Breaking balls

Opening week proved the Rangers can be the best and worst team in baseball

For four innings, everything was perfect.
After a while, you could hear grown men hold their breath each time the ball left the pitcher's hand; you could feel the cheers every time an opposing batter struck out or a fly ball was snared in midflight or a ground ball bounced into an infielder's open glove.

Twelve up, twelve down in just 37 pitches with 15 outs to go--it all seemed so easy, so effortless for John Burkett and the Texas Rangers as Opening Day began on a cloudless, 65-degree Tuesday afternoon that seemed tailor-made for storybook beginnings to fairy-tale seasons. Before the game began, before the Rangers and Chicago White Sox took the field at the Ballpark in Arlington, Hall of Fame pitcher Nolan Ryan told a dozen reporters about days like this--"days full of promise," he would say, his utterances as grand and mythic as his accomplishments on the mound not so long ago.

But suddenly and without warning, perfect promises turned into veiled threats. The Rangers led off the first three innings by putting a runner on base, and each time they left him stranded there; the team would go zip-for-seven with runners on base during the first four frames. It felt like old times on Opening Day. Rangers fans--the most optimistic, and perhaps most misguided, in the world--have seen this before, so often they know the ending without skipping ahead.

The fifth inning began with the first White Sox hit of the day, a leadoff single by Albert Belle. Then Robin Ventura sent a 2-0 fastball over the center-field wall; the ball landed 404 feet away from home plate. In a matter of a few minutes, Burkett loaded the bases for Mike Cameron, who smacked a fastball through the left side of the infield and scored two more runs. Then came a Frank Thomas double and another Albert Belle single. By the time reliever Eric Gunderson entered the game to record the final out, the score was White Sox 7, Rangers 0.

(One of the little-known facts about the breakdown: Moments before the White Sox began bludgeoning the Rangers to death with Louisville lumber, Governor George W. Bush entered the press box to take some friendly questions. "Keep it down to a dull roar," he cautioned with a smile. Someone shouted out "Bush in 2000!" and the Guv turned and grinned. Dallas Morning News columnist Randy Galloway asked Bush, one of the partners selling the team to Tom Hicks, whether "this brings back any memories." Bush smiled: "It does make me nostalgic, but it doesn't mean I'm not gonna cash the check."

(When Bush turned around to see that the Sox had scored seven while he was schmoozing, he wheeled back around to Galloway and playfully put his hands around the writer's neck. "More pitching," Bush told him and the handful of veteran scribes looking on. "More pitching." That's why he's gonna be president--Junior Bush is a very smart man.)

And that's how the Rangers opened the 162-game season--with a 9-2 loss before the second-largest opening-day crowd in Rangers history, in front of almost 46,000 fans who couldn't wait for the chill of winter to give way to the warm confidence of spring. Those who would complain baseball is too slow, too humdrum, do not understand the game. Perhaps they like their thrills quick and cheap, preferring the brutality of football and hockey or the speed of basketball; perhaps they think of baseball as a sideshow to a warm evening spent drinking beer and eating hot dogs.

Those who know better will tell you that baseball is the most exciting sport of them all: In no time at all, a zip-zip game can turn into a rout, the momentum shifting so quickly and inexplicably that you can feel your stomach creep into your throat. Opening Day was such a game--you couldn't tell if it was murder or suicide.

"That's baseball," shrugged first baseman Will Clark after the first loss of many to come this season, nursing the first Coors Light of the afternoon. Clark recorded two hits for the day, which means he has hit safely in 12 consecutive opening-day games. "You can have the game well in hand one second, and the next second, it's blown out of proportion. It was just one of those games today. John was in complete control up until that one inning, and a few balls over the plate, they took advantage of 'em. It can change quickly. There are a lot of things that happen in a ball game that can sway whether you win or lose. What winds up happening is that baseball, for as big as this ballpark is, can be a game of inches."

After the game, the locker room was morgue-silent; even the reporters and cameramen spoke in hushed whispers as they waited for the players to file out of the showers. Relief pitcher Tim Crabtree, who gave up a run in the White Sox ninth, sat in front of his locker wearing a T-shirt and shorts, stretching his legs and staring straight ahead, speaking to no one.

There are few things more painful for a writer than having to ask a pitcher how he let a game get away from him--it's not as though he meant to fail. But when Burkett finished dressing, he was startlingly good-humored about the loss. He smiled as he spoke about falling behind batters all day long, about the balls that didn't break.

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