Saturday, October 22, 2011

A New Attitude

There is a new attitude here in north Texas these days — at least among baseball fans.

Some things haven't changed.

Diehard football fans are still living and dying — mostly dying — with the outcomes of Cowboys games.

Diehard basketball fans continue to wonder if they will get to see the Mavericks defend their NBA title this year.

There are still some diehard hockey fans around here, too. The bandwagon jumpers who followed the Stars when it was trendy — after they won a Stanley Cup more than a decade ago — have mostly jumped off now so the Stars crowds are almost entirely genuine hockey enthusiasts.

But until last year, the Texas Rangers were lovable losers who had never even caught much of a whiff of the World Series — let alone been immersed in its magical waters. For many years, if one went to a Rangers game, it was for the entertainment value alone, not because the Rangers were anything approaching legitimate contenders.

Now, I'll admit that I feel pulled by both sides when it comes to this year's World Series. I have friends who live in the St. Louis area. My goddaughter lives in the St. Louis area with her young son. But my family's roots are here in the Dallas–Fort Worth Metroplex. I have lived here for most of the last 20 years.

So I am torn. As Mark Twain replied when asked whether he preferred heaven or hell, I have friends in both places.

The Cardinals have been here many times before. In fact, no other major league team — except the Yankees — has won as many world championships as the Cardinals.

When the Rangers finally scaled that mountain last year, they and their fans celebrated winning the American League championship — and were glad merely to be in the big show.

Not too surprisingly, the Rangers went down in five games.

Now that the Rangers are back in the World Series, just getting there won't be enough. Even this area's most casual baseball fans — the ones for whom a trip to Arlington still qualifies as entertainment and not some sort of pilgrimage — know that.

Jeff Wilson of the Fort Worth Star–Telegram mentioned that difference in attitude in yesterday's column. But Wilson wrote that the difference for the players was visible on their airplane ride home from St. Louis.

The pressure they felt being down 0–2 to San Francisco when they returned to Texas for Game 3 last year was nowhere to be seen this year. These Rangers are more relaxed, more confident.

No, just being there won't be satisfactory this time. I've heard countless people around here speaking of how the momentum of the series shifted in the Rangers' favor when they rallied to win Game 2 the other night — and how home field advantage belongs to Texas now.

But the games that will be played here almost certainly will be different from the ones that we saw played in St. Louis. They will require both managers to make different kinds of strategic decisions.

And, frankly, while the first two games were thrillers, these lineups just have too much pop for either team to settle for 2–1 and 3–2 victories. A persuasive argument can be made that both teams are overdue for an offensive explosion.

As most people acknowledge, The Ballpark in Arlington is much more hitter–friendly than Busch Stadium, but that doesn't seem special to me. St. Louis has always been tough for hitters.

I went to many games in the old Busch Stadium, and it was never known as a hitters' park. Mark McGwire was probably the only genuine power hitter to play in St. Louis since the days of Stan the Man — until Albert Pujols came along.

For as long as I can remember, the Cardinals built teams around pitching and defense. On offense, they scratched out hits and were aggressive on the base paths, but, at best, their power hitters supplied 20 or 25 home runs a season.

That's not a very good description of the modern version of the Cardinals, though. Everyone already knew about Pujols, but the postseason has given the rest of the country the opportunity to become familiar with a whole roster of guys who can produce at the plate.

Bernie Miklasz of the St. Louis Post–Dispatch writes that "[t]here's no reason to believe the Cardinals will remain in the slumber mode."

In 2011, Miklasz points out, "the Cardinals averaged more road runs than every American League team. And the Cardinals will have a DH in their lineup over the next three games. So there's really no excuse for Cardinals hitters to struggle."

Except, perhaps, for the sheer resolve of the Rangers — and their devoted followers — to win it all this time.

I teach writing at the local community college, and one of my students will be at tonight's Game 3. We talked about it the other day in class. He is part of the emerging generation of Rangers followers, the ones who don't remember the long years of losing their elders endured after the old Washington Senators moved here in the early 1970s.

He remembers only the years when the Rangers have contended, even made the playoffs, but fallen short. He can't understand the frustration of people around here who have been following this ball club for four decades.

He doesn't remember the time when the Dallas Cowboys ruled the football world. The Cowboys haven't played in a Super Bowl in his memory. But he has seen the hockey team win it all and the basketball team win it all, and he wants to see the baseball team win it all, too.

He isn't alone. Then again, everyone seems to have an opinion about this series.

Joe Lemire of Sports Illustrated anticipates a jump in run production now that the Series has moved southwest about 550 miles.

The weather will be warmer, he points out — can't argue with that since today's high around here is supposed to be 84° while the high in St. Louis is expected to be 70°, but we're in the unpredictable time of year in these parts.

Perhaps you've heard of that devastating drought we've been experiencing here this year? We hardly had a drop of rain all summer, but suddenly rain has emerged as a threat in the baseball postseason. Already at Arlington they've had one playoff game delayed for a couple of hours by rain, and another game was rained out and had to be played the following day.

We may be in for more of the same tonight. The National Weather Service says there is a 50% chance of rain after the sun goes down.

If they're able to play, Gerry Fraley of the Dallas Morning News writes that St. Louis starter Kyle Lohse might struggle tonight. His previous appearances in Arlington didn't go well — but it's been more than five years since he started a game here, and he is a different pitcher now.

And, if this series goes six or seven games — and, consequently, must return to St. Louis — the outlook is for wetter, cooler weather on the days when the last two games are scheduled to be played.

We might see some high–scoring games in Arlington over the next few days — only to go back to St. Louis next week to see that offensive fire doused by a cold rain and harkening the return of the 2–1 and 3–2 scores.

Jayson Stark of thinks we might be on the brink of "something special." The first two games were nail–biters, he observes. If you aren't watching, you're missing out.

Let's get it on.

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