There was a crisp, cool nip in the air Monday night at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington. We've experienced this before with the Texas Rangers. When the shadows grow long and the days dwindle short, baseball annually, promptly gives way to talk of the Dallas Cowboys, Texas-OU, the Dallas Mavericks, Fletcher's corny dogs, Grandma's bunions and, well, anything but baseball.
Usually by the time we feel fall, Texas has raised the white flag of surrender. But I'll be damned if these Rangers didn't raise a red flag of success.
"I've had a special feeling about this team all season, all the way back to the winter," owner Chuck Greenberg said before the Rangers hoisted a 2010 American League West Division flag and banner in center field. "We just needed a couple of things to go our way, and I really thought we could win the division and make some noise in the playoffs. It's taken some strange twists and turns along the way, but we're here. This year could be unlike any other in Texas Rangers' history."
He doesn't lie. Listen to Greenberg at Sherlock's Pub in Dallas in February. He wasn't yet officially the owner. And, back then, the Rangers were still the Strangers.
"With this team I see a swagger and feel a confidence," Greenberg told a town hall meeting of diehards that night. "The longer you have to wait for something, the sweeter it is when you finally get it. I know you fans have waited a long time to win, and I can't wait to drink some Champagne with you."
Pop the corks. This Rangers' season isn't unprecedented, but by all means it is unique.
And, ideally, it's just getting started.
The Rangers punctuated one of the weirdest, most wonderful campaigns in franchise history last weekend by eliminating the Oakland A's and clinching the AL West. Now, beginning next Wednesday in either Tampa or New York, they will attempt to craft a new identity for their woebegone organization:
Multiple playoff game wins? A home playoff game victory? A series win? An appearance in the American League Championship Series? A berth in the World Series? A—gulp—Major League Baseball championship?
For a team that has exactly one playoff game victory in its 39-season history and hasn't been to the postseason since 1999, October baseball is as unfamiliar to the Rangers as couth is to Lindsay Lohan. With only four division titles since '72, the Rangers are baseball's only team to have never won a playoff series and one of three outfits—along with the Washington Nationals and Seattle Mariners—to have never played in a World Series.
In contrast, the Yankees have won 27 titles.
"In baseball, anything can happen," said Rangers veteran and long-time face of the franchise Michael Young. "I'm proud to be a part of this team and what we've accomplished. But there's so much more ahead of us. We're not done yet."
Whether they play the Rays or Yankees, the Rangers and their petite playoff pedigree will be mammoth underdogs. The Rangers are 1-9 all-time in the playoffs, the lone win coming in Game 1 of the 1996 AL Division Series at Yankee Stadium a mere 3,987 days ago.
They'll have autumn-tested Cliff Lee as their pitching ace and a veteran catcher (Bengie Molina) and designated hitter (Vladimir Guerrero) with a ring, but otherwise the Rangers will rely upon a star (Josh Hamilton), a leader (Young), a double-play combination (Elvis Andrus and Ian Kinsler), a slugger (Nelson Cruz) and a closer (Neftali Feliz), who are all playoff virgins.
If experience counts, the Rangers will be three and out as the Yankees are the defending champs and the Rays played in the World Series as recently as 2008. More damning, Texas will enter the playoffs without a regular-season road win over its prospective opponents—going a combined 0-12 against the Yankees, Rays and Minnesota Twins.
In the 15-year wild-card era, only five teams have gone to the playoffs with a losing road record. Those teams failed to win a single road game, much less a series. The Rangers went 39-42 on the road.
"We don't expect to be favored against anybody, but that's OK," said manager Ron Washington, only the second man, along with Johnny Oates, to lead the Rangers to the postseason. "This team believes in itself. We believe in each other. When we play our brand of baseball we can beat anybody, anywhere, anytime."
In their favor, the Rangers' three starting pitchers—Lee, C.J. Wilson and Colby Lewis—each rank among the AL's Top 16 in ERA and Most Valuable Player candidate Hamilton has the ability (when hot and healthy) to carry the team throughout a series.
Sounds mostly ominous, but that might be just what the Rangers need. Because in this wacky winning season, nothing makes sense and everything works out.
This is a team that for decades has been one of the worst in sports. Among other low-lights, the Rangers in the '70s hosted Farm & Ranch Night, a promotion that included players milking cows on the field. In the '80s, they wore powder-blue uniforms. In the '90s, they had a fly ball bounce off a player's head (Jose Canseco) and over the fence for a home run. And in the last decade, one of their best pitchers (Kenny Rogers) launched an unprovoked attack on a Fox 4 TV cameraman.
This season has, refreshingly, been equal parts zany and Xanadu.
The Rangers began spring training in Surprise, Arizona, in February with their manager confessing to using cocaine during the 2009 season. At one point they were counting on Jarrod Saltalamacchia, unsure about Lewis and his Japanese League résumé and dabbling with Feliz as a starter. In July a fan fell from the stands and lived to tell about it and, of course, the thread running throughout the season was the unsettling bankruptcy proceedings that climaxed in a dramatic ownership tug-of-war between Greenberg and Mark Cuban.
"If this was a Hollywood script, they'd send it back," Greenberg said. "Too unbelievable."
Somehow on the field the Rangers persevered, concocting an 11-game winning streak during a 21-6 June and coasting to the West crown despite playing mediocre .500 baseball the last three months. Texas raised the bar of expectations by trading for Lee, rode the five-tool, non-toe tapping exploits of Hamilton and bonded themselves and their fans via the Claw and the Antlers, hand gestures displayed after important hits or speedy flights of fancy.
Given Lee's arm and Hamilton's bat, the Rangers could win a game or two in the best-of-five, first-round series. But a series victory over either AL East beast would be considered a monumental upset.
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"This is amazing," said Young, the only Ranger to play 1,500 games in his first tour of duty with the team. "Better than I ever imagined. But I don't want it to end here."
Conventional wisdom says the young, inexperienced Rangers will be overwhelmed in the playoffs, especially if Hamilton and his fractured ribs aren't 100 percent. But then again, this fall feels different.
Wouldn't it be fitting if in this strange, successful season the Rangers began by 'splaining cocaine and ended by spraying Champagne?
After all, "It's Time."