Wednesday, April 30, 2014

A Ride on the Ryan Express

Prior to the 1989 season, the Texas Rangers signed Nolan Ryan, and a new era of Rangers baseball began.

Until that time, the Rangers were a major–league joke. They were seldom competitive in the American League — in fact, in the previous two seasons, they had been last or next–to–last in their division. In my memory, baseball in north Texas in those days was nothing more than a place filler between football seasons.

Nolan Ryan changed that. He energized the team's fan base and attracted new fans. Turned out, north Texas was itching to support a baseball team that was committed to at least trying to win, and signing Ryan was the clearest signal to date that the Rangers management definitely wanted to win.

That really makes all the difference in whether a professional sports team succeeds. There have always been — and always will be — people who watch sporting events for other reasons (those who watch auto races just to see a crash or a hockey game just to see a fight). They exist in every city. In my experience, the larger that demographic is within a team's local fan base, the less seriously that team is taken elsewhere.

I went to a few Ranger games before Nolan Ryan came along, and most of the people I saw were there to see the Rangers' Keystone Kops–style baseball. A few were tourists in the Metroplex, taking in a baseball game because there was nothing better to do.

But, as I say, Ryan changed that. The Rangers of '89 leaped from the gate and took first place in their division on the fifth day of the season. They were 15–4 on April 28 when they began a weekend series at home against the defending AL East champion Boston Red Sox.

A friend of mine and I had been following the pitching results and rotations and we figured that, if there were no rainouts or injuries, Ryan and Boston ace Roger Clemens would be on track to face each other in Arlington on Sunday, April 30. In a remarkable display of confidence at which I can only marvel today, we purchased tickets roughly two weeks ahead of time.

We knew it was risky. We knew the old saying about April showers. We knew it was possible that either team could be rained out at any time. And we knew that either pitcher could get hurt (Ryan, we figured, was particularly vulnerable, being 42 when the season began). But none of those things happened, and Ryan and Clemens faced off as expected in Arlington 25 years ago today.

It was a beautiful, warm, sunny late April day in Arlington, Texas. A crowd of 40,429 came out to the ballpark to see the game — it was the closest thing to a playoff atmosphere I had ever experienced at a Rangers game.

The Red Sox took a 1–0 lead in the first inning, and that was the score until the bottom of the eighth when Rafael Palmeiro hit a home run off Clemens with Cecil Espy on base. The Rangers, leading 2–1, then relieved Ryan in the ninth. Jeff Russell retired the Red Sox in order to earn his fifth save of the season, and Ryan's record improved to 3–1. Clemens suffered his first loss of the season.

It wasn't until I was in the car driving home, listening to the postgame program on the radio, that I learned that Ryan had been pitching with back spasms from the second inning on — yet he only yielded three hits all day. (If he had been playing for a National League team, he would have had to take his turns at bat — and, as a result, might not have lasted as long as he did.)

The Rangers didn't make the playoffs in 1989, but they went from being 33½ games out of first place in 1988 to 16 games out in 1989. They didn't make the playoffs before Ryan retired in 1993, but, had it not been for the baseball strike in 1994, the Rangers might have been in the playoffs that year (they led their division by a single game when the strike began).

They did make the playoffs in 1997 and 1999 — and they were in the World Series a decade later.

And I will always believe they did all that because Nolan Ryan joined the team 25 years ago.

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