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.

Herzog's everyday line-up included talents who might not have offered first-division potential. They were, however, entirely qualified to hold their own in conversations on topics like bass fishing and provide welcome company at cocktail parties of almost any social strata. The test of time would demonstrate again and again that the Rangers ballplayers were far more entertaining in person than they were on the field.

Epstein, the first baseman, had a World Series ring from the previous season but now agreed with Oakland's director of player personnel that his job skills were better suited to a team like the Rangers. Life in baseball, Epstein told me, was cluttered with too much "inconsequential bullshit," and he had devoted more of spring training to securing his pilot's license than attempting to regain his timing in the batting cage.

Even before the start of spring training, Herzog had said, "If Rich Billings is the starting catcher again, we're in deep trouble." When that evaluation was passed along to Billings, he simply nodded and said, "Whitey, obviously, has seen me play." But Whitey, obviously, had not seen the other candidates for that position play, and now Billings was again penciled in as the starting catcher.

Third baseman Joe Lovitto came endowed with what all the scouts insist are the four essentials necessary for major-league stardom. Lovitto could run, throw, hit, and hit with power. The problem was that while he could do all of these things, Lovitto seldom did. Lovitto told me of an encounter he'd had with Ted Williams the season before: "We were on the road somewhere and Ted called me into his hotel room," Lovitto said. "He told me that I had my head up my ass and that I was wasting my talent."

How, I inquired, had Lovitto responded to a critique like that from a man such as Ted Williams? Lovitto seemed astounded that I would even ask the question. "Well, what would you do?" he demanded. "I told him to go fuck himself and slammed the door in his face."

Meanwhile, the manager was gaining a sharper focus of what he anticipated from this season's team. "Defensively," said Herzog, a man of keen intuitions about the game, "these guys are really substandard, but with our pitching, it really doesn't matter."

When right-hander Jim Bibby joined the Rangers he presented an immediate departure in that he at least looked the part of a ballplayer. Most of the Rangers wore straggly mustaches, generally appeared consumptive, and, when the team marched through an airport en route to the bar, easily could have been mistaken for a bunch of ex-cons. Bibby, at 6 feet 7, had legs like oak trees. His brother Henry had been a key figure in UCLA's basketball dynasty and was now a star with the Knicks.

Jim Bibby, who for reasons known only to himself went by the "stage name" Fontay O'Rooney, was by no means a complete major-league pitcher. But he threw a vicious fastball--"serious heat...severe gas"--that would scare the bejesus out of most American League batters. Parenthetically, Bibby could also lay claim to owning the biggest apparatus of manhood in baseball--an appendage of near-equine proportions--and it was to Bob Short's eternal frustration that he could never harness that particular novelty into a gate attraction at Arlington Stadium.

Short's marketing scheme was entirely one-dimensional. Everything was Something Night at the ball park. Bat Night--they staged about five of those. Ball Night. Cap Night. T-shirt Night. Rangers Keychain Night. Rangers Calendar Night. Yes, and even Rangers Panty Hose (guaranteed to yield fewer runs than the home team) Night. Still on the drawing board was Insane Relative Night and Law Enforcement Appreciation Night, where Grand Prairie cops would stage a pregame demonstration of interrogation techniques.

When I suggested to Short that he was processing junk merchandise, he puffed up and said, "Got any better ideas?" Whenever the turnstile count hit 10,000, it was a good night in Arlington. The solemn reality was that the Dallas-Fort Worth area was gaga over the Cowboys, and the lame antics of a last-place baseball team were not inflaming fan response.

In short, Bob Short needed a miracle.
The Rangers could claim one asset. By virtue of their record the season before--worst in the league--Texas received the top selection in the upcoming amateur draft. All of the scouts unanimously anointed a high-school pitcher in Houston, a left-hander, as the best prospect in the country and perhaps the best of the previous 10 years or the best since Bob Feller or even, according to some, as--aw, what the hell?--the best of all time.

Whitey Herzog, pragmatist and skeptic, had traveled to Austin to watch David Clyde pitch in high-school state championships and was now firing a 21-gun salute, too. According to the manager, Clyde clearly "had the gun" and the only missing ingredient was "developing a change-up and getting the fine-tuning that separates the big leaguers from, well, the guys we've got now.

"Start him off in an all-rookie league, where he'll get used to being away from home with some guys his own age, then pull him all the way to AA or even AAA next year...and I think the kid will be primed for the majors by the time he's 20. And after that," Whitey said (he'd just watched Secretariat win the Belmont Stakes by 31 lengths on TV), "we can bottle his sperm." Herzog was fostering visions of a time when managing the Rangers might not be the grotesque experience he was presently forced to endure.

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