By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Baseball caps 'n' gloves are replaced by the winter variety. Cold beer is finishing second to hot chocolate. The field—splotched with hideous hues of mustard brown and only hints of green—looks like grandma's patchwork quilt.
The couple thousand fans at Rangers Ballpark are getting autographs, running the bases and daydreaming of summer when, like a Vicente Padilla message fastball between the shoulder blades, it hits us—well, at least one of us:
If the Rangers were an NFL team, they'd sign the other Manning brother—Cooper.
If they were in charge of Sunday's Super Bowl halftime show they wouldn't trot out Tom Petty, but rather local tribute band Petty Theft.
And if they were a legit baseball organization, they wouldn't finish third or worse in a four-team division for eight consecutive seasons.
But, alas, they are the Rangers. The pathetic, penny-pinching Rangers.
Face it, we have a better chance of seeing Bigfoot and Elvis arriving in Stephenville via UFO and dining together on a grilled cheese shaped like Jesus than a World Series in Arlington.
Hicks, owner of the Rangers, Dallas Stars and co-owner of Liverpool's fabled soccer team, is being harpooned for a one-year reign littered by spats with his coach, delays in building a new stadium, flirtations with a prospective buyer and general indifference. Last Sunday Hicks went on BBC Radio in an attempt to quash the uprising by one of the world's most ardent fan bases.
"There is no question in my mind that I will still be an owner of Liverpool Football Club in five years," Hicks said.
That declaration will likely be met with a collective "Aw bloody hell!" Because in the same township that birthed The Beatles, Liverpool's soccer fans have a dire message for their American owner:
If it ain't broke, don't Hicks it.
"Sadly, you fooled us," reads the missive from Liverpool backer Varinderjeet Singh, a Birmingham resident, in an e-mail he begs me to forward to Hicks. "Worse than that, you lied to us. You are now making us and our great 116-year-old club look like fools. We don't want you anymore. Make your money and move on. Now!"
Dear London, the line forms behind us. Sincerely, Dallas.
In the battle of kicks vs. Hicks, fans treated to 18 championships at their historic Anfield stadium desperately want to sack the owner despite his promises last week to keep coach Rafa Benitez and have Dallas-based architects HKS design an $800 million, 71,000-seat stadium. There have been protests, a "Yanks Out!" banner at a recent game and an online petition for Hicks' ousting—signed by 44,152.
And to think, Liverpool—with a quirky record of 10-2-10—started the week in sixth place of a 20-team league. Imagine the ruckus if Hicks turns their Reds into our Rangers?
While the horror of frugal mediocrity is moving Anfield to storm the castle, Arlington's meek reaction is more along the lines of "Hey, don't bogart the relish." Liverpool fans are organizing a mutiny; Rangers fans are planning the annual family outing to touch Nolan Ryan's statue and ogle more fireworks.
"Nothing's going to change until the fans make a stand and only 10,000 show up for opening day," says Corinth's Cleon Haynes during Fan Fest. "As long as Hicks sees 50,000 he knows he hasn't priced us out of the market or done anything too bad."
In perspective, a local online petition aimed at provoking Hicks to sell the Rangers has generated only 189 responses.
That's despite the lineage of losing. The Rangers, saddled with baseball's longest streak (36 years and counting) without a trip to the League Championship Series, have endured 22 losing seasons, 19 managers, five owners, five logos and zero sniffs of the World Series.
That's despite last year's abject failure. The Rangers stumbled out of the gate 23-42 and finished 75-87, spending all but two days of the six-month season under .500.
That's despite this year's outlook, only slightly more promising than Britney Spears' future as a day care proprietor.
"If the rebuilding process takes five steps, we're at about step three," assistant general manager Thad Levine tells a Fan Fest gathering of 100 in what amounts to a Town Hall Q&A. "We've turned the corner."
Color me skeptical.
While the Rangers will again break in young talent early and trade away decent veterans down the stretch, Hicks is up to his same old shit. It's not prudent or noble, just cheap and disgusting. Payroll is down, ticket prices up.
Regardless of a $7 million windfall recouped when Alex Rodriguez opted out of his contract with the New York Yankees, the 61-year-old Hicks continues to be a billionaire shopping at Dollar Store. His team operates in the nation's fifth-largest media market yet runs on a middle-of-the-pack budget. This off-season the Rangers settled for an outfielder with a history of temper tantrums (Milton Bradley) and a pitcher who last year went 2-9 with elbow problems (Jason Jennings), while releasing one of 2007's few bright spots (Sammy Sosa).
"People are worried that I might take money away from the Rangers to go to Liverpool," Hicks said last spring. "It's just the reverse. Liverpool is going to pull off lots of extra money that, if I choose, I can use for the Rangers or Stars."
Meanwhile, back here on Earth, ticket prices recently increased for the third consecutive season. Why? Because we'll barely respond, much less revolt. Even though the Rangers' attendance decreased 135,000 last year, their 2.3 million customers were still more than the American League Central Division champion Cleveland Indians.
"It's hard to swallow," says Dallas' Jon Thurmond with a shrug, while waiting in 35-degree cold to get a bat signed by Rusty Greer. "Every year we're told to be patient and to dig a little deeper in our pockets."
There are signs of life. A farm system ranked 28th last year by Baseball America is now No. 4. The Rangers are bidding to host the 2015 All-Star Game. Pitchers and catchers report to Surprise, Arizona, for spring training on February 14.
Still, isn't it just a matter of time before the Rangers re-sign Ryan, name Greer manager and resurrect the giant Texas-shaped scoreboard to distract us from the '08 realities of missing out on Torii Hunter and counting on Ben Broussard?
While the price for Hicks' follies in England may be harsh criticism, here it's merely indifference. He gets a ruler to the knuckles for not attending the Stars' playoff elimination and for labeling Liverpool fans more passionate than Rangers fans, but basically we passively afford Hicks irrelevance.
Just like his baseball team.
Did you know that All-Star shortstop and face of the franchise Michael Young went to Cabo on a recent vacation? Exactly.