Friday, October 15, 2010

Rangers Take National Stage

Tonight is a remarkable night in the history of baseball in north Texas.

Tonight, a league championship series begins in Arlington for the first time ever. I know there were many — myself included — who thought this day would never come.

And I have been to a Rangers game that was played in what was probably as close to a World Series atmosphere as anything anyone in these parts could imagine.

In late April 1989, a co–worker and I got tickets and went to Arlington to see the Rangers play the Boston Red Sox. Nolan Ryan had just signed with the Rangers, and we had calculated, based on the pitching rotations, when Ryan and Roger Clemens were likely to face each other, and we got tickets about 10 days ahead of time.

It was a gamble, of course. Either team could have been rained out once or twice, and that could have altered their pitching rotations. But nothing like that happened, and Ryan and Clemens faced off on a warm, sunny Sunday afternoon before what seemed to be a capacity crowd.

The game was a pitchers' duel. As I recall, the Red Sox took a 2–1 lead early in the game, and it remained that way until the bottom of the ninth, when Rafael Palmeiro belted a two–run homer, and the Rangers won, 3–2.

Ryan, who was 42 at the time, pitched into the eighth. I didn't find out until I was in the car on my way home that he had been having back spasms since the second inning. But he kept pitching — and kept shutting out the Red Sox — until the Rangers could scratch out the runs they needed to take the lead.

The 2010 Rangers may need that kind of endurance. They had to go the distance in a best–of–five series with Tampa just to get this far, and, fittingly, the team that has won more World Series than any other, the New York Yankees, stands between the Rangers and their debut in the Fall Classic.

Many of my friends in these parts are adjusting their schedules so they can watch the Rangers in the World Series. A couple of days ago, I heard on a local radio station that folks were already camping out at the Ballpark so they can be assured of getting World Series tickets when they go on sale on Sunday. I hope they can get a refund if the Yankees turn out to be the American League's representatives.

Because one thing is for sure — nothing will be certain about the World Series by this Sunday. Yet there are people who will sleep in pup tents and sleeping bags outside a ballpark for four or five nights just to get tickets for what may be a once–in–a–lifetime event.

That's a tribute to Ryan, who is part–owner and team president now. His journey in baseball has seemed, at times, wildly improbable.

Early in his career, he was a relief pitcher for the Amazin' Mets of 1969. Many observers may have written him off in the 1970s, when he labored for a mostly weak California Angels franchise, but he wound up taking them to the playoffs in his final season with them and putting them on the road to continued baseball success. After that, he returned to his native state and played for the Houston Astros for most of the 1980s, helping them to their first playoff series. He concluded his playing career with five seasons in Texas.

There is great anticipation here — where baseball may belatedly join the other major team sports (football, basketball, hockey) that have played for championships. In a sense, the Rangers already have joined that group (or, at least, they will when the first pitch is thrown in Arlington tonight) in this series that will decide the AL champion.

But I speak of overall championships, and, in baseball, those are only won in the World Series. The Rangers must get past the Yankees before they can play Philadelphia or San Francisco for all the marbles.

In a year when the Cowboys, Stars and Mavericks have all been disappointments locally, the Rangers have been bringing back some of that Texas swagger.

"Bring on the Evil Empire," writes Jeff Wilson in the Fort Worth Star–Telegram.

Well, I hope folks enjoy it while they can because I think that expecting to deprive the Yankees of a World Series appearance in the same year that George Steinbrenner died is asking a bit much of the baseball gods.

The Rangers have been playing ball here in north Texas for nearly 40 years. Who knows when they will see fit to send another league championship series this way?

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