Cheer Up

Rangers fans must remember this: It coulda been worse

It was grim in Arlington last week. On one front, the can-do city continued talking about bringing the Cowboys to town for a few hundred million. That sounded like a terrible idea for all the obvious reasons (publicly financing a stadium for a franchise that's among the richest in sports, for starters) and also because of some issues that people weren't discussing (the likelihood that traffic congestion on Interstate 30, Highway 360 and I-20 would become far worse than it already is if you funneled 60,000 fans into the area on Sundays).

Nearby, at the University of Texas at Arlington, things weren't much better concerning education. A class of aspiring journalists had to sit through a painful hour with a guest lecturer who spent most of the time trying out bad jokes on his captive audience. The speaker, a "professional" columnist who's currently masquerading as a congressional candidate, used the rest of the time to "teach" the students about interviewing techniques--which was rich, because nine times out of 10 he fabricates his reporting in a manner reminiscent of disgraced New York Timesreporter Jayson Blair. (That's what I've heard, anyway.) If the teacher wasn't a friend of mine, I'd recommend that UTA fire him for bad judgment.

Ah, but none of that was as dark or depressing as the scene at Ameriquest Field. The Rangers had just returned home from a road trip and were in the process of losing seven of nine games. Since April, fans were treated to the unexpected--sunshine that didn't come with oppressive heat, sunshine in the form of a winning baseball team that everyone thought would, instead, be a disgrace this year. But success is a relative term, so it's easy for players and fans alike to forget recent history and focus on the not-so-terrific present. A little more than a month and a half ago, the Rangers were in first place by four and a half games and everyone was talking playoffs, but in sports the free pass that comes with winning lasts only as long as those victories can add up to something greater.

Now, with less than a month left in the season and the Rangers lagging behind in both the A.L. West and wild card races, the excitement for that bunch has decreased while the frustration level has increased. During a game with the Chicago White Sox, second baseman Alfonso Soriano stepped to the plate and was showered with boos. Certainly he deserved it at the time--he'd committed two errors, giving him more than any other major leaguer at his position. But the grumbles weren't reserved for Soriano only (they spread it around pretty well that day), nor were they solely a product of the fans. The media have been more critical of the Rangers of late, too, pointing out that their batting average has dipped markedly over the last month or so and that the fielding hasn't been any better. The fact that journos are fickle--praising or condemning depending on what better suits their copy--is hardly surprising. What's truly shocking is that the Rangers have gotten in on the act.

"Without a doubt," manager Buck Showalter told ESPN radio when asked if time was working against his club now that they're fighting from behind instead of trying to hold their lead. "I'm not gonna...they wouldn't want any type of excuses. So we're not gonna make those."

For Showalter, it amounted to tacit admission that his boys are done. You don't decline to make excuses if there's not anything to excuse in the first place.

While I agree that, barring something unforeseen and spectacular, the Rangers are probably done (they played well against Toronto to wrap up the home stand, but they still left for Oakland five games off the A.L. West pace), I'm still not sure where all this head-hanging is coming from. Under normal circumstances I'd be content to join the negativity. No one enjoys a good pity party more than I do; most of the time I even show up early. But this is ridiculous, and the reality that I'm the one who has to point it out should signal as much.

A quick refresher: A year ago the Rangers were so far out of playoff contention that it wouldn't have mattered if they showed up for their games or stayed home. A few months ago, during spring training, A-Rod had been shipped to New York and everyone was expecting the "young guns" who replaced him to collapse in short order. Everyone was expecting the pitching to be brutal and the Rangers to get left behind by the rest of the division.

Only it didn't go down like that. The young position players--Soriano and his errors included (by the way, he was an All-Star starter this season)--proved their worth. The pitching, which admittedly could have been better, also could have been much, much worse. (Sure, it would have been nice to see Chan Ho Park or R.A. Dickey or any of the other frequently rotated starters do something significant, but consider what Ryan Drese and Kenny Rogers have managed.) This is a team, remember, that had to cope with myriad injuries and inexperience. This is a team that, so far, has used approximately 50 players this season, or roughly the number the Cowboys will carry on their roster. Despite all that, this is also a team that demanded respect from the rest of the league by controlling first place for much of the season and battling for first place when they weren't on top.

By all rational thinking, this Rangers club did far more than anyone expected them to do, and they did it with less. It's easy to forget all that when they were so close to making the playoffs. It's even natural to be a little upset, because it's been a long while since anyone around here got to watch baseball in October. But the run they had shouldn't be discredited or undervalued. We could have been forced to endure another long summer of bad baseball. Instead, we got something much better--an entertaining, winning team that could be equally qualified next year.

But you probably don't want to hear it. No one in Arlington does.

"In the big leagues, there's playoff teams and then there's everybody else," first baseman Mark Teixeira said when a reporter friend of mine asked him about the team's mood. "It doesn't matter if you're in last place or second place, one game back. You're still watching the playoffs. So if we don't make the playoffs this year, it's going to be a disappointment."

Fine. After this column, I'll stop trying to cheer everyone up. I'm not good at it, anyway.

But I'll leave you with one last thought in an attempt to make you see what I see--that things aren't nearly as awful as everyone wants to believe. Last week, during the melancholy wave that washed over Arlington, the Rangers had "Dollar Hot Dog Day" at Ameriquest Field. Seriously, when you can get a $5 dog for a buck and watch a team with a winning record, how bad could things be?

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