After a Dynamic Season Opener, Rangers Fans are Seeing Red
Like the rest of us, Texas Rangers pitcher C.J. Wilson admitted to being a little confused during Monday's Opening Day.
"It didn't look like us out there," he said after throwing a scoreless inning in his team's 9-1 victory over the Cleveland Indians at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington.
Of course, Wilson was referring to the team's resplendent red uniforms and welcome-to-the-21st-century ballpark upgrades. But me? I was baffled, yet encouraged, by a Rangers performance shockingly accessorized by pitching, defense and, don't look now, relevance. Let's review:
9 a.m.—The thermometer on the center field scoreboard reads 39 degrees. Factor in the northern howl of about 30 mph, and it feels like, well, zero. It's football weather. Ironic, because when the Dallas Cowboys open Jonestown Coliseum just down the street in September, it'll be baseball weather.
9:07—Ballparks always look sparkling on Opening Day. Especially this one. Fresh paint everywhere, even on top of the dugouts. Some of the archaic charm is gone, but consider it maturation from black-and-white to color TV. The old "Hit It Here: Win a Free Suit" sign on the scoreboard 501 feet from home plate has been replaced by a Pro-Cuts ad. New advertisement on the Rangers' bullpen: TheDump.com. Why didn't I think of that?
9:20—Different feel today. Maybe it's Ian Kinsler preparing to take batting practice in a toboggan. Or perhaps it's being greeted on the press elevator by the Secret Service and bomb-sniffing dogs.
9:23—In the clubhouse sits 20-year-old shortstop Elvis Andrus, about to become the third-youngest Ranger to start on Opening Day. Hanging in his locker: a jersey adorned by No. 1. Arrogance or omen?
9:45—Down the hall in his office, manager Ron Washington is holding court. And, turns out, discovering his first mistake of a season that hasn't technically begun. Seems the skipper oopsed on his lineup card. The first one has Hank Blalock batting fourth and Nelson Cruz fifth, when they should be flip-flopped. "No, it's wrong," Washington admits. "I'll fix it."
9:52—During Washington's talk of expert predictions, outfielder Marlon Byrd does a fly-by. "Yeah, we're gonna finish dead last!" Byrd says sarcastically. "Tell them to kiss our ass!"
10:00—On Washington's walls: Photos of George Bushes Sr. and Jr., owner Tom Hicks, team president Nolan Ryan and an inspirational quote from an ancient Chinese philosopher: Our greatest glory is not in never failing, but in rising every time we fall. Who knew Confucius was a Rangers fan?
10:45—Hicks is on the field watching Rangers batting practice and wishing folks "Happy Opening Day." And no, smartass, despite defaulting on a couple loans he's not passing around a collection plate. Two words to keep in mind when it comes to potential new Rangers/Stars investors: David McDavid.
11:37—Wait, after further review the new video board in left field is way too small. Fans have bigger screens in their media rooms.
12:55 p.m.—The B-1 Bombers' flyover is as thunderous as ever. Shakes the stadium, much less our loins. But it's a tad premature, coming during the National Anthem instead of after it. E-choreography.
1:05—The 43rd President of the United States strides to the mound—the mound, not the rubber—and fires a ceremonial first-pitch strike to Rangers outfielder Josh Hamilton. Impressive, but since it came from the ladies' tees, a bit Bush league.
1:06—Kevin Millwood follows Bush's strike with one of his own. Significant because for all of Washington's optimistic bluster before the '07 opener, I remember Millwood promptly walking the first batter he faced in Anaheim. Today strike one led to a strikeout of Cleveland's Grady Sizemore. A tone has been set.
1:35—Rangers first baseman Chris Davis strikes out, the bat flying out of his hands, over the protective screen behind home plate and into the sellout crowd. Fortunately, no one is hurt. Davis waves for the fan to keep the bat. Bravo.
1:40—Catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia delivers a two-out, two-run single to right field. Rangers 2, Indians 0.
1:45—After turning a nice double-play in the first inning, Andrus pokes a double down the right field line in his first Major League at-bat. Against Cliff Lee. In front of George W. Bush. Over the stadium speakers, Rangers director of fun Chuck Morgan appropriately blares Elvis Presley's "All Shook Up."
1:47—Kinsler follows with a single up the middle. Rangers 4, Indians 0, Surprised 49,916.
2:00—Sitting next to me in the press box is the Rangers' legendary former clubhouse manager, Joe Macko. "I've only missed 11 games since 1972," he says proudly.
2:17—This is what we came to see. Andrus ranges far to his left—on the other side of second base—to smoothly snare a grounder and transform a single into an out. Gold Gloves or not, Michael Young doesn't get to that ball. In fact, for the last 38 years that's been a single. Not anymore.
2:30—Hank Blalock smashes a three-run homer to right field. Rangers 7, Indians 0. Lee=toast. Last year the Indians' lefty went 22-3 with a 2.54 ERA. But today he gives up 10 hits and recorded only 15 outs.
3:06—We've been playing two hours, and the Rangers have yet to surrender a run. Gotta be a franchise record, right?
3:16—For the first time in a long time, Millwood pitches like an ace. He's been a flop the last two seasons, going 19-24 with an ERA over 5.00. But now, motivated by an expiring contract and new pitching coach Mike Maddux, he's slimmer and quicker and better. He's getting a standing ovation after pitching 7 innings and allowing only five singles, the Rangers' best Opening Day start since Charlie Hough shut out the Tigers in '89. He throws 113 pitches, which seems like a lot until you recall that Ryan once threw 242 in a 12-inning performance in '74. In this era of specialized set-up men and pitch counts, that is unfathomable.
3:39—Young squeezes a lazy pop, and it's official: Rangers 9, Indians 1. It's Texas' first Opening Day win since '03 and its largest ever lid-lifting blowout. Quick, somebody call Laura Miller and dust off those old Mavericks parade plans.
4:00—Says Washington, "It was a great beginning."
4:36—Millwood pitched, Saltalamacchia hit, everyone fielded and the Rangers' eighth-largest crowd ever showed up, including Dubya and Jerry Jones. But the most promising event of the day is Andrus. The bubble-blowing kid hasn't yet learned he can sit down in his comfy leather locker chair for post-game interviews. He stands. He smiles. He intoxicates. "I tricked my mind into thinking it was just another game," he says in a sleeveless Nike shirt and 100-watt smile. "It's still baseball, right?" While Maroon Five's "Makes Me Wonder" plays over the clubhouse stereo, you begin to agree: Elvis is No. 1.
5:00—As a kid I feared the Dallas Cowboys' blue jersey jinx. Untouchable at home in white; vulnerable in blue in hostile environments like Philadelphia. So far be it from me to scoff at Rangers fans clamoring for a full-time return to red uniforms. Texas' three division titles in the late '90s were accented in red, and the power color was yanked out of the moth balls for sporadic use this season. Commence the Hunt for Red October?
One down, 161 to go.
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