By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Texas Rangers fans attending games in Arlington this season will do something for the first time since their ballpark opened in 1994.
Sorry, it has nothing to do with winning.
Or does it?
Thanks to a $4 million facelift, every fan in every seat at Rangers Ballpark will be able to watch video replays and view the out-of-town scoreboard. While Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones constructs the planet's biggest, brightest sports stadium just a couple Josh Hamilton dingers west on Randol Mill Road, the Rangers have quietly crept into the 21st century and will no longer prevent customers from a second look at close calls or use a human to manually hang placards to update fans as to scores around the league.
Small steps, Rangers fans. Small steps.
"It'll bring some new fan excitement to the park," Rangers President Nolan Ryan said during a recent tour of the renovations. "We hope it will be perfect timing, because we think our club will be more competitive on the field this year as well."
To this I say, of course, bravo! Spending money to improve your product—that it's merely aesthetic notwithstanding—in an economic climate forcing most businesses to trim bells and downsize whistles is a bold, brilliant stroke by owner Tom Hicks.
But slapping a fresh coat of paint on your park is one thing. Fielding a competitive team—one that keeps us interested into August—would be the Rangers' most visually appealing upgrade since, oh, last millennium.
In case you quit caring after the Rangers' last division championship in '99 and stopped going to Arlington to watch baseball—last year attendance plummeted to a 20-year low—here's what you've missed:
Stagnated by the lack of baseball's two most important tenets—throwing and catching—the Rangers have the Major League's longest drought (37 years and counting) without a trip to the League Championship Series and since 1972 have endured 23 losing seasons, 19 managers, five owners, five logos and zero sniffs of the World Series. In 2007 they were 10-18 by May 3 and last April manager Ron Washington was this close to being fired after a 7-16 start.
To their credit, the Rangers are trying.
This off-season they custom-catered to fans, producing a road-tripping caravan that took players and coaches and enthusiasm to cities all around the state. And, for the first time in a long time, they've enjoyed a successful, injury-free spring training in Surprise, Arizona.
Baseball America ranks Texas' farm system the best in baseball. Sports Illustrated hints at the Rangers being this year's Tampa Bay. Though this is the year before the year—in 2010 prospects like Derek Holland, Neftali Feliz, Taylor Teagarden and Elvis Andrus should mature into producers—there is legitimate spring optimism heading into the April 6 opener against the Cleveland Indians.
Andrus has muted the hubbub of Michael Young's ouster to third base, committing only one error at shortstop this spring while hitting a respectable .275ish. Nelson Cruz—the team's most important right-handed bat—slammed four homers in his first 21 at-bats. Even No. 3 starting pitcher Brandon McCarthy has been impressive, with three hits and zero injuries during his first 10 innings.
If all those fail once the season starts—which, mind you, is entirely possible—at least Rangers fans have this:
Losing in luxury is better than losing.
Ryan is really old old-school. Once threw 232 pitches in a game. Still cringes at paying for a bottle of water. Always gives me and my earring the crooked eye during interviews.
But even he admits to being jazzed by the Rangers' home improvements.
"It's going to be a better environment to watch baseball," he said. "That's the bottom line."
In the metroplex's sports stadia landscape, Rangers Ballpark is trapped in no-spectator's land. Not old enough to conjure nostalgic interest like Reunion Arena or Texas Stadium; not shiny enough to attract fans merely on appearance like American Airlines Center or Jonestown Coliseum. It's functional, but no longer flirtatious. And unlike the days when the only surrounding attractions were Seven Seas and Lion Country Safari, the Rangers are now competing for families' dwindling entertainment dollars—season-ticket renewals are down 10 percent from a year ago—with Six Flags selling alcohol, UT-Arlington building a new sports arena and the Cowboys' monstrosity, which, viewed side-by-side from nearby Cooper Street, makes the baseball park look like the guest garage.
Come watch America's Team at the new Taj Mahal! Or see the worst team in baseball play in a thimble.
"In the long run, it'll be a plus for us too," Ryan maintained of Jonestown Coliseum. "There are a lot of fans who think Arlington is too far. But we see them coming here for a Cowboys game and changing that mindset. They'll get familiar and comfortable in our city, and then when they want to see some baseball, they won't be hesitant to make the trip back."
More than 21 million fans have poured into Rangers Ballpark since the team's last playoff game in '99. This year they'll recognize their 15-year-old girlfriend, only with Botox, a boob job and a new twinkle in her eye.
The drab, dark green padding behind home plate has been replaced by a 32-inch-high brick facade. There is a new Commissioner's Box down the third-base line and new first-class seats that are wider, cushioned, high-backed and closer (52 feet) to home plate than the pitcher.
The manual scoreboard along the left-field fence has been upgraded into a 12-by-84-foot video display board, allowing fans in right field to also see replays. And there are three color information panels spanning 1,200 feet—third-largest in baseball behind Miami's Dolphin Stadium and new Yankee Stadium—along the facades in right field and from foul pole to pole, allowing fans in left field to view other scores.
The Rangers can't do much about a staggering economy that has squeezed customers and cemented to the on-deck circle Hicks' Glory Park development, originally planned to build a bridge between his team's park and the Cowboys' new home. ("Things like naming rights and Glory Park are on hold," Ryan said, "until things get closer to normal again.") And they can't do much about the stifling heat that wilts attendance and scares off elite pitchers. ("In Texas the heat is something you've always got to deal with," Ryan said. "We'd love to put our fans in a cooler environment. But you help that by winning. Makes it feel not so hot, ya know?") But, unlike Dallas nimrods who trumpeted a Trinity River project now bogged down in inefficient levees, they're doing what they can.
Post-game fireworks shows increased from five to 13. An invitation to George W. Bush to attend the home opener. Youth infusion between the lines.
Truth is, you can widen seats and expand scoreboards all you want. But unless you're giving away cold beer, T-bone steaks and happy endings, it won't mean a damn thing unless you win. And the fact remains that Rangers Ballpark has never hosted a single playoff game victory.
"I truly expect us to be competitive in our division," Ryan said. "The young guys we've got will make a difference in the future, but also right now."
If you re-build it, they will...win?