By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
"We made it real tough on ourselves with our start. But we weathered the storm. We never gave up. We played hard every game, and we'll be better next year for having gone through this adversity."
The Rangers, en route to a 75-87 season, proceed to clobber an American League West foe, 16-2, in their home finale.
September 24, 2008. Texas Rangers manager Ron Washington:
"Despite the start we got off to, we kept fighting. I think we've made progress. We're headed in the right direction. We went through a lot of adversity, and we handled it professionally."
The Rangers, en route to a 79-83 season, proceed to clobber an American League West foe, 14-4, in their home finale.
If you think this feels like a tale penned by Albert Einstein or Rod Serling, you're not alone. For it was Einstein who defined insanity as "Doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting different results." And it was Serling who guided us through The Twilight Zone, with most of its episodes climaxing in that defining moment of "Hey, I've been here before!"
Pitching and defense. Defense and pitching.
For the Rangers the obit has read the same since, oh, 1972. It's déjà boo all over again.
Whether it's the Angels ('07) or A's ('08) in the opposing dugout and whether Washington delivers last rites in the dugout ('07) or his office ('08), the disappointing seasons seem to end with similar wins and excuses. Likewise, next season always teases, mischievously dangling its hollow promise.
"Hopefully," says catcher Gerald Laird after the 10-run throttling of the A's that helped Texas secure second place in the division, "we're building momentum for next season."
Come 2009 the Rangers will still have Washington (154-170 in two seasons) as their manager and Jon Daniels for their general manager and Tom Hicks as their owner. They will still count on Michael Young as their veteran leader. They will need Hank Blalock to stay healthy. They will again cross their fingers for a breakout year from Nelson Cruz. They will rely on Kevin Millwood in the rotation and Joaquin Benoit in the bullpen. And—stop me if you've heard this one a thousand times before—they'll still be looking to add quality starting pitching.
Washington, basking in the news of his return next season, opens his office door in the bowels of Rangers Ballpark in Arlington and offers the media coffee and doughnuts ("sinkers," he calls them). His team is close, he maintains. Very close. "If," Washington explains—all together now—"we get some pitching."
Really? Considering his staff had the worst ERA in Major League Baseball, just how much pitching?
"Two good starters and two bullpen pieces," he says.
Before I can calculate the comical effects of just going ahead and hiring Chuck "Two and Two" Woolery to at least date the Rangers, Washington continues...
"We need a left-handed reliever. And a right-handed bat. With some pop."
Very close, huh? Using that extremely lenient and totally irrational scale, I'm on the verge of being Brad Pitt and our economy's salad days are imminent.
Washington isn't the first Rangers manager to covet a couple of pitchers. In 1973 Whitey Herzog lamented his dreadful team, declaring that Texas was similarly two pitchers from being a legit contender.
It's all fantasy baseball, anyway. We know good and well the Texas Treadmills are going nowhere fast. In fact, despite needing "two good starters," team President Nolan Ryan is already laying the groundwork for not, in fact, going after two good starters.
"I wouldn't rule out going after a free agent," Ryan said after the home finale, "but I don't want our fans to think we're going to be competing with other clubs for those big-time guys."
Instead of contending, 2009 will again be about developing.
Sound the bugle! C-H-A-a-r-r-g-e ... ?
Shame. Because until August this Rangers season felt...different.
After the skipper somehow survived what appeared to be an inevitable firing—who knew Washington Manager would outlast Washington Mutual?—the Rangers went on a 53-38 roll to climb six games over .500 and into the thick of the AL Wild Card chase on August 6.
Over a scintillating span that saw them win a series at Yankee Stadium and split a memorable four games with the Angels, the Rangers actually fooled us into thinking this year wouldn't be every other last year.
KTCK-1310 AM The Ticket morning host Craig Miller on July 1: "I'm convinced. This team is special."
Fox Sports Net announcer Josh Lewin on July 9: "If you didn't already, do you believe in the Rangers now?"
For a brief moment, we had hope.
"Great moments, a lot of positives, and we all think we're close to winning," said Young. "But this year, flat out, we just weren't good enough."
Ultimately, it was barely different with just a hint of special. It was closer to same ol', same ol'. Horrible starts, temporarily buoyed by winning baseball, only to crash into mediocrity. As usual, the Rangers found the condom in their wallet the morning after the one-night stand. The breadth of their quality play—as in '07—was too little, way too late.
Spark-plug outfielder David Murphy got hurt. All-Star second baseman Ian Kinsler got hurt. Using a franchise-record 55 different players—including 12 rookies—finally took its toll, and Texas limped to the finish line ahead of only 12 of the sport's 30 teams.
Same as it ever was, baseball's best hitting (a Major League-record 375 doubles) couldn't compensate for the league's worst pitching (an inexplicable 23 bases-loaded walks) and atrocious fielding (a club-record 107 unearned runs).
By the time last Wednesday's curtain closer arrived—with 16 fans in the right-field upper deck, mind you—warm-and-fuzzy memories of Texas' four All-Stars (Josh Hamilton, Milton Bradley, Young and Kinsler), Hamilton's Home Run Derby, Marlon Byrd's Grand Slam to beat the Yankees and the Rangers landing on the cover of Sports Illustrated were already dissolving into another chapter of familiar failure and another long, cold winter.
A losing record for the eighth time in nine years.
A combined 40 games behind division champion Anaheim the last two seasons.
A 400,000 decrease in attendance to a 20-year low.
And still, in the 37-year history of the franchise, just 14 winning seasons and exactly one playoff game victory.
Second place and four measly more wins than last season? Only the Texas Rangers could call this progress.
Said an almost giddy Washington after beating Oakland, "I think what the fans saw today is that it's about to happen."
Maybe. Hopefully. Who are we kidding?
Washington will be back next season. Daniels will be back next season. Hicks will be back next season. Journey—not destination—will be back next season.
Alas, like Albert and Rod, I have a feeling that this season also will be back next season.