By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Win a playoff game, that is.
In case you've been too fixated on Wade Phillips' contract, Jay Leno's limbo or American Idol's "Pants on the Ground" to notice, the Cowboys broke a 13-year post-season drought last month. The Rangers, likewise, haven't won a playoff game this millennium. In fact, before its victory over the Philadelphia Eagles at Cowboys Stadium, our football team last enjoyed a playoff win (December 28, 1996) almost as long ago as our baseball outfit (October 1, 1996).
Small difference. The Cowboys have won five Super Bowls. The Rangers have won one—that's right, one—playoff game.
At a frigid Rangers Ballpark that exists in the shadow of Jerry Jones' monstrosity, looking like an outhouse behind the master's quarters, fans gather for the team's annual winter Fan Fest event and are—for the first time in a long time—as genuinely optimistic as their football counterparts.
The temperature is 28 degrees going on eight. The sky is gray. The outfield grass is morose mustard. The calendar says Super Bowl much more than Opening Day.
Nonetheless, cue the hope.
"It's our turn," says Jesse Dominguez, a 40-something father of three who has come to Arlington from Watauga with his family bundled in coats and wrapped in...gullibility? "We had a good team last year, just not quite good enough, ya know? Now we've got a new owner and some good new players. This year we're going to the playoffs. We're due."
The naïveté-based optimism is touching, but just down the street from stubbornness, bordering on downright silliness.
The Rangers, remember, last made the playoffs in 1999. Since then about 23 million fans have poured into the ballpark to invest financially and emotionally in what is arguably one of the worst sports organizations on the planet. The Rangers own baseball's longest drought without a trip to the League Championship Series and in their existence have endured 23 losing seasons, 19 managers, six owners, five logos and zero sniffs of the World Series.
At this annual rite of another cold, bleak winter, 5,000 or so stubborn baseball fans convene to commiserate. To wallow. To reboot. To pay $10 for a chance to get some autographs, run the bases, catch pop-ups and bypass cold beer for hot dogs. To dream.
"There are some positive signs," a man tells manager Ron Washington during a give-and-take session at the ballpark's Legends of the Game Museum, encompassing the fandom's frustration. "But we always feel good going into the season. Why is this season going to be any different?"
Fair question. And finally, the Rangers have a legitimately empowering answer.
"I feel better about this group," retorts Washington, embarking on his fourth season in Texas, "than any team we've had here. No reason, at least in my mind, that we can't compete for the division."
The Rangers flirted last season, making the perennial powerhouse Anaheim Angels squirm into early September before fading to a second-place finish 10 games behind. But this isn't the year for teasing or contending or almost-ing.
This is the year for winning an American League West Division Championship. Even, perhaps, another playoff game. Why?
It starts at the top, with the passing of the ownership torch from Tom Hicks to Chuck Greenberg. While last year the debt-riddled Hicks stagnated the Rangers with financial handcuffs, Greenberg is making refreshing promises.
So cash-strapped last season they couldn't add a much-needed bat at the trading deadline, the Rangers will suddenly cease operating like a barnstorming team out of Alvarado. Though residing in the country's fifth-largest media market, Hicks' Rangers consistently placed in the middle of Major League Baseball's 30 teams in payroll.
"If the organization is doing all of the things it ought to do in all facets of the operation, this franchise should be able to operate like a big-market team," Greenberg said after his first meeting with the team last week.
Greenberg and his Rangers Baseball Express ownership group—consisting of team president Nolan Ryan, Dallas billionaire Ray Davis and Fort Worth power brokers Bob and Janice Simpson—have the organization perfectly giddy.
Longtime voice of the ballpark and in-game entertainment chief Chuck Morgan's first interaction went thusly:
Morgan: Mr. Greenberg, I'm looking forward to working with you.
Greenberg: Chuck, you tell me what you want. Anything. You name it.
There will be enhancements to Rangers Ballpark—definitely a bigger, centralized, high-definition video board and possibly a foul pole-to-foul pole live video scorecard—and also improvements to the on-field baseball product. Given last year's 87-75 finish, it only needs tweaking.
Consider it done.
Bells and whistles are nice and all, but it comes down to baseball. And this should be Texas' best team since '99.
A rebuilding project that began in the middle of 2006 has finally borne fruit. Baseball's No. 1 farm system—and, according to Baseball America, they're still No. 2—has supplied potential on the verge of ripening. And, out from under Hicks' financial stress and controls put in place by MLB, the Rangers aggressively improved their roster this winter.
Gone is the flimsy reliance upon tired, old, front-end starting pitchers Kevin Millwood and Vicente Padilla. The Rangers lost productive Marlon Byrd and fan-favorite catcher Ivan Rodriguez, but there's more talent on this team than any since Johnny Oates was the manager in the late '90s.
Guerrero is no longer a 28-year-old Most Valuable Player, but still one of the sport's most dangerous and productive hitters. Though limited by injuries last season with the Angels, he managed 27 homers and 91 RBI. To save his weary knees, the Rangers will use him exclusively as designated hitter designed to add credibility and punch to a potentially alarming offense.
Don't be surprised if on Opening Day, April 4, the lineup features Julio Borbon in center field, Young at third, Josh Hamilton in left field, Guerrero the DH, Ian Kinsler at second base, Nelson Cruz in right field, Chris Davis at first base, Jarrod Saltalamacchia catching and Elvis Andrus at shortstop. It's a lineup with power, accented by speed and the ability to manufacture runs. It's also an offense led no longer by feast-or-famine hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo, but newcomer Clint Hurdle.
"We're gonna hit, gonna score runs," Washington says. "I'm certain of that."
The good news: Texas' pitching may be even better.
Harden, signed as a free agent from the Cubs, will jostle with Scott Feldman for the No. 1 starter's role. Familiar face Colby Lewis returns from Japan to solidify a staff of young arms including Derek Holland, Matt Harrison and Tommy Hunter.
And to think, the Rangers in spring training—pitchers and catchers report to Surprise, Arizona, February 18—will also give serious consideration to moving bullpen aces C.J. Wilson and Neftali Feliz to the rotation.
Says general manager Jon Daniels, "I think it's the best staff since I've been here."
Bottom line: These Rangers not only could get to the playoffs. They should.
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