When they took the field last weekend, the Rangers could tell
right away that there had been a tilt in the tortilla-flat
landscape of North Texas. Suddenly, they were no longer at war
with the Cowboys, only the Indians. It was opening week in the
NFL, but the good citizens of Cowboy Nation were still enamored
of the strange new creature that had been discovered in Arlington.
It appeared to be a genuine division-leading, playoff-bound
Texas Rangers team, but local fans couldn't be sure. They had,
after all, never seen such a thing so late in the season. "This
is still a football town, and it's going to stay that way at
least until we win the division and make the playoffs," said
pitcher Bobby Witt last Saturday. "But it does feel like people
are starting to believe in us a little bit."
The Rangers have made it difficult for fans in the Lone Star
State to pack up their allegiance and move it to Jerry
Jonestown at the first sound of a kickoff. The Cleveland Indians
came to The Ballpark in Arlington last weekend for the most
eagerly anticipated series since the stadium opened in 1994, and
the Rangers took two out of three from the defending American
League champs. Attendance for the series was 132,786, a
startling turnout for baseball in Texas on a Labor Day weekend.
The Cowboys may have waited until Monday night in Chicago to
open their season, but the Rangers still went head-to-head with
high school and college football last Friday and Saturday. The
40,383 who turned out on Friday night whooped and hollered and
roared as the Rangers won 5-3. "I've seen crowds react that way
around here before, but usually they were over in Irving, at
Texas Stadium," said Cleveland manager Mike Hargrove, a native
Texan who played for the Rangers from 1974 through '78. "It's
nice to see the people get behind the baseball team, too."
The Rangers are giving the locals every reason to keep flocking
to the park. Texas's eight-game lead over the Seattle Mariners
in the American League West in late August was the largest
first-place margin in club history. Not that the club's history
is much to talk about: Since the franchise, formerly the
Washington Senators, moved to Arlington in 1972, the Rangers
have never appeared in the postseason, giving them the longest
playoff-less streak in baseball. Until this season, they had
never even been in first place after Aug. 18. Two years ago, in
a season cut short by a strike, Texas finished first, but that
was hardly a landmark achievement, considering the Rangers were
10 games under .500. Long-suffering Rangers fans have seldom
experienced the heartbreak of a late-season collapse by their
team; rarely have the Rangers even been close to first at the
start of September. They've never finished fewer than five games
out in a full season.
But now they are beating up on the vaunted Tribe, slugging it
out with the Cowboys for space on the sports pages and nearly
filling The Ballpark on a regular basis. In Sunday's Dallas
Morning News, a front-page story about the soaring appeal of the
team ran under the headline CAN RANGERS UNSEAT COWBOYS AS NO. 1?
A poll of 503 area sports fans revealed that 61% have a "high
interest" in the Rangers this season. And while 77% said they
have a high interest in the Cowboys (29% expressed high interest
in the NBA Mavericks and 12% in the NHL Stars), nearly half the
respondents said that the Cowboys' recent off-the-field problems
have lessened their enthusiasm for the Super Bowl champs.
The Rangers are in many ways the anti-Cowboys: a well-liked,
well-behaved, unselfish bunch of guys who are fresh and untested
in the postseason. Their manager, Johnny Oates, is a modest man
who deflects all the credit toward his players. "This is the
most team-oriented team I've ever seen," says catcher Dave
Valle. "We've got superstars--I'd say about 10 of them, in
fact--but not one of them cares more about himself than the
team. It makes it fun to come to the ballpark every day."
So eager to play are these Rangers that many are in front of
their lockers at 2:30 in the afternoon, yanking on their uniform
pants for a night game. That's a slight change from a few years
ago, when some veterans, now departed, would actually drive home
after batting practice and return by game time. "It just shows
that guys like the surroundings now," says Witt, who played for
Texas from 1986 through most of '92 and then returned last
season in a trade with the Florida Marlins.
The calmness that has settled over the Rangers' clubhouse begins
in the manager's office. It was not long ago that Oates was as
uptight and driven as any manager in baseball, but after his
wife, Gloria, suffered a nervous breakdown during spring
training in '95, he rearranged his priorities faster than he
fills out a lineup card. His starting rotation was no longer
more important to him than his faith or his family, which
includes a 17-year-old daughter, Jenny, and two older children.
When asked last Friday if the Cleveland lineup worried him, he
said, "I don't worry about anything to do with baseball anymore.
When my daughter is supposed to be home at midnight, and it's
12:15--that's when I worry."
As he spoke, Oates was standing in front of the Rangers' dugout,
smiling like a man who has just solved the puzzle on Wheel of
Fortune. "I love baseball, but it's not what I get my
significance from," Oates said. "I used to put too much emphasis
on the game and got everything out of whack. Now I know that I'm
just fortunate to be part of baseball. My significance comes
from being a good father and husband."
The Rangers' success should bring a smile to every baseball
purist's face. In this season of power surges and Ping-Pong
scores, Texas has shown extraordinary balance, combining timely
hitting with reliable starting pitching and rock-solid defense.
At week's end the Rangers led the league in batting (.291) and
fielding percentage and were second in runs allowed. They had
made just 69 errors in 136 games--during one stretch in August
they played 15 straight errorless games--and by committing no
errors against the Indians last weekend, the Rangers kept their
league-low total of unearned runs allowed at 35. Says
righthander Ken Hill, "It just gives a pitcher so much more
confidence when he takes the mound knowing the guys behind him
are going to make all the plays."
Past Texas teams were known for their shoddy glovework: In the
eight seasons before Oates arrived in '95, the Rangers never
finished higher than 11th in the league in team defense. "If
you're going to play for Johnny Oates," says general manager
Doug Melvin, "you had better be able to make the plays. You
don't have to be spectacular in the field. Just solid."
Among the upgrades that Oates made this season was switching
Juan Gonzalez from leftfield to right and moving Rusty Greer
from right to left, a decision that has brought out the best in
both players. "If Rusty doesn't win a Gold Glove, there's
something wrong," says Valle. Between Gonzalez and Greer is the
team's smooth centerfielder, Darryl Hamilton, who through Sunday
hadn't made an error in 142 games.
The poster boy for the defense is 32-year-old shortstop Kevin
Elster, the former New York Met whose big league career appeared
to be over in 1992 because of a chronically ailing right
shoulder. After being signed and released by six other major
league clubs and bouncing around their minor league affiliates
for three years, Elster was begging teams for another chance
last winter. When Elster's brother and agent, Patrick, called
Melvin, he was told that Benji Gil was the Texas shortstop but
that Kevin could compete for a utility job. When Gil went down
with a back injury in spring training, Elster moved into the
lineup--and has started all but six games this season. Without
exceptional range or a powerful arm, he has anchored the
Rangers' defense and had made only two errors in his last 56
games through Sunday. What's most astonishing about Elster were
his 23 home runs and 94 RBIs at week's end--he had never hit
more than 10 homers or driven in more than 55 runs in a
season--all from the number 9 spot in the order.
Elster would have been the team's biggest story in a normal
season, but in '96 he is just one of many Power Rangers. Through
Sunday the Rangers had four players with more than 90 RBIs and
six with 17 or more home runs. In the campaign for the league's
Most Valuable Player, Gonzalez got a substantial bounce from the
Cleveland series. In the opener he hit two solo home runs, his
40th and 41st, giving him a club-record 121 RBIs for the year.
He knocked in two more runs in Texas's 6-3 victory last Saturday
before going hitless in Sunday's 8-2 defeat, ending his 21-game
hitting streak but leaving his batting average at .332.
"Everyone is talking about MVP, but right now I'm just
concentrating on putting up numbers and winning games," says
Gonzalez. "If we win the division and I don't win the MVP, that
will be great."
Despite losing the series to the Rangers, the Central
Division-leading Indians were not ready to concede the pennant
or the MVP trophy. Cleveland still had the best record (81-55)
in the league and still had Albert Belle, who hit his 44th home
run last Saturday and finished the weekend with 130 RBIs, the
most in the majors. After Sunday's win Cleveland was eight games
ahead of the Chicago White Sox.
Still, the Indians haven't carpet-bombed the competition the way
that they did in 1995. And on July 29 Cleveland general manager
John Hart stunned much of the baseball world when he sent
veteran second baseman Carlos Baerga (and utilityman Alvaro
Espinoza) to the Mets for infielders Jose Vizcaino and Jeff
Kent. Though Baerga was hitting only .267 at the time and had
made a number of errors in an injury-plagued season, he had been
a cornerstone of the '95 team, batting .314 with 90 RBIs. He
also had been one of the most popular Indians among both fans
and teammates. "A lot of people questioned our sanity, and to be
honest, we questioned our own sanity," says Hargrove.
It was a move, like most made by the Hart-Hargrove
administration, that has worked out just fine for Cleveland.
Through Sunday, Vizcaino had hit .285 for the Indians and had
proved to be a significant upgrade at second base. "We miss
Carlos personally, but we're a better team with Vizcaino," says
The trade did not improve the Indians' luck against the Rangers,
who ended up beating Cleveland eight out of 12 games this
season. That doesn't bode well for the defending league champs
if these two teams meet again in October. Texas seems to match
up well against the Tribe, whose starting rotation, with the
exception of Orel Hershiser, has been hit hard recently. Could
last weekend's series have been a preview of coming attractions?
"I doubt it," says Hargrove. "From what I experienced last year,
you can honestly throw everything out the window. The playoffs
are the most different experience in life. You have to be there
to believe it."
The Rangers hope to be there next month for the first time. They
may not unseat the Cowboys this year, but they'll settle for the
Indians. One miracle at a time.
COLOR PHOTO: V.J. LOVEROOn Sunday, Ivan Rodriguez held his ground and the ball to tag out the Tribe's Sandy Alomar Jr.
COLOR PHOTO: V.J. LOVEROOnce noted for their ugly defense, Rangers like third baseman Dean Palmer are now just glovely.
COLOR PHOTO: V.J. LOVEROPower Ranger and MVP candidate Gonzalez says he cares more about winning the West than dingers. [Juan Gonzalez batting]