Here's the pitch

On September 20, Texas Rangers president and general partner Tom Schieffer sat behind the home team's first-base dugout at the Ballpark in Arlington and smiled.

The Rangers were losing to the Anaheim Angels, but the thick summer air that blankets the metroplex was beginning to lift ever so slightly, and the stands were filled with 38,902 men, women, and children cheering every run, every strike, every out as though they meant a damned thing.

As he looked around him, Schieffer--wearing a Rangers logo on his crisp white shirt, looking like a bank president on vacation--wore the countenance of a man very much satisfied with what he saw.

No matter that the Rangers had faded in the days after the All-Star Break; no matter that last year's Red October was turning into this year's dead October.

Schieffer wore a look of contentment, no doubt, because he and fellow general partner Edward "Rusty" Rose had somehow managed to convince 2,945,244 people to come out to the Ballpark in Arlington in 1997 to watch the Texas Rangers lose.

Hell, you'd grin, too if you got rich by failing.
Till now, Schieffer has had the easiest job in baseball. Texas Rangers fans have let him off easy. We have never complained and never stayed away. We have rewarded mediocrity year after lousy year. We have cheered multimillion-dollar fiascos and endured minor-league disasters. We helped pay for the Ballpark in Arlington, then filled its seats day after sweltering, winless day.

And for our kindness and patience, Tom Schieffer would like to say: Thanks, now stick 'em up.

In the middle of a post-season no one in Texas cared about, Schieffer quietly announced that ticket prices at the Ballpark were once again going up an average of 20 percent per seat--raising lower box seats from $20 to $25 and upper club boxes from $24 to $30, and increasing the home-run porch and bleacher seats by two bucks. (Which is about what it costs to see a game at Cleveland's Jacobs Field and Florida's Pro Player Stadium.)

Schieffer insisted that if the Rangers were going to keep pace with the other top teams in the league--teams that are overpaying for free agents and signing unproven rookies for millions of unearned dollars--they needed to raise ticket prices to cover ballooning payrolls that threaten the very existence of Major League Baseball.

"I think our fans want us to try and put a better team on the field," he said by way of explanation and apology. "We thought we had to do it."

After all, the Florida Marlins bought a World Series with almost $89 million in talent, not to mention several familiar faces. If it was disheartening to watch the Rangers slide headlong into third place a year after taking the West, it was sickening to see a handful of ex-Ranger pitchers--Kevin Brown, Dennis Cook, Ed Vosberg, and Robb Nen--take the World Series from the Cleveland Indians.

The Marlins have been collecting ex-Rangers pitchers like trading cards: On July 17, 1993, Nen, selected by the Rangers in the 32nd round of the 1987 free-agent draft, was traded to the Marlins for the superior talents of Chris Carpenter--who lasted one year in Arlington, where he posted a 6-6 record and an enormous earned-run average of 4.75. In Florida, Nen has become a remarkable closer, throwing a fastball so quick even God can't see it.

Kevin Brown, who now has one of the lowest ERAs in the majors, went to Florida two years later as a free agent: Rangers management didn't want to sign the staff ace, who'd won 78 games and lost 64 during his tenure with Texas, because they considered him a troublemaker. Cook, a nine-year journeyman who played with five teams before joining the Rangers in a trade with the Indians in 1995, pitched a career-high 60 games for Texas the following year--only to be lost to free agency in the off-season.

When asked if it was painful to behold so many former Rangers help win a Series, general manager Doug Melvin just shrugs. "Yes," he says, but then hastens to add that he wasn't here when the Rangers let Brown and Nen go.

But if that wasn't unbearable enough, October also brought Melvin's confirmation that he has indeed mentioned Juan Gonzalez's name when talking to other teams, including the New York Mets, about trade possibilities.

So let's see. Ticket and parking increase. Marlins win World Series with Rangers pitching. Gonzalez could be traded.

Hey, what comes after strike three?
Melvin tells the Observer that by the time the Rangers tally this season's payroll, it likely will add up to $57 million--or $6 million more than the team planned on spending at the beginning of the season--which places the Rangers among the top eight spenders in the league. That means the Rangers doled out $21 million more in 1997 to be worse than they were in 1996, when the team finally got into the post-season after 25 years in Arlington. Imagine what happens next year, when the payroll leaps to $60 or $70 mill. They might come in fifth! And there are only four teams in the division!

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky