) and
32 steals (tied for third in the league). "Playing against Texas
last year, I knew I was needed here," Nixon says. "With speed, I
knew they could become real solid."
Many of Melvin's free-agent pickups have played significant
roles as well. Tewksbury (8-4, 4.00) has shown the value of
throwing strikes and has been quick to assist the young
pitchers. Mark McLemore has provided strong defense at second
base and in the outfield while hitting .270 with 21 steals.
Utilityman Mickey Tettleton, who was jobless until Melvin signed
him for $500,000 in mid-April, leads the team with 25 homers.
Just as important, a pair of young Ranger stars have matured on
and off the field. Catcher Ivan Rodriguez, a four-time All-Star
at 23, has taken charge behind the plate--no catcher in baseball
is as tough to steal against--and he is less likely to lose his
composure. He was hitting .324 with 11 homers and 54 RBIs
through Sunday. And the Rangers' best overall hitter is
Gonzalez, 25, who missed 54 games this year because of his bad
back, but still had 19 homers and 56 RBIs in 59 games. He has
worked harder to keep his back sound, has showed up at the park
on time and has taken advice from people like Melvin, who early
in the season asked him to lose some weight. Gonzalez shed 15
pounds from his spring training weight (245) and wants to lose
The improved play of the Rangers hasn't caused a stampede in the
Fort Worth stockyards. As if the locals needed another reason
not to watch baseball, the lingering effects of the strike and
the 10-game losing streak have contributed to a drop at the gate
of nearly 12,000 per game from last year.
Nevertheless the franchise appears to be in good hands, and the
team is playing with enthusiasm. "The only thing we have to do
now," says Oates, "is win."
That has always been the hard part.
COLOR PHOTO: CHUCK SOLOMON A slimmer and healthier Gonzalez is weighing in once again as one of the Rangers' heavy hitters. [Juan Gonzalez]COLOR PHOTO: JOHN IACONO His 32 stolen bases leave no doubt that the 36-year-old Nixon still has plenty of bounce in his step. [Otis Nixon]