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A Decade Covering the Texas Rangers from the Best Seat in the House
By Josh Lewin
Triumph BooksCopyright © 2012 Josh Lewin
All rights reserved.
My initial impression of the Rangers and their fans was not overwhelmingly positive. I was born in Atlanta but grew up in Western New York, where the nearest cattleman was hundreds of miles away and chewing tobacco was something one had to import, not just run down to 7-Eleven to pick up. When I came through Arlington as a broadcaster for the Detroit Tigers in 1998, our production crew decided after our first game we should head out for a beverage or three. We chose Humperdink's over by Cavender's Boot City off Centennial Drive. The cowboy hat–wearing cabbie dropped us in the parking lot, where my Jewish, female, 90-pound producer and I passed a couple tobacco-chewing, Wrangler-wearing drunks on their way out of the place. "Sheeee-yit," one said to the other, spitting a stream of brownish juice through his teeth and onto the pavement beside us. "Playin' that Top 40 bool-shit. That wuddn't no country bar ... that was a faaa- yag bar." And as they moseyed away, we couldn't help but notice that not only were they wearing cowboy boots, but they also had actual spurs on them. "Oh yeah," said the producer, looking me over and giving me her best My Cousin Vinny. "You blend."
Once I had become the Rangers' TV voice, I often thought that the franchise put itself at a distinct disadvantage in its pursuit of free agents by having visiting teams stay at the nondescript three-star hotel across the street from the sad little restaurants near Six Flags amusement park — the Steak 'n Shake, the run-of-the-mill Chinese place, and the Trail Dust steakhouse, where they proudly boast that if you come in wearing a tie, you leave wearing half a tie, because they'll scissor off the bottom half and let you keep the stump around your neck as a monument to your big-city idiocy. Twenty minutes west, the honkytonks and friendly folks of Fort Worth are a welcome rest stop for a weary traveler; twenty minutes east, the big-city clubs of Dallas pump out that nntz, nntz music while the fake-breasted beauties flash their perfect smiles, and sometimes the aforementioned fake breasts. Twenty minutes north, the visiting teams could luxuriate in Las Colinas, golfing at the Four Seasons or getting a massage and a seaweed scrub. Until recently, most visiting players had no idea that Fort Worth, Dallas, or Las Colinas even existed — what they assumed is that if you're a Ranger, you bake in the hot sun during most ballgames; that the landscape is flat, brown, and uninteresting; and that if you're not careful, you may get your neckwear ginsu-ed off by some yokel in a Western shirt.
Arlington's lack of a city center is not exactly a selling point, nor is the traffic getting to and from the stadium. Most people assumed that Cliff Lee didn't want to re-sign with the Rangers in 2011 because he didn't like the heat, didn't like the American League, or was allergic to Mitch Moreland or something. Actually, what his parents, wife, and kids all hated — especially during the playoffs — was the lack of public transportation. One thing about Cliff Lee is that he doesn't tolerate delays. Rain delays, flight delays ... heck, you can see it in the way he goes about his business on the mound. To steal a line from Vin Scully, he pitches like he's double-parked. A couple of hour-long waits to get in and out of the parking lot for Cliff's family during that 2010 ALCS did more to damage the chances of the Rangers' re-signing him than any wayward Chuck Greenberg airplane trip to Arkansas.
Anyway, putting one's best foot forward is a chamber of commerce must, and for years, both on the field and off, the Rangers — as an organization — were operating like a double amputee.
When you think about it, even the way the Rangers franchise arrived in North Texas in the first place was awkward. The team had been playing as the second incarnation of the Washington Senators for 11 years, not producing much on the field except for the occasional Frank Howard bomb of a home run. Owner Robert Short was looking to negotiate his way out of the nation's capital and he found an eager if not desperate business partner in Arlington mayor Tom Vandergriff. I only had the pleasure of meeting Mayor Vandergriff once before he passed on in late 2010 — his name was everywhere in Arlington, from Vandergriff Plaza at the center-field entrance of the stadium to the car dealerships up and down the I-30 service roads. He was a gentle and humble fellow.
Vandergriff had tried in vain for a dozen years to bring the majors to the Metroplex. Opposition came in various forms, most aggressively from down I-45 in Houston, where Judge Roy Hoffheinz was determined to keep his Astros a statewide baseball monopoly. There was also the matter of funding a stadium to lure a team, and Dallas money and Ft. Worth money never mixed. Thus, the compromise was made to expand rickety Turnpike Stadium in Arlington and bring it up to big-league code.
I'd read the fascinating history of how the Senators became the Rangers long before I landed in Texas, but the more I talked to the locals once I arrived as play-by-play announcer, the more the stories took on an almost fictional hue.
Short, from all accounts, was a man who never could quite understand the inherent differences between his trucking business and the baseball business. He had a difficult time of it in Washington, and began exploring ways he could move his operation somewhere else — years earlier, as the owner of the Minneapolis Lakers, he had moved the team to L.A.
When native Texan Gene Autry heard that Short was looking to cut bait in D.C., the Singing Cowboy brought his good buddy Mr. Vandergriff up to speed quickly. Ironically, north Texas baseball fans had no bigger booster than the owner of the Angels, the team that would emerge as the team's chief rival before too long. Autry had previously whispered in Vandergriff's ear about potential grabs of the Seattle Pilots (who became the Milwaukee Brewers instead), the Cleveland Indians (who stayed put), and the Kansas City A's (who moved to Oakland). But once Short decided he was done in Washington, Autry knew this was the deal to be made.
The power elite in the nation's capital was none too pleased, and all the way at the top off the political food chain, President Richard Nixon dispatched his son-in-law David Eisenhower to pay Short a visit in his office. Eisenhower reportedly shook his finger, scolded, blustered, pontificated ... every imaginable anger-tinged verb you could imagine. Short stood his ground, politely but firmly, listening respectfully, but making it clear he was a businessman and would do what any good businessman would do when faced with a chance to turn a loser into a winner. That was certainly good news to an interested observer who just happened to be hiding in the closet at the time: Tom Vandergriff.
The mayor of Arlington got his team, over the 11-hour protestations of the maverick A's owner Charlie O. Finley. Finley tried to blackmail the soon-to-be-renamed Rangers by insisting that the only way he'd cast the deciding "yes" vote for the move to Texas, was if the Senators/Rangers handed him the rights to future All-Star outfielder Jeff Burroughs. (Say what you want about Finley, but the guy had balls!) As it turned out, the deciding vote to guarantee the move would be cast by Autry himself, who had to do it from a hospital bed where he was laid up with pneumonia.
The Senators played their last game in Washington on a rainy, dismal Thursday evening in late September 1971. Dick Bosman, who would later become a popular and successful pitching coach for the team in Arlington after starting the first game in Rangers' history, drew the starting assignment. "I was angry," he said. "I was resentful. Washington was ... my first major league club, my first major league ballpark. I met my wife and got married there. I was angry we were leaving."
As Bosman warmed up, he could tell immediately that the 14,000 fans who were chanting and hanging obscene signs, were angry and resentful as well. The Senators fell behind the Yankees 5–1 then rallied behind Frank Howard's 26th homer of the year to go on top 7–5 in the eighth.
At that point, Del Unser was in right field for the Senators and noticed the fans gathering along the right-field line. A few of them had run onto the field before the inning began and were cleared off when an announcement was made, warning that the game would be forfeited if they didn't leave. In the ninth inning, Bobby Murcer bounced back to the mound for the second out, but the chance to get the third never came. The fans poured onto the field and essentially turned the place into Fred G. Sanford's front yard. Unser ran for the dugout. "I saw them going crazy, and I just hoped I could get to the dugout," he later said. "It was basically you just grab your hat and run for it. It was a little broken-field running through the crowd, but nobody was after us, they were after souvenirs from the stadium."
Let the record show that Joe Grzenda, a 34-year-old left-handed relief pitcher, threw the Senators' last pitch in D.C. It would be 34 years before another regular-season pitch would be thrown at RFK Stadium, when the Montreal Expos relocated and became the Nationals.
Those '71 Senators were the seedlings that would grow up and become the '72 Rangers. They'd been a lackluster team that finished 63–96, and then somehow regressed once they moved their gear to Texas.
Oh, they arrived with plenty of bluster and whooptie-doo. For the home opener, the players all took the field wearing 10-gallon hats. Their manager was the Splendid Splinter himself, Hall of Famer Ted Williams, and there was enough pomp and circumstance to light up the Texas night. The 1972 opener was a typical mid-'90s Rangers game: 7–6, with a lot of windblown nonsense once the ball was in the air. The Rangers homered twice to overcome four errors.
(Somewhat incredibly, when the team had debuted on the road six days before that anxiously awaited home opener, the first game in franchise history was scoreless into the bottom of the ninth. For all the offensive pyrotechnics that would later define Texas Rangers baseball, the team began with a meager two hits off Andy Messersmith and lost on a walkoff wild pitch by Paul Lindblad.)
The Rangers actually began a respectable 15–15, within four games of the first-place White Sox on May 21. But then, as crowds of 7,000 to 9,000 looked on, the wheels began to come off. Then came the doors, steering wheel, the bumpers, and the side mirrors. The rest of the way in that inaugural year the Rangers went 39–85, including 5–24 in September and October. At one point there was a 15-game losing streak, during which the team scored a total of 31 runs. (The Rangers would later set a major league record by scoring 30 in one game about 35 years later.) None of the last 32 games played — home or road — drew even 11,000 fans.
The longhaired, mutton-chopped, wild-eyed ballclub was a stark contrast to their crew-cut manager, Teddy Ballgame. Ted Williams was arguably the greatest hitter in the history of the sport, but he may as well have been trying to teach monkeys how to type. Under Williams, a career .344 hitter, the '72 Rangers hit an astonishingly bad .217. No one on the team carried even a .260 batting average (Toby Harrah was close, at .259), no one could manage even 15 home runs, and the team leader in RBIs was catcher Rich Billings with ... 58. (In 1998 Juan Gonzalez had notched 58 RBIs for the Rangers a week before Memorial Day.)
"Being the team MVP was faint praise indeed," said Billings, years after the fact. "We just slid and slid and couldn't stop sliding. But boy, we had some fun even so." (Billings, by the way, personified the laid-back, don't-worry-be-happy attitude that summed up the early-edition Rangers teams. When it was reported to him in spring training of '73 that the manager had said "if Rich Billings is our starting catcher, we're in big trouble," Billings simply nodded and said, "the manager has obviously seen me play.")
Williams never could connect with the 1972 ballplayer, who chased that early '70s "free love," lit up the occasional joint, and wore platform shoes and shirt collars off which one could hanglide. Williams was described by his players as a one-dimensional manager, concerned only with hitting, at the expense of other important phases of the game. That first spring training, down in the wasteland of Pompano Beach, Florida, an argument broke out on the field about the proper positioning for a particular relay play. The debate raged between players, manager, and coaches for a full five minutes before Williams threw up his hands and said, "Ah, hell, let's just get back in the [batting] cage and hit instead."
Sure enough, the inattention to defense would become an infamous Ranger hallmark for many years to come. In 1975 the team made an almost unfathomable 191 errors to lead the league and for a 10-year stretch beginning in the mid-1980s, not once did the team fare better than 11th in the AL in fielding percentage.
Williams was dismissed in favor of the young, up-and-coming Whitey Herzog, although Bob Short didn't exactly realize what a jackpot he'd hit. Just like when the Three's Company producers figured they could easily replace Suzanne Somers, the Rangers' owner figured he'd go get the more famous Billy Martin late that summer, once he was offed by the Tigers, and all would be fine. The local baseball media correctly saw it as a major mistake. The Rangers players were actually responding to Herzog, and despite the unsightly 47–71 record, they were becoming a more interesting team to watch. At the press conference announcing Herzog's dismissal, Short stammered something about the "artistic state of the Rangers," and how they needed a veteran leader. According to Mike Shropshire's account, the late Harold McKinney yelled from his folding chair, "Artistic state of the Rangers? Jesus Christ, you're the one who rounded up Rico Carty and Mike Epstein to be the heart of the batting order! Some f — — ing art you collected there, Bob!"
Martin actually had the Rangers playing over their skis in '74, buoyed by Rookie of the Year Mike Hargrove and the stalwart pitching of Fergie Jenkins. On September 14, the Rangers beat Oakland to draw within four games of the A's for the AL West title, but then lost to drop five out, which is where they finished two weeks later. In that pivotal game, Jim Bibby failed to make it out of the fourth inning. A tidbit of interest from that pivotal game: the A's closer, Rollie Fingers, entered in the fifth inning, pitching the final 42/3 innings to lock up the win. Fair to say the closer's role has changed a little, huh?
The volcanic Martin was let go in the middle of 1975, having worn out his welcome with new owner Brad Corbett. Martin had physically assaulted the team's traveling secretary, Burt Hawkins. However, Hawkins was hardly his only off-field sparring partner; the list also included Minnesota's traveling secretary, a fan outside Tiger Stadium, a Chicago cab driver, a sportswriter in a Reno casino, a marshmallow salesman in an elevator, two bar patrons — one in Anaheim and in Baltimore — and two bouncers in an Arlington topless bar.
In came Frank Lucchesi, who lasted until the middle of '77, surviving an infamous incident in which he was whaled on behind a spring training batting cage by Rangers infielder Lenny Randle. New owner Corbett — who had awarded some puzzling contracts, including a 10-year deal for Richie Zisk — offered the job to Eddie Stanky, lured away from his post as a college manager in Alabama. Stanky flew to Minneapolis where the team was playing the Twins, and lorded over a 10–8 win. The next morning, he quit. (Talk about going out on top. Career winning percentage: 1.000!) Stanky called both the owner and a handful of players from an airport pay phone just before departing for Alabama, leaving the 32–31 Rangers in a lurch. Connie Ryan managed the next six games as Corbett tried to convince the recently retired Harmon Killebrew to take the reins. Killebrew never did manage the Rangers or any other big-league team. Instead, the job went to Billy Hunter for keeps, meaning the Rangers had rifled through four managers in a span of eight days.
Excerpted from Ballgame! by Josh Lewin. Copyright © 2012 Josh Lewin. Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books.
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