Damned Rangers

The Texas Rangers better win the pennant this year, if only to atone for subjecting fans to two decades of baseball hell. Mike Shropshire chronicles the team's cursed early years in an exclusive Observer excerpt.

Since Seasons in Hell was published in June, I've done about 30 sports talk-radio programs, and the question that surfaced on almost all of them was this: Why, after more than 20 years, did you finally get around to writing this book?

Usually, my explanation involved the notion that some of these old stories and anecdotes are similar to certain distilled products. You leave them dormant in a cool, dark room for a couple of decades and then, when you pop open the keg, the product should provide more kick and flavor. True baseball fans live in the past, anyway. In the year 2016, Marge Schott might write her memoirs and everybody will think she's hilarious.

But the fact is that guests on radio talk shows are similar to persons testifying under oath in a courtroom. They hardly ever tell the truth. So I now confess that the actual reason this book was written a generation after the fact is the same reason Thomas Edison invented the light bulb. His wife told him to do it. Otherwise he would just--by God--go live underneath the viaduct.

At first, I demurred. Given the contemporary marketing strategies at work in the New York book industry, the nonfiction writer becomes published only if he or she can claim a mail-order psychology diploma, develops a stand-up comedy routine that leads to a sitcom, commits a felony significant enough to make the front page or...fourth and finally, opens a health club. Otherwise, forget it.

I explained to my wife that due to circumstances of stamina and iron-poor blood, none of these four avenues of literary adventure seemed attainable. "Besides," I said. "Do you actually believe that anybody in the New York book business gives a flying you-know-what about the 1973 Texas Rangers?"

"Shut up and do it anyway," she said.
Well, she was right, as it turns out, although I still think the fact that somebody up there actually bought the proposal stands out as the greatest miracle since Jesus of Nazareth turned creek water into a delicate but sassy chardonnay. What actually happened was that a clever literary agent managed to get the manuscript into the hands of a man of rare vision, Donald I. Fine, described by radio personality Don Imus as "pretty much a regulation publishing nut-case."

Anyway, now that the thing is out and actually in a third printing, another miracle has appeared and glows out there on the Mid-Cities horizon. After 25 years of the most abject presentation of on-the-field futility in the annals of modern baseball, the Texas Rangers seem poised to win a division championship.

In Las Vegas betting shops, you could get better odds on Susan Lucci winning a daytime Emmy than on the Rangers appearing in post-season play. The Rangers, in fact, maintain a carefully cultivated performance pattern that is much like that of the character that Lucci portrays on that soap opera. The Rangers, rather than going on winning and losing streaks, seem to experience mood swings. The inevitable result comes in what psychiatrists would diagnose as textbook patterns of willful self-destruction.

Just when the Rangers advance into the sunny side of the win-loss column, they spit up all over their white sports coats and tumble into the orchestra pit. That had been the rite of summer around here for nearly 25 years, but, seemingly, no longer.

These Rangers of '96, while there is still ample time to botch the script, appear enriched with a healthy self-concept--for the first time ever. I suspect that in a photo finish, they will win the American League West, and once that is accomplished, I further suspect that winning championships will become habit-forming.

If that is the case, at least Seasons in Hell will always be around to remind us of the way it used to be.

Editor's note: In 1972, one of the most pathetic teams in baseball, the American League's Washington Senators, moved to the bustling metropolis of Arlington, Texas, and renamed themselves Texas Rangers. After the Rangers' horrendous 1972 season, it seemed the only way was up for the Dallas-Fort Worth area's latest baseball franchise.

But the Rangers would prove wrong such meager expectations, posting a 57-105 record in 1973 and going down in history as one of the worst major-league teams ever.

At the time, Mike Shropshire, 31, was a baseball writer for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. His story begins at Pompano Stadium ball park in Pompano Beach, Florida, site of the Rangers' spring-training camp. Manager Whitey Herzog, who'd later go on to World Series success with St. Louis, got his first look at the season's new batch of "talents."

As a connoisseur of essentially unhistoric details of modern Americana, I would rate 1973 as a year of outstanding vintage. Vietnam was winding down and Watergate was heating up. The national attitude that the media now falsely associate with the era known as the '60s did not reach fruition until the early and mid-1970s. Look at the class of 1968 in every high-school or college annual and you'll see that all the boys have haircuts like Forrest Gump's.

The so-called hippie attitude was reaching its zenith in 1973 and, although the lens on my retrospective processes might be a trifle blurred, it seemed then that almost everyone tended to agree that life was too short and therefore should be enjoyed to the maximum extent. Not like the sober '90s, when--because of the economy and AIDS--everybody's getting laid off and nobody's getting laid. Not like now, when wellness is next to godliness.

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