Will Clark, the slugging first baseman, made some predictions before the start of the Home Opener at The Ballpark in Arlington last Thursday. Then again, a lot of guys have put on their Kreskin panties lately. A few should have stuck to jocks.
But more on them in a minute.
"They'll see us start hitting the ball out of the park, see some big plays," said Clark, "and we'll get the fans back." Well, kinda sorta, Will.
The fans cheered four outs into the game, when Jeff Frye stretched a hit into a double by sliding into second base. Ten seconds later, the announcement of Will Clark prompted a chorus and two verses of boos.
Will comes to bat a second time. They boo.
He hits one out of the park. They cheer.
Then, as if they remembered they were supposed to be mad, like best friends fighting in third grade, the fans booed again as he crossed the plate seconds later.
Rangers president Tom Schieffer all but swore up and down before the game that there would be an All-Star Game here this year, that baseball wouldn't stop work again because both sides had had the "bee-jeebies" scared out of them. And that was about the highlight of the evening.
Baseball's back in Arlington. But it was a split-personality day. It's been a split-personality year. The season had actually begun on Wednesday; the Rangers even played in New York. But Thursday was the day things really got cranking. ESPN was reporting scores in the middle of the day--just like before the strike. The Cubbies were on WGN, and Harry Caray was still breathing--just like before the strike. It was warm enough to catch some rays, if you could stand the chill in shorts.
By 3 p.m. I was telling the dog about the greatest day of the year and why we capitalize Opening Day, like Easter and Christmas and Momma. But entering the ballyard, with sunlight through the grand green facades making shadow puppets on the infield, there were no chills, no goosebumps--no emotion. By the sixth inning (10-2, Cleveland), all that talk about the Rangers being much better this year seemed about as real as my hair color.
The Home Opener is supposed to be a happy, enthusiastic time. "Yeah," says Will, after the Indians had completed their killing. "It was interesting, wasn't it?
"It was a lot like playing on the road. You don't expect that here. You do expect it at Yankee Stadium."
Who knows what to expect anymore. People will have time to come around, because the baseball season is long (most years, at least). Fans should, of course, remember that there is much time for performance fluctuations. "It's not a big deal," said third baseman Dean Palmer, of the Home Opener loss. "It's 162 games...well, a hundred and forty-whatever."
One forty-four. It's just that fans are fearful that this first regular-season day in the Ballpark is a symptom of what's to come--and a residue of what's already been.
There was, of course, some cause for hope, even in a thrashing. Wilson Heredia and Jose Alberro combined for seven innings of relief and just two runs.
Until we know better, the fans' big strike pout will provide some diversion from what this team may have not accomplished in the long off season. But as the fans forget labor wars, some glaring team weaknesses may poke through the great green facades as clearly as those evening shadows. Oh sure, this team may win this division. But should they even have to struggle in a division like the American League West?
Before the game, interim manager Jerry Narron promised it would be different, that the Rangers we saw on Opening Day in New York were the old Rangers, but we'd soon see the new and improved Rangers. He said it again Thursday night. You have to give Narron credit. He's a good guy thrown cold into a major situation. Once again he pointed out that they'd had a short spring. Hell, but didn't the Indians and Yankees?
Starter Kevin Gross, a big winter acquisition, gave up nine runs in two innings in his American League debut. "It's been one of those rough nights," he said, bless his broken ERA. "I don't think that's ever happened to me in my whole career."
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By the third inning, with the home team--that being those new and improved Rangers--behind 9-1 already, they were reminding me a lot more of another innovation, that "new and improved" Coca-Cola.
The proof is in the product, not the promise.
And we've had a lot of promises broken this past year. Baseball, once a relentless tradition, has become about as reliable as an ex-spouse.
And as we get back to the business of hitting homers over the "Champs" sign and Jeff Frye stretching a single into a double, the winter's promise of "new and improved" seems a bit hollow as well, in this hollowed-out game.
Then again, therein may lie the only old comfort: the Texas Rangers could still suck.