To the chagrin of fans yearning for the best ol’ days, Nolan Ryan won’t regularly be at the Texas Rangers’ new home.
But thanks to his bronze statue, the Hall-of-Fame, flesh-and-blood “Big Tex” will stand watch outside Globe Life Field. Courtesy of long-time public address announcer Chuck Morgan, Ryan’s 10-gallon aura will live inside the $1.2 billion ballpark as well.
“This is Nolan’s old desk,” Morgan says from his glass-enclosed perch on the concourse behind home plate. “I’ve got the best seat in the house, and I figured having a piece of him around wouldn’t hurt with the vibe in here. Right?”
Ryan, the man’s man pitcher who threw seven no-hitters, recorded 5,714 strikeouts, memorably bloodied Robin Ventura’s mug and served as president during the team’s consecutive World Series appearances in 2010-11, left the franchise in 2013. While a legion of loyalists still struggles to identify with the post-Ryan Rangers, Morgan in this shitstorm of 2020 is left with a tougher challenge: baseball without baseball fans.
Because of COVID-19, Major League Baseball parks across America cautiously opened four months late in July with fans not invited and players wearing masks, social distancing and somehow refraining from spitting. Framed by a pandemic (media members are forced to sign a three-page COVID-19 waiver), the Black Lives Matter movement (Rangers’ players kneeled in protest before the pregame National Anthem but stood once Charley Pride belted out “Oh say can you see … ”) and 2,600 seats filled with “DoppelRangers” cardboard cutouts (of season-ticket holders, a bloody Ryan, Dallas Stars’ forward Jamie Benn, former President George W. Bush, Gov. Greg Abbott and a couple of dogs sporting jerseys), opening day has never rung so bizarrely hollow.
The Rangers, who opened with a 1-0 win over the Colorado Rockies, have christened three stadiums in front of vastly different crowds:
April 21, 1972, Arlington Stadium: 20,105
April 11, 1994, Ballpark in Arlington: 46,056
July 24, 2020, Globe Life Field: 0
“It’s bittersweet,” said Morgan, who began as the team’s grand poohbah of in-game entertainment in 1983 but this year introduced players and orchestrated ambiance in a sparkling new stadium with only a smattering of media in attendance. “This is not the way it’s supposed to be. I’ve called over 3,000 games, but none without fans. It’s strange. It’s difficult. It actually hurts.”
When the Rangers upgraded Turnpike Stadium into Arlington Stadium in 1972, they averaged only 6,800 fans per game. At capacity, Globe Life Field will hold 40,000 and with almost as many bells and whistles.
“In my first game, Keith Grant (now an executive with the Dallas Mavericks) was the organist and there were four of us crammed in a booth about one-quarter this size,” Morgan says of his new “office,” which doesn’t look all that different from Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones’ private lair at nearby AT&T Stadium. “Now, I’ve got my own private bathroom.”
Dallas-Fort Worth has razed the stages of our bygone sports stars: Reunion Arena dumped for American Airlines Center; Texas Stadium ghosted for AT&T Stadium; Arlington Stadium eventually spawned Globe Life Park; and, now, Globe Life Field, which could’ve been the crown construction jewel of … Dallas.
In 1990, developer Chip Northrup drew up plans to move the Rangers to Farmers Market. The stadium would’ve sat where all the condos are now, nestled in the crook of Central Expressway and Interstate 30. The blueprints included shops and restaurants and even a canal (think San Antonio’s Riverwalk). Rangers’ ownership, at the time led by Bush, decided to stay in Arlington, reasoning that the team’s fan base would feel “fenced in” by the skyscraper backdrop and multi-level, concrete parking garages. In 1994, Globe Life Park was built in the same block as Arlington Stadium.
Now, after $700 million from the Rangers, $500 million from the city of Arlington, 31 months of construction and the removal of enough dirt to fill 97,000 dump trucks, Globe Life Field was plopped down just across Randol Mill Road. The ribbon-cutting was scheduled for late March, complete with concerts by Chris Stapleton and Willie Nelson. Then arrived coronavirus and the 120-day delayed debut.
The Realtor write-up:
This glass-and-steel, 1.8 million-square-foot beauty boasts seemingly endless green space and state-of-the-art amenities including tons of natural light thanks to a translucent retractable roof, multiple kitchens for serving up everything from rattlesnake sausage to foot-long hot dogs smothered in nacho cheese and grits, a two-story exercise facility and oh, did we mention? a badass air-conditioner that defangs summer’s triple-digit heat into 72-degree comfort.
“I’m pumped to get a little A/C,” said Rangers’ slugger Joey Gallo. “Playing in that heat, sometimes I had to change my jersey two or three times a game. This place is custom-built for us to perform better.”
Sans fans, despite Morgan’s best efforts, watching a game in the massive, empty stadium feels akin to late-night people-watching on a bench in an atrium.
Baseball has pledged to reassess the inclusion of spectators after a couple of weeks, but with various virus outbreaks on teams causing the cancellation of games, the Rangers don’t expect fans anytime soon.
“Fans are the lifeblood of a ballpark,” Morgan said. “We’re trying to re-create the sound of 40,000 people having a good time, but there’s just no way to accurately do it.”
Thanks to new hire and long-time Dallas Stars’ sound guru Michael Gruber, the Rangers are getting creative to fabricate mood in a sterile environment. Gruber and Morgan spent the COVID-19 delay sifting through old games and isolated 100 files of organic, unique baseball sounds.
The constant hum and murmur of a crowd. A smattering of applause for a thrown strike. Elevated applause for a base hit. Raucous cheering for a home run. They are even playing aural staples from Globe Life Park: The vendor who belted out “Hawwwwwt Dawwwwwgs!” and superfan “Zonk” banging rhythmically on his drum.
Only thing you won’t hear? Booing.
Said Morgan, “Major League Baseball wants us to keep it positive.”
Artificial soundtrack notwithstanding, it was so quiet on opening day that media seated in the press box in the uppermost deck, just to the first-base side of home plate, could clearly hear Rangers’ centerfielder Danny Santana calling off his teammates to catch a towering pop-up.
You can get lost in the silence. You can focus on Globe Life Field’s gray, bland exterior, which has been mocked by critics as looking like a tin barn or barbecue grill. You can be mesmerized by the quirky dimensions (it’s 334 feet to left field, for example, to honor Ryan’s No. 34), the giant video board in right field that is a NexGen stats geek’s wet dream (displaying every pitch’s induced vertical break and every batted ball’s exit angle) or even the wooden rocking chairs in the left-field mezzanine. You can fixate on new distractions such as the perfectly vacuumed fake grass, the massive roof trusses that are in play, or balls hit to the outfield leaving a trail of crushed coconut husks, all of which make purists cringe. Or you can feast on the comfort food of the iconic “Dot Race” still in the middle of the 6th inning, an ode to Arlington Stadium in the form of a blue Texas-shaped clock in center field, the video board blaring former radio voice Mark Holtz’s signature “Hello, Win Column!” and Morgan belting out his trademark “It’s baseball time in Texas!” this year followed by the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Can’t Stop” as the Rangers take the field.
But, make no mistake, while 25-year-old Globe Life Park wasn’t necessarily “broken,” Globe Life Field is absolutely “fixed” primarily because of its air-conditioning.
The retractable roof, which was closed for the team’s initial five-game homestand, is one of the largest in North America. It weighs 24 million pounds, consists of one piece and two tracks, opens/closes in 12 minutes and, most important, deflects a disadvantage the Rangers claim to have been battling for decades.
“The roof allows us, when it makes sense, to provide lots of blue sky, fresh air and the full outdoor experience of a baseball game,” said Rob Matwick, Rangers’ vice president of business operations. “But it also provides relief from the heat.”
The impetus for the new digs was the fact that since 1994 the Rangers played 762 games with a first-pitch temperature of 90+ degrees. In that same period, one of their rivals in the American League West, the Oakland A’s, played only two.
“Our other two parks were great places to watch a game,” Morgan said. “But fans putting up with the heat was a miserable experience. I always feared a family coming to their first game on a summer afternoon and then never coming back.”
Attendance figures, however, seem to be more affected by wins than weather.
In 2013, the Rangers drew a record 3.4 million fans when the average temperature for June-July-August-September was 84.1 degrees. In 2019, they drew only 2.1 million during a summer in which the average was 84.3. The difference? In 2013 they were coming off back-to-back World Series and went 91-72. Last year they recorded their third consecutive losing record, finishing 78-84.
“No rain and no heat,” Morgan said. “What’s not to love? There’s just nothing like the experience of walking out of 100-degree heat into a 72-degree ballpark to watch a game. But eventually, we’ve got to win. A division. A pennant. A World Series.”
New Accommodations. New Approach.
While Globe Life Field is destined to provide more comfort in the stands, it will also generate fewer fireworks on the field.
Gone are the days of sweat dribbling down your butt crack, but so also is the jet-stream to right field and power-hitting lineups belting record homers and winning 10-9 games like some slow-pitch softball squad. Through all but one inning of the season’s first five games, the new stadium proved a giant, green chasm. The fence is 410 feet straightaway with stagnant, heavy air that made centerfield a place where old Globe Life Park home runs turned into outs in the new Globe Life Field.
“Gonna be a lot of well-hit balls that turn into gravestones out there,” Rangers’ manager Chris Woodward said.
The 1-0 win was only the second such score in the franchise’s 49 season openers. They lost the next three by pitching-duel scores of 3-2, 5-2 and 4-1, before erupting for five runs in the 8th inning of a comeback win over the Arizona Diamondbacks to salvage a 2-3 start.
Once featuring the slugging superpowers of Juan Gonzalez, Rafael Palmeiro, Josh Hamilton and Nelson Cruz, the Globe Life Field Rangers are customized to win on pitching in a pitcher’s park. If they were once a gas-guzzlin’, RPM-revvin’ Mustang GT, this model is a quieter, more efficient Tesla. More computer candy; less vroom.
While the offense will be powered by Gallo, who made his fourth consecutive opening day start at a fourth different position (third base in 2017, first base in 2018, left field in 2019 and right field in 2020), the Rangers will attempt to succeed in baseball’s 60-game sprint behind a pitching staff anchored by stellar starters Lance Lynn and Mike Minor.
Good news: Through five games, their starters allowed only one earned run over 23 innings.
Horrible news: The long-term plan is derailed by an early injury to top free-agent signing and projected No. 3 starter Corey Kluber.
A big reason for the team’s optimism in 2020, the two-time Cy Young Award winner left after only 18 pitches, sustaining a tear in his throwing shoulder muscle. If he returns at all this shortened schedule, it will likely be as a reliever.
Even in an irregular season that will feature the bastardized schedule and 16 of the league’s 30 teams making the playoffs, the Rangers’ best bet is to flirt with a .500 record. They must play the division-dominating Houston Astros 10 times in September.
Depending on their performance, 2020 for the Rangers in their new home will either be considered gravy, or merely a dress rehearsal.
“We had the official opening, and we might have something special if fans are allowed back later this season,” Morgan said. “But I’d think the big opening night — celebrating this park the way it should be — won’t come until opening day 2021.”
Who knows, by then maybe even Ryan will be invited back.
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