By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
"They treated us like we suck,and we're the ones who've supported them through all these losing seasons."
They come bundled in coats, wrapped in hope and stuffed with gullibility.
An annual rite of another cold, bleak winter, 5,000 stubborn baseball fans arrive at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington last Saturday for the team's Fan Fest. They pay $10 for a chance to snatch up new red jerseys and caps. They run the bases, catch pop-ups and bypass cold beer for hot dogs. They praise Michael Young. They brave 32-degree weather to stand in line for Josh Hamilton's autograph. They talk giddily of the team's No. 1-rated farm system, 20-year-old defensive whiz Elvis Andrus and their dream of finally watching a winner.
One fan, however, totes a slightly different agenda. Paige Skinner is pissed, and she wants answers.
As a Q&A session with Rangers' manager Ron Washington and general manager Jon Daniels commences in the Legends of the Game Museum Theater, the 18-year-old senior at Garland's Naaman Forest High School stands up and does something Rangers' fans have rarely dared doing during Texas' miserable millennium. She holds her favorite baseball team accountable.
Armed with a Rangers cap, Texas T-shirt and a brazen backbone, Skinner calls the team out:
At last season's home finale—a 14-4 victory over the Oakland A's on September 24—Skinner says she, her dad and hundreds of fans behind the team's dugout were unceremoniously ignored by players heading off the field for the last time.
"It was supposed to be Fan Appreciation Day," Skinner says. "But the players didn't toss us a ball, a batting glove, not even a smile or a wave. In fact, a security guard hopped up on the dugout and told us to go home. They treated us like we suck, and we're the ones who've supported them through all these losing seasons. Without us, they'd have nothing. I was furious. Ticked beyond belief."
The ride home did little to cool Skinner's heat. So that night she typed a letter detailing her visit to the finale, the subsequent snubbing and her belief that "the fans deserve better." It was mailed to the Rangers the next morning—attention: Jon Daniels, team president Nolan Ryan and vice president Jim Sundberg.
The club's response? "Nothing," Skinner says. "Not even a form letter from some secretary."
For four months Skinner stewed. Finally this was her chance—all Rangers' fans' chance—to stand up and say, "We're not going to take it anymore."
"I went over what I was going to say," Skinner later recalls, "but my knees were trembling and my voice was shaking. I'm just glad I got it out. It needed to be said."
With tangible tension suddenly choking a packed room in what is usually a fan-friendly love-in, moderator/legendary Rangers' broadcaster Eric Nadel attempts to prompt an exhale:
"Well," he says, "nice to start off with an easy one for these guys."
Daniels apologizes to Skinner and promises that the situation will be addressed. He instructs her to find him after the session and provide her personal information.
"I can assure you, that's not indicative of how we want our players to be represented to our fans," Daniels says. "I'm sorry it happened."
The Rangers last made the playoffs in 1999. Since then, 21.3 million fans have poured into the ballpark. Let's not get too Rosa Parks-dramatic here, but it took a courageous 18-year-old girl to finally set a testy tone at this annual town hall meeting.
A man follows Skinner, questioning the 2009 team and what appears to be yet another mediocre pitching staff.
"Look," says Arlington's Joe Teppe, flanked by two boys in Rangers' jerseys, "I've been patient. We've all been patient. When can we seriously expect to win again? And who's gonna pitch for us? We love the Rangers. But we're ready for some results."
The voices vary, yet the message never strays: We're tired of status woe.
Says Daniels in concluding the session, "We're done with moral victories around here. We don't want to be .500, we want to win a World Championship."
That, my friend, is what they came to hear. But can the 2009 Rangers even come close to delivering?
In case you have forgotten, the Rangers are one of the worst teams in baseball. The Rangers don't lose games 100-0 like a certain Dallas girls' basketball team, but they own baseball's longest drought (37 years and counting) without a trip to the League Championship Series and have endured 23 losing seasons, 19 managers, five owners, five logos and zero sniffs of the World Series.
The last two seasons have been like an oath led by Chief Justice John Roberts—flubbed before it really begins. In 2007 the Rangers were 10-18 by May 3, and in '08 Washington was this close to being fired in April after a 7-16 start.
Write off some taxes; write off the Rangers. It's a spring thing.
To their credit, the Rangers have reached out to their fans this off-season. A road-tripping caravan has taken players and coaches and enthusiasm to cities all around the state, and fan-friendly promotions (13 fireworks nights, up from five) will be increased at Rangers Ballpark.
Nothing, of course, will matter if the on-field product doesn't improve. For years wandering aimlessly to Arlington, Rangers' fans finally began speaking up and staying home last season, with attendance plummeting to a 20-year low.
When pitchers and catchers report in two weeks, fans again believe they have legitimate hope.
Andrus, who will become the franchise's best-fielding shortstop the moment he fields his first grounder, is generating a buzz. There is talk of adding All-Star pitcher Ben Sheets to the rotation. Young players like Ian Kinsler and Chris Davis and David Murphy should only improve.
And, after initially balking, forever face-of-the-franchise Young has even accepted his move to third base.
"We didn't sugar-coat what we were doing with Michael," Daniels explains. "If we asked him to do it and he said 'No' and we still made the move—that would've been dishonest. It's all worked out for the best."
The Rangers need better starting pitching. They need a right-handed bat in the middle of the lineup. But for inspiration, they need look no further than last season and the Tampa Bay Rays, who made the World Series only a year removed from baseball's worst record.
"I really think we have some building here," Kinsler says. "Something special."
As the fans file out of the Q&A, some shake hands with Daniels and Washington, some ask for autographs and others take pictures. Skinner, however, remains true to her mission. As Daniels moves toward the exit, she stops the GM and hands him a torn piece of notebook paper with her name, address and phone number.
She is not, however, hopeful.
"He apologized at first," Skinner says afterward. "But it wasn't like he was searching me out when it was over, that's for sure. I thought it would be addressed, but now I'm not sure. We'll see."
Contacted Tuesday morning, Rangers Vice President Chuck Morgan confirmed that the team has reached out to Skinner and is preparing a make-good package consisting of tickets and/or autographed items.
The real challenge, of course, is to finally reward their long-suffering fans not with olive branches, but winning baseball.
In the words of the Rangers' biggest, bravest fan, "We'll see."