Saturday, October 23, 2010

The Triumph of the Strangers

I wasn’t there in time to see that Texas-centric scoreboard, but I wish I had been. It looks pretty great in that picture, and in this one, too. It was taken down in 1984.

My family moved to Texas in June 1988, and it wasn’t long before we went to a Rangers game at the old Arlington Stadium. It might be football country down there, but it was summer, and we were recently transplanted from Long Island, with our sporting priorities straight. We were ushered to our seats by a smiling college-aged brunette who dusted our seats for us. The crowd was polite, even calm. The air was dry but very hot. This isn’t what I had remembered from New York, where fans were passionate about their baseball, but not exactly kid-friendly, and a breeze occasionally stirred.

The stadium had been built in 1965 as a minor league park (here’s an aerial shot of the original). When the Rangers moved in seating was significantly expanded, but the stadium still had a distinctly modest, just-a-bowl feel to it. (Another aerial shot, this one giving the general idea of the revised setup, though it’s from a time when that great old scoreboard was still up.) The Rangers’ shortstop in 1988 was a scrawny guy named Scott Fletcher. Their catcher was a gentleman with a tremendous mustache named Geno Petralli. Their best pitcher was 40-year-old knuckleballer Charlie Hough, who already seemed grandfatherly.

The rest of the pitching staff was full of guys in their mid-20s who had futures ahead of them that ranged from thoroughly mediocre to nonexistent. Two of them were Paul Kilgus, who I always thought looked like his name sounded, and Bobby Witt, who I quickly came to think of as being a prototypical Texan, even looking a bit like Texas initially felt -- square-jawed, no-nonsense, tough and maybe a little thickheaded. (Never mind that he was born in the wrong Arlington -- Virginia -- to properly qualify.)

The Rangers finished 70-91 that year, 33 1/2 games behind the division-winning Oakland A’s. If I were the type to embrace lovable losers, I would have quickly drawn the Rangers to my bosom. Such as it was, my attachment to the Yankees was unshakable. They hadn’t won anything to that point in my life, either, but still. I felt a strong loyalty to my New York teams.

Over the years, the Rangers improved. They also moved into a beautiful new park in 1994. That give things a whole new feel, a truly major-league feel.

They always had a steady stream of big bats. The first couple of years I was there, the heavies were in the homer-or-strikeout mold of guys like Pete Incaviglia, the brute pictured at left. But soon, the team had an entire lineup of fearsomely talented hitters -- Ruben Sierra, Juan Gonzalez, Pudge Rodriguez, Rafael Palmeiro.

The pitching always stunk. When the team finally made the playoffs in 1996, it did so with three of five starting pitchers sporting ERAs over 5.00. The Rangers won the division again in 1998, with two starters under 5.00 and the other four rotating members of the staff at 5.68, 5.90, 6.53, and 7.66. The ‘99 playoff team was much the same. Not very surprisingly, the Rangers went a combined 1-9 in the playoffs those years, losing all three first-round series. To the Yankees.

At this point, I was reveling in the newness of Yankees thrills. I was 22 when they won it all in 1996, and I’m not looking for any tears, trust me. But I had been a big fan from the age of seven or so, and winning was sweet. I would go to those series in Arlington proudly wearing my Yankees hat, rooting hard for the opposition.

All of that is baseball. But baseball is also tied up with life, as all the purple-prose writers who love the sport are constantly reminding us. So without getting purple (I hope), it’s safe to say that even though I never took the team to my heart, the experience of going to the park -- which I must have done a hundred times or more in the time I lived in Texas -- left me with a lot of memories (and there will be more, I’m sure). At first, it was just me and my dad. It would be mostly us at the games over the years, but in the beginning there weren’t even really options for company, as I was 14 years old, new to the area, not yet in school, and, well, how do I put this, friendless.

My first friend would soon appear, and it was no accident that he was a sports nut -- more like a walking sports encyclopedia. Curtis would go to many games with us. The two of us were (are?) purists, and no matter how many times we heard it, we would always turn to each other with looks of disgust when the stadium P.A. played "Cotton-Eyed Joe" during the 7th inning stretch instead of "Take Me Out to the Ball Game." (This was the folksy "Joe" on the fiddle, not the techno-drivel version they play in stadiums today.) One of the best nights at the park involved me and Curt going up to the "fantasy announcing" booth to broadcast an inning. We got to take home the tape, which I have to hope is still around somewhere. Today, Curt is a professional sportscaster.

I saw some great games over the years, but a lot of the most memorable moments were not game-related. Some were almost game-related, like Nolan Ryan famously beating the hell out of Robin Ventura. We were there for that one. Or one night when the power went out and only some of the neon lights in the new stadium were visible. That was eerie but beautiful. Then there was June 17, 1994. It was a Friday night, and the Rangers lost to the A’s 4-2 (according to some online research). Early on that night, my friend Jason returned from the concession stand to say I had to come check something out -- O. J. Simpson was going nuts, leading the cops on a wild-goose chase. We spent most of the night, along with hundreds of other fans, standing up on the concourse, without a view of the field, watching the surreal hot pursuit. (The concourse TVs were also showing Game 5 of that year’s NBA finals between the Knicks and Houston Rockets, but that was put on a tiny split screen, underneath the freeway action.)

If we were a little late for a game, or left one a little early, we would listen to the radio broadcast by Eric Nadel and Mark Holtz. The memory of those two came back to me strongly tonight when an announcer on ESPN’s radio station mentioned Nadel’s long stint with the team. They were fantastic, a good example of something that has nothing to do with the size of your market. The Yankees radio announcers today are almost unlistenable. Holtz and Nadel are, still, maybe the best I’ve ever heard. Holtz died of leukemia in 1997 at age 51. I read somewhere that Nadel used Holtz’s signature game-ending call -- “Hello win column!” -- for the first time since Holtz’s death when the Rangers clinched their first-round series against Tampa Bay.

(One funny memory returned tonight: listening to the post-game shows driving home, Dad and I would marvel at how the duo put an optimistic spin on everything. “Well, this win moves the Rangers to within 18 games of Oakland in the American League West.” Another early culture shock.)

There was purple stuff, too, of course: Attending games with a couple of girlfriends (not simultaneously), one of whom I would write in on an all-star ballot every year, as a National League outfielder, and the other of whom went to her last game with me just a few nights before I left to move to New York, some time after we’d broken up; driving home from games with various friends, listening to various music; always marking the remainder of the trip home by watching the approach of the Dallas skyline, which represented the halfway point, give or take a few miles.

Not sure why I’m recapping all this. I didn’t have some existential crisis during the series that ended tonight. But if I’m honest, I was at least passively rooting for the Rangers. Not because I feel divided loyalties, but maybe just because, after 15 years of resounding Yankees success, including a title last year, I felt a little bit numb toward them. (Plus, something has felt off about both the team and fans for the past couple of years, though that’s vague and would require a lot more words to parse, and half of you are comatose already. The other half have left to play badminton.) Throughout the series, I wasn’t really rooting for either team. But not rooting, when the Yankees are involved, is very strange for me.

Tonight I’m mostly glad for my friends who are Rangers fans, especially Brad, who went to dozens and dozens of games with me over the years. (And with whom I still call the team the Strangers, one of many verbal jokes we share, but certainly one of the laziest and least substantive.) He was at the game tonight and we exchanged text messages as it wrapped up. Dad might have been there, too, I haven’t asked him yet. I’m pretty certain he was rooting for the Yankees if he was. But I’m also sure he’ll be pulling for the Rangers in the World Series, like I will.

In another forum recently (never mind where), I wrote: “Almost find myself rooting for the TX Rangers against Yanks tonight. Suspect my heart is always where I no longer am. A problem, perhaps.” And that was a regular-season game in August! So, something weird happened the past couple of months, and now I’m just glad it’s over. The Rangers have taken a big step forward. They’ve had a great moment. From now on, when it comes to the Rangers and Yankees, my loyalties will be as clear (and as northern) as they should be.


Blogger Dezmond said...

Excellent post, John. As you know, I am a Yankee-hater through and through, and we have discussed the reasons why many times. But that was a great post and I read the entire thing with great interest.

as a tangent on your OJ memory, I remember that Knicks-Rockets-OJ Chase broadcast incredibly well. I was in Houston, my hometown, watching that game on TV at a good friend's house. Ironically, this good friend, Eric, and his family had recently moved to Houston from New Jersey. But they had no love for the Knicks, so it was a purely pro-Rockets viewing party. Then the OJ Slow Speed Chase breaks in to the broadcast, and announcers talking about how "riveting" it was and how people would be much more interested in watching the Bronco than the basketball. (Why the Bronco could not have been the small picture in the corner until something actually happened instead of the NBA Finals game I will never understand).

Anyway, Eric's Dad was beside himself with fury, and I clearly recall him getting on the phone and calling the TV station demanding that the Rockets Game be put back on the TV beccause "I don't give a shit about O.J.!" as he told the hapless telephone operator at the TV station.

eric's father recently died this summer and at the memorial service Eric and I were reminescing about times with his Dad, and I reminded him of this night as one of my fondest memories about his Dad. Trying to get the Rockets back from the small box in the corner of the screen.

8:20 AM  
Anonymous Jason Wiseman said...

One of my favorite moments came with you, Brad, Jake, and myself during the 96 season. The Rangers' magic number was 1 and the game went so long into extra innings that the Seattle game had time to start and end during the Rangers game. The Mariners lost giving the Rangers the AL East title before they had finished their game. The boys came out to acknowledge the 5000 or so fans that stuck it out that they had clinched their first ever playoff spot and then promptly lost the game.

Also, surely the Geno Petralli card did not have "3 strikes YOUR out" printed on it. I am going to eBay to confirm.

11:26 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You left out one descriptive phrase for Bobby Witt
as a prototypical Texan...."cute as hell."

1:52 PM  
Anonymous Brad Bollner said...

I'm getting choked up over here.

First of all, let me say Ranger nation officially welcomes your support in the Series. You've done as much to earn it as most lifelong Ranger fans. (and more to earn it than those who chose to enjoy the Rangers' success last night by yelling "Yankees suck" for an hour after the game was over)

Last night was amazing. To be there was something special. Not in a "look who got tickets" kind of way, but because that edifice was the ONLY place I could have been last night. I was around the corner from where we watched OJ's surreal low-speed chase. I could see the seats where we sat as you filled in your all-star ballot like you were the lead in a John Hughes movie. I sat in seats that Rusty Greer may well have hit with a homerun to win the game in the last at bat ("walk-off" was not yet the fashionable term). If I had watched on TV, I would have reflected on those things sure, but as it was, they were woven into the experience. As corny as it sounds, all of my years there were being lived at once.

And all my friends were there.

5:21 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


I just found (before the clinching game) the old Fantasy Play By Play tapes. Key word being tape! And have sinced dubbed it to DVD. Yes it does exist, and NO it will not end up on Youtube! Long Live Jeff Kunkle!


1:47 AM  
Blogger ANCIANT said...

Great post, Johnnie. Whatever it is we talk about when we talk about the spirit of baseball, it's in this post. And, I would argue, in the Rangers themselves. Likable guys from a likable place, with a great organization and a great manager.

For me, even more than watching the Rangers win, the greatest joy about this post-season has been Ron Washington. His press conferences come close to inspiring, at times. "Baseball is a humbling game" he said, in one of the earlier ones, and I thought--yes. A man with _wisdom. (Possible thesis: does baseball produce more impressive _managers_ than any other sport? Contrast Girardi, Manuel, Bochey, and Washington with four coaches picked at random from football or basketball. The baseball guys are going to have the most integrity and intellect, I think.)

Anyway, great post. I'm a fair-weather baseball fan, but I've loved watching the Rangers play this off-season. Seeing Nolan Ryan every night sitting there in the box makes me think of Texas, wistfully. Part of what it means to be a Texan is that you respect Nolan Ryan, I think.

I'm looking forward to the World Series.

3:26 PM  
Blogger Mike Lindgren said...

Very evocative and lovely post. Re: Ryan vs Ventura, though, the inside word from scribe Gammons at the time was that most of the AL respected Ventura for going after Ryan, who had been getting away -- on reputation and age -- with throwing at batters for years.

11:45 PM  
Anonymous pf said...

That's sweet stuff, JW. I'm far from comatose, haven't run off to play badminton.

I'll find it hard to rest until I can hear that fantasy play-by-play tape. Name your price.

9:14 AM  

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