By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
This can't be good.
As the Texas Rangers reached the 50-game mark on June 1, star outfielder Josh Hamilton was hitting .240 with only six home runs while spending time on the disabled list with injured ribs and a sore groin. First baseman Chris Davis was on pace to become the first player in Major League Baseball history to strike out 250 times in a season. Supposed spark plug David Murphy's batting average was a paltry .226. Starting pitchers Matt Harrison and Vicente Padilla were temporarily shelved with arm injuries, and prized prospect Derek Holland's ERA was an unsightly 5.96.
Nope, this can't be good. Because it's great.
See what pitching and defense will do for a baseball team? Now just imagine the Rangers' potential with a new owner.
With starting pitchers throwing better and longer and 20-year-old shortstop Elvis Andrus adding consistent leather to Texas' crushing lumber, for the first time in a long time this is a great time to be a Rangers fan. Despite a heartbreaking loss to the Oakland A's last Sunday, Texas entered June with baseball's second-best record at 30-20.
Considering Hamilton's dramatic decline in production and the failures of counted-on pitchers Kris Benson and Josh Rupe, the Rangers' resurrection from annual and early afterthought to American League West division leader is baseball's biggest story in 2009. Next year—when Andrus and Holland and prospects like Neftali Feliz mature—was supposed to be the season that Texas competed for its first playoff berth since 1999. But the Rangers just completed their best-ever May (20-9) and their second-best month in franchise history behind only September 1978 (21-10).
Granted we're less than one-third of the way through the baseball marathon, but because this team pitches (a starting rotation ERA of 3.57 in May), plays with fine-tuned fundamentals (only the 20th-most errors) and doesn't solely try to win games with home runs (they still lead all of baseball but also are among the league leaders in stolen bases), the Rangers are good. And they could be getting better.
Whether the Rangers are legit, or merely lifting their skirt a little higher than usual in another teasing of desperate baseball fans, will be determined over the next two weeks. In a 13-game stretch, Texas plays the Yankees, Boston Red Sox, Toronto Blue Jays and Los Angeles Dodgers, each at least five games over .500. Against similar opponents this season, the Rangers are 2-10.
On June 15, the Rangers will either still be in first place or the countdown to Cowboys training camp will commence in earnest.
Regardless, Arlington isn't a bad place to be these days. It appears the General Motors production plant will be spared in bankruptcy. Sparkling, new Cowboys Stadium is preparing to host its first event. And, most enticing, Tom Hicks is on the verge of leaving.
Hicks, the hoity-toity Preston Hollow neighbor of George Dubya Bush and owner of both the Rangers (since '98) and hockey's Dallas Stars (since '96), apparently isn't immune to the harsh economic climate and is living on borrowed dime. In March he defaulted on interest payments associated with Rangers-related loans, announcing a willingness to sell part of the team to minority investors. A month after hawking the Mesquite Rodeo to get cash fast, Hicks admitted last week he's desperate enough to sell the Rangers to a new majority owner.
"My family and I want very much to stay involved with the club," Hicks said in a statement, "but we understand that we have to be open to solutions that may include partners who own a controlling interest in the Rangers. That is not our preference, but there are some potential buyers who won't considerhaving only a minority interest."
Generally, personal financial problems are never cause for celebration, but I'm guessing more than a few Rangers fans have had trouble stifling a wry grin at Hicks' demise. Bottom line: Hicks selling the team would be an emotional windfall for the baseball community.
During his tenure, Hicks has deftly combined frugal mediocrity (see the Rangers' lack of star-studded pitching) with unprecedented spending (see Alex Rodriguez). While he added England's Liverpool soccer club to his sports empire a couple years back, Hicks' penny-pinched Rangers have remained irrelevant, burdened by more changes of direction than a 3-year-old with an Etch-a-Sketch. He's at times frustrated fans with self-imposed salary caps and inverted philosophies such as (to paraphrase): "Maybe if y'all would come to the ball park more I could lower ticket prices and spend some money on free agents" and "Liverpool fans are more passionate than Rangers fans."
On Dallas' popularity scale, Hicks shares space with Robin Ventura, Terrell Owens and Cristal Taylor. The day—and it will happen, likely before the end of this season—he hands over the keys to his successor will feel much more wedding than funeral.
While Hicks has hired sports business expert Joe Ravitch to identify, attract and negotiate with potential investors, he may not have to look far. Though Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban isn't interested, Rangers president Nolan Ryan—though he'd need partners—is. As is car tycoon and former Dallas Mavericks co-owner David McDavid.
"I have the ability, and I have a certain amount of interest," McDavid told me last week from his horse ranch northwest of Fort Worth. "I'm just in the process of deciding if it's something I'd really like to do at this point in my life."
You'd be thrilled to have McDavid as owner of the Rangers. Why? Because his dream isn't to make more money, it's to be in charge of a championship.
Said McDavid, "I can easily see how things add up to make this an attractive deal on a lot of levels."
McDavid, who was part of the Mavs' ownership group that sold to Cuban in 2000 and who was unscrupulously thwarted in an attempt to buy Atlanta's NBA and NHL teams shortly thereafter, attended Opening Day as Hicks' guest and has had several discussions about buying the Rangers. He made his fortune (remember Widetrack?) with a chain of statewide auto dealerships he opened at age 19 and sold 70 percent of in '98. He was part of the group—headed by Ross Perot Jr.—that bought the Mavs from original owner Don Carter in '96. He later flirted with buying the Stars from Hicks in '02 before negotiating with Time Warner in '03 to purchase the Hawks and Thrashers in Atlanta. In '08, he won a $316 million judgment against Time Warner after a jury ruled the company breached its contract by spurning him for another buyer.
McDavid, 67, sees the improvement in this year's Rangers, knows all about the franchise's blue-chip farm system and has even workshopped an ownership scenario that includes keeping Hicks as a minority partner and retaining Nolan Ryan as president. If Hicks' asking price gets in the neighborhood of $400 million, McDavid will be the next owner of the Texas Rangers.
McDavid has interest. Almost 50,000 fans attended last Saturday night's game at Rangers Ballpark. Several Rangers lead their positions in the first All-Star voting results released last week. And burglars broke into the team's Uptown store over the weekend and made off with $9,000 in various team memorabilia.
What do you know? This can be good.