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.

All I could do, finally, was to place my head next to my typewriter and pray for the swift arrival of the Angel of Death. When I finally opened my eyes again, the first game was over. According to the numbers on the scoreboard, the Brewers had beaten Jim Bibby 7-3, and from the sound of things, Bernie Brewer had been subjected to another active outing.

Now, in the third inning of the second game, the Rangers were already hopelessly beaten and Whitey Herzog was on the field, screaming at plate umpire Bill Haller and flapping his wings like some crazed gander.

Afterward, when the kids with the bats had ceased their assault and were filing out to go home to Oshkosh and Sheboygan or wherever else, I entered the Rangers' clubhouse to inquire as to the source of Whitey Herzog's affliction. His response provided what turned out to be the post-game highlight of my entire tour covering this outlandish baseball franchise:

"It started yesterday, when they were beating up on us with 17 runs. I knew something was up and figured the third-base coach was stealing [catcher] Suarez's signs," said Herzog, speaking rapidly and making wild, pointing gestures, like an old film of Mussolini making a speech. "But today, in the first game, I figured it out. I got some binoculars and looked out there in center field where they keep that little asshole in the costume.

"And that's when I saw the other guy and that's when I was positive. He had binoculars, too, picking up our signs. Then...the other one...in the costume...he wears these white gloves and he'd clap his hands. Once for a curve and twice for a fastball. That's how they were doing it. That has to be it. Either they were getting our pitches or this is the greatest hitting team of all time."

Herzog concluded with a statement that encompassed the spectrum of what had largely amounted to a season of abject frustration: "Can you imagine," Whitey demanded, "that a team would have to cheat to beat us?"

After a short series in Chicago, the Rangers were back in Arlington for a weekend engagement against Oakland. Friday afternoon, [Rangers' secretary] Burt Hawkins called me at home. "Get out to the park early," he said. "Bob Short is having a press conference." Well, a Bob Short press conference ordinarily did not give cause for network alerts that began, "We interrupt our regularly scheduled programming..." [Pitcher] Jim Merritt gave good press conferences. Mike Kekich and Fritz Peterson of the Yankees gave an outstanding press conference when they announced they were trading wives. Bob Short, up to this point, had failed miserably in his occasional attempts to rouse the rabble.

This one would be different. Short sat behind a desk in his stadium office. Whitey Herzog sat immediately to Short's left. Short began the press conference by announcing that he had fired Whitey. His reason, he said, was "the artistic state of the Rangers."

The relationship between the Rangers' management and the Rangers' press corps had, from the first, been more informal than what is more commonly seen in professional sports. This press conference was typical. Harold McKinney began calling Bob Short the names that McKinney called his 10-year-old Buick Skylark on the frequent mornings when it wouldn't start.

"Jesus Christ, Bob! Artistic state of the Rangers! Whitey's not the one who went and rounded up Rico Carty and Mike Epstein to be the heart of the batting order! You were! Some fuckin' art you collected there!" People out in the parking lot could probably hear Harold yelling at the owner. Now the cameras were clicking and Bob Short found himself pressed into a defensive posture. Short said that Del Wilbur, the AAA manager from Spokane, had been pressed into service on an interim basis. The full-time guy for 1974 had not been identified yet, Short kept insisting.

Here was where Bob Short could have made things easier on himself at the press conference...by simply confirming that the instant Billy Martin was ousted in Detroit, he had found a warm nest awaiting in Texas. It made sense. All around Dallas-Fort Worth suburbs like Blue Mound, Joshua, and Grapevine, guys were roaring up and down the blacktop roads in pickup trucks adorned with bumper stickers that read: "The West Wasn't Won With A Registered Gun." They had money to spend, but they were spending it all in bowling alleys and head shops and not at the ball park that Short had presumed would have established itself by now as the Poor Man's Country Club.

People were asking me if I missed covering the Rangers. These were the same people who would ask a U.S. Marine if he missed Guadalcanal. What I did miss was spring training, the sun and the sand and not the baseball, and I arranged future ceremonial pilgrimages to the Surf Rider [at Pompano Beach].

I spent a month there in 1977 to prepare a page-and-a-half magazine article. My companion at the poolside bar one afternoon was the familiar figure of David Clyde, back in an abortive final bid for a spot on the Rangers' pitching staff. A newly arrived Canuck sized us up and said, "You two are from Texas. I can tell by your accents, eh? Are you associated with the baseball team by any chance?"

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