Friday, October 22, 2010

How Sweet It Is

1993 marked the end of an era. Nolan Ryan, the greatest strikeout pitcher of all time, was pitching his final season. It also marked the beginning of an era, though one of less import to the national scene. In the summer of 1993 my family moved to Dallas. Having not made many friends and still waiting for the moving van to arrive with most of our stuff, we were looking for something to do. So someone decided to turn on the Ranger game. I had enjoyed watching baseball and considered myself a baseball fan, but growing up overseas meant I had no chance to follow a team or really consume anything baseball related. At that point I could maybe name half of the major league teams but didn't know any player names other than Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and Mickey Mantle.

All that changed the summer of 93. Suddenly I had a team. I was immediately drawn to Juan Gonzalez (Hey, that's just like Speedy Gonzalez!) and Ivan Rodriguez (Hey, that's the same last name as the kid in The Sandlot!).* But though it was their names that initially drew my attention, it was the way they played the game - Gonzalez with his bat, Rodriguez with his glove - that held it. They were my first official sports heroes.

*Growing up in Papua New Guinea means that you don't learn things like Gonzalez and Rodriguez are common Hispanic last names.

It has been a long eighteen years, full of highs and lows (and it seems more lows than highs). But through it all I have remained faithful to my Rangers. Even a move to Southern California did not shake my allegiance. The local team that made it to the playoffs six times over the past decade did not cause my loyalty to waver. And now for the first time I can proudly say that the Rangers are headed to the World Series!

But it is more than that, because they advanced by beating the Yankees, and beating them decisively. "What's so special about the Yankees?" you may very well ask. "Sure they have the highest payroll in baseball, have a rich, storied history, and carry two notable former Rangers on their roster, but you know you're going to face the best teams in the playoffs." True. But to get a proper perspective, we have to go back to 1996.

1996 was a good year for the Rangers. The team won 90 games. Juan Gonzalez won his first of two MVP awards. Manager Johnny Oates was the co-winner of the Manager of the Year award. But what really made 1996 so special was that it was the first time in team history that the Rangers made the playoffs. Our first opponent was the Yankees. Game 1 was beautiful with the Rangers winning decisively with a score of 6-2. Unfortunately, things went downhill from there. Game 2 went into extra innings and the Yankees squeaked out a victory 5-4. The Rangers were leading game 3 until the ninth inning when the Yankees scored two unanswered runs, beating the Rangers 3-2. Game 4 was tied through six innings until the Yankees scored a run in both the 7th and 9th innings. Final score: 6-4. And the Yankees advanced to the next round. And yet games 2-4 could have gone either way, and probably would have had the Rangers lineup produced. Juan Gonzalez sure did his job. He hit .438 (which is exceptional, for those of you not in the know) with 5 home runs and 9 RBI. The rest of the team combined for a .190 batting average (which is pitiful), 1 home run and 7 RBI. Had the rest of the lineup not rolled over and died, the Rangers would have won the series easily. And of course it didn't help that the Yankees proceeded to waltz over the competition on their way to the World Series title.

Two years later we made the playoffs again. And once again we faced the Yankees in the first round. The Yankees won the series 3-0. The scores: 2-0, 3-1, 4-0. That's right, we held one of the most potent lineups in baseball to an average of three runs per game. Unfortunately, once again our just-as-if-not-more potent lineup decided it didn't like the thought of running the bases. In the second round the Cleveland Indians fared worse, giving up an average of 4.5 runs per game, and in the World Series, the San Diego Padres gave up a whopping 6.5 runs per game. The Rangers posed the biggest challenge to the Yankees that year, yet all they get out of it in the history books is "also ran" status.

And it was the same story in 1999. The Yankees won 8-0 (OK, I'll admit that one was decisive), 3-1, and 3-0. The pitching (a notorious weak spot historically for the Rangers) once again did its job in keeping the Yankee bats in check yet the Ranger bats (almost always among the best in the league) stayed home. So for the third time in four years the Rangers were little more than footnotes in postseason history while the Yankees went on to win it all.

The following years saw the Rangers aspiring to mediocrity. Alex Rodriguez, their best player, practically begged to get out of Texas. A few years later their best player did it again in the form of Mark Teixeria. They both ended up in Yankee pinstripes. Talk about adding insult to injury.

And so we find ourselves eleven seasons later, and after far too many false steps on the part of management, the Rangers are once again in the playoffs. I did not want to face the Yankees in the first round and this time it worked out and we faced off against the Tampa Bay Rays. And this time we were the victors. But the Minnesota Twins did not do their job and they let the Yankees advance. I began preparing myself for a disappointing series. I was afraid that my boys would crumble under the mystique that surrounds the Yankees. Yet the Rangers emerged victorious, and resoundingly so. Their smallest margin of victory was 5 runs. They scored twice as many runs as they surrendered. They hit more home runs. They stole more bases. With the exception of one game and one inning, they completely dominated the Yankees who are now heading back to New York with their tails between their legs.

I don't know what the future holds for this team (or even at this point who they will face in the World Series) but I am proud of my team and pleased with their accomplishments, and the way they are playing now, they can lick anyone that comes up against them.

So I think I've earned the right to say:

Rangers rule and Yankees drool!

Not to mention,

The Rangers Are Going To The World Series!