By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
The Texas Rangers have demons.
Demons they desperately need to exorcise, beginning in spring training at Surprise, Arizona. Most are self-spawned. All unwelcome. But the gnarly, persistent, debilitating demons remain nonetheless.
Through the years they've manifested in peculiar places such as Roger Moret's trance and Jose Canseco's noggin and Kenny Rogers' temper. But there's no disguising the evil they spread: the epidemic of losing.
Bedeviled for decades by wretched play and woeful mismanagement, Arlington's professional baseball franchise is one of the saddest and baddest in the major leagues.
Since arriving in 1972, the Rangers have played 5,655 games and managed only one playoff victory. One. Their 36-year streak without a trip to a league championship series is the longest in baseball, providing a decidedly lousier legacy than those lovable loser Chicago Cubs. They've rummaged through—often prompted by nothing but a swift jerk of the knee—19 managers, five logos, umpteen rebuilding projects and exactly zero sniffs of the World Series. Last year seamlessly and anonymously morphed into the previous year and the year before that. The wins decreased, attendance dwindled, interest deteriorated.
But nothing this side of basketball's March Madness and Padre Island's wet T-shirt contests announces spring like baseball. It's the magical time when flowers bloom, animals procreate and Rangers fans reach their gullible, masochistic peak.
Tempering their optimism, as usual, is Rangers owner Tom Hicks' miserly strategy. Despite the $7 million he recouped when former Ranger Alex Rodriguez initially opted out of his Yankees contract, the owner plods along as a billionaire buying knock-offs. His team operates in the nation's 5th-largest media market, yet is inexplicably burdened by a middle-of-the-pack budget. And there is no reason to believe that any of this is going to change anytime in the near...
Hey, lookee here. It's Nolan Ryan! Ya know...Big Tex. The Ryan Express! Surely you remember him? Those were the good ol' days, huh? Wasn't it cool when he blew away Rickey Henderson on August 22, 1989, for his record 5,000th strikeout? Well, good news. He's baaaack! And he's in charge.
On February 6, when Hicks announced that Nolan Ryan was his team's new president during a press conference at the Legends of Game Museum in Arlington, Ryan got a standing ovation and Hicks got the instant affirmation that he had hired the right guy for the right job. "I hope our fans and players are as excited as the employees," Hicks said. "I think they feel like, 'All right, now we have a winner.'"
"Nolan Ryan," Hicks continued, "is our biggest hero."
There you have it, the Rangers' 2008 strategy. Veil the rebuilding. Preach patience. Distract the demons. And when in doubt, trot out ol' reliable. Not bad. Not bad at all.
It's worked before, when Ryan injected credibility and visibility into this woebegone franchise with a handful of milestone moments in the late '80s and early '90s. Now, sent from the heavens by way of Houston, the Hall of Famer has returned to cleanse the Rangers of its gory past and lukewarm present.
When you make a frantic, albeit shrewd call to the bullpen for one of baseball's all-time greatest pitchers to be your pitch man, all other transactions shrink into footnotes.
On this sun-splendid, February 29 morning, about 30 miles of palm trees and desert northwest of Phoenix, the Rangers' spring training complex is abuzz. It's 8:37 a.m., and the clubhouse is waking to Sinatra's "Chicago."
"I guarantee we're going to pitch and catch better," says effervescent Rangers manager Ron Washington, who swooshes through the room sucking on his trademark toothpick. "Guarantee."
But the nervous anticipation isn't about pitching or catching, or new center fielder Josh Hamilton's raw power or third baseman Hank Blalock's return from rib-removal surgery or second baseman Ian Kinsler's productivity from the lead-off spot. The fans, media, players and even the owner are anxiously awaiting the arrival of Ryan, their iconic new old face of the franchise.
Four hours later, Ryan finally emerges from the team office, which is located down the right-field line of Surprise Stadium. He looks almost alien, sans his familiar No. 34, wearing khakis, golf shirt and tan cap from Georgetown's Cimarron Hills Golf Course. It seems fitting that he has kept his admirers waiting, since Ryan's debut is all about patience and deflecting attention away from this season's predictably porous play.
"I feel good about our team and our direction," Ryan says in his trademark twang. "But I'm not about to sit here and say we're going to win a World Series in two years. Building a winner takes time."
The Hall-of-Fame starter has been anointed state-of-the-art savior. But take two chill pills and call him in 2009—the sport's fastest pitcher plans to take it slow.
"I'm not going to make wholesale changes and try to fix everything in one day," Ryan continues. "My management style is to give people room, let them do their jobs. If they don't succeed, then it'll be time for change."
Voyaging into yet another season littered with questions throughout the pitching staff, the Rangers' most important position in 2008 might well be commander-in-chief. The team, afforded the luxury of Ryan and his mesmerizing reputation, can funnel fans' concerns away from its mediocre present by conjuring up images from a past saturated with feel-good, Hall-of-Fame highlights. Who needs Criss Angel's illusions when you have the reality of baseball's all-time strikeout king?