I get all warm and fuzzy inside when I think about my favorite team-the Texas Rangers. For as long as I can remember, they have been an integral part of my life. Nary a day goes by when I don't go peruse the internet or newspaper looking for a new story, even during the doldrums of January. My enjoyment of this franchise comes not from things that are not necessarily quantifiable on paper, but rather intrinsic values that I hold near and dear to my heart.
I grew up watching the Rangers as a youth in a different era. Back then, there wasn't a facility that was specifically designed to feature Major League Baseball, nor was there any kind of winning tradition. We had Arlington Stadium, originally named Turnpike Stadium due to it's proximity to Interstate-30, and Arlington was best known as home to Six Flags Over Texas. Arlington Stadium was never considered the Sistine Chapel of ballparks, but it was home to my first exposure to the great game. That little stadium still holds a place in my heart, even as imperfect as it was.
The team that I was first introduced to was lead by the venerable Bobby Valentine, who during the late 80's and early 90's fielded a promising young group of players that included Ivan "Pudge" Rodriguez, Ruben Sierra, Dean Palmer, Juan Gonzalez, and Rafael Palmeiro among others. This group of guys could really mash, and I have many fond memories of many of those guys on the first teams I watched. The first true "star" that I became fascinated with was Ruben Sierra. Everything about him just seemed bigger than life. His towering home runs, diving catches in the outfield, and blazing fast speed excited me even at the ripe old age of 8. To me, he was the best player in the world. He was my benchmark. It could have been Willie Mays, but I would say to myself "yeah, but he's no Ruben Sierra."
Quickly, I found my fascination of baseball grow into a bit of an obsession, especially with the Rangers. I knew all the players and all the stats, even if I didn't quite understand how a pitchers E.R.A. was computed. My favorite statistic however, was the home run. Home runs were everything. Statistically, they left finger prints that allowed young minds to figure out how the score came to be such. I was always fascinated too by the afterglow that they left. If a guy hit a home run, his strut was a little more confident, and pitchers were a little more wary. Subsequent at-bats always made it look like the batter was some kind of hitman- some ruthless, cunning, assassin of a man who fed off of the pitcher's tears. To see in a guy's stat line on TV come up something like "2-2, 2B, 3-run HR" always made me rub my hands together in anticipation. Home runs were cool. They were like pizza. Everyone likes pizza.
As my point of view broadened, I learned that it took a lot more than home runs to win baseball games. I began to appreciate the value of leadoff hitters, stolen bases, and 2 out R.B.I's. The Rangers of my childhood would bludgeon a team 12-1 one night, and lose 3-2 the next. I couldn't understand it. This is when I learned about the Achilles heel of the Rangers-pitching. Gone were the days of Fergie Jenkins and Gaylord Perry. This team needed pitching like a Jeep Grand Cherokee needed a tune up. We used to think a Ranger pitcher had a good season when he could keep his E.R.A. under 5. Remember folks that Ryan Drese isn't that far removed from this franchise. To this day, metroplex baseball fans grumble about the Rangers' pitching, even though that is hardly true today. That’s how bad it was for early generations of Ranger fans.
It was then that I developed the most important part of my Ranger fandom-the simplicity of warm summer nights, the voices of Mark Holtz and Eric Nadel, watching the game at a beautiful new stadium, and the picnic like atmosphere that has surrounded the Rangers since their inception. No, this is not a hard-core baseball town. This town belongs to the Dallas Cowboys. It always has, and it always will. But, I'm ok with that. I derive my enjoyment of the Texas Rangers from so many other things besides the national spotlight, unattainable expectations, and a sense of entitlement. Ranger fans of old have never been able to dance around with their index finger high in the air while looking down their nose at the fans of other teams. Nope, we have our guys, a beautiful ballpark, and an appreciation of things more cerebral than gaudy Super Bowl rings. Of course, I would love nothing more than to see Ian Kinsler ride his Bad Boy MTB ATV around the Ballpark carrying the Commissioner's Trophy. Even then, I will still enjoy the soul-warming atmosphere of the Ballpark while watching games that have little to do with October.
Rangers Ballpark in Arlington, fondly known as "The Temple" or just "The Ballpark", has become a magical place to watch a baseball game. Our burgeoning fan base has taken kindly to well-played baseball, and the fans have learned how to embolden the atmosphere at a much higher level. Organically, this team has created a number of identifiers such as the Claw, the Antlers, the Byrd, and chants of Na-po-li and Cruuuuuuuuuuuz amongst many others that are specifically unique to the Ranger fan. These were not cheesy corporate slogans, but rather an identification and perpetuation of the moment, and they will forever incite memories of seasons past. The atmosphere at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington is unlike any place I have ever visited. It looks brand new, but has the feeling of a stadium many decades old. We can take great solace in having such a wonderful place to watch baseball, even if at times it seems hot enough to fry an egg in the left-field bleachers in the late afternoon sun.
The well-seasoned Ranger fan has seen a lot in their day. There have been dramatic comebacks, moon-shot homers, and scoring the winning run from second on a bunt. Torrential rainstorms, 106 degree heat, and even fans donning jackets once or twice. Best of all though, there has been meaningful fall baseball. A tear always comes to my eye when I see the replays of Nate Robertson's hanging slider find too much of the plate in Game 6 of the 2010 ALCS as Nelson Cruz hits a thunderous 2-run home run in the bottom of the 5th inning to give the Rangers a 5-1 lead, or when I hear Eric Nadel's call of "Breaking ball...strike 3 called! The Rangers are going to the World Series!" as Neftali Feliz strikes out Alex Rodriguez to send the Rangers to their first World Series.
The best moment for me came when I was standing along the back wall behind section 6 during the 11th inning of Game 2 of the 2011 ALCS. Nelson Cruz came to bat with the bases loaded. The crowd was salivating for the Boomstick to activate. I'll never forget watching intently as I saw the ball come off of Cruz's bat. It looked as though it went straight up, and hung in the air for what seemed like an eternity. As the ball floated down to it's resting place in section 8, the purest definition of euphoria overwhelmed my Ballpark brethren. Suddenly, left field was transformed in the front row of a rock concert, with fans celebrating the glory of baseball history. Grown men jump-hugged, and random strangers became best friends for a day. More than 20 minutes later, fans were still chanting, trading high-fives and cooing with giddiness.
Of course, there has been heartbreak, but I am not going to take that sour bite on this day. What I have come to realize is that it is the heartbreak and perseverance that has solidified my own love for my favorite team.
Day by day, spring draws nearer with pitchers and catchers reporting to Surprise, Arizona in just over a month. Soon, we will reunite in red and blue. I'll leave you with the quote that best sums up this time of year for me-
"People ask me what I do in winter when there's no baseball. I'll tell you what I do. I stare out the window and wait for spring."-Rogers Hornsby