July 21, 2012

Decade-by-decade defining moments for the Texas Rangers

Over the course of any sports franchise's first 40 years there will be many defining moments, some good, some not so good, some absolutely terrible.

Over the course of any sports franchise's first 40 years there will be many defining moments, some good, some not so good, some absolutely terrible.

Unfortunately, for too many years it seemed the Texas Rangers had far more of the latter than the first.

Yet, through it all there was an almost perverse faith among the team's amazingly loyal fandom that someday, some way, the Rangers would finally grow up and win.

They were right, but there was pain, many tears and far too much disappointment before that moment arrived.

Now that it has, it's almost too good to be true.

Johnny Oates and his 1996 Rangers team finally dispelled the ghosts that had followed them from old Arlington Stadium to the new ballyard at Nolan Ryan Expressway and Randol Mill Road, but there was still more work to be done.

Yet, the hated and dreaded Yankees always seemed to be in the way.

Not any more. One magical late October night in 2010, even the Bronx Bombers couldn't stop the Rangers any longer.

Defining moments? Oh, yes, the Rangers have had their defining moments.

Here are the ones we've chosen for each decade since the Rangers arrived in 1972.

The '70s

The decision that would define the Texas Rangers for the first three decades of their existence would come less than two years after their arrival in North Texas in 1972 and it was born of simple desperation.

Owner Bob Short actually had more brains than money. His baseball mind told him his team needed a major reconstruction and a commitment to building through its farm system. But Short's heart, and ultimately his dwindling bank account, told him something else as he watched the Rangers draw fewer than 700,000 fans in each of their first two years at newly converted minor league ballpark Arlington Stadium.

If Short couldn't quickly put a winning team on the field and more fans in the seats, his whole grand gamble of moving a team from the nation's capital to what critics said was a veritable wasteland between Dallas and Fort Worth would collapse. Major league baseball might fail in North Texas before it could even get started.

Short was trying to do the right thing when he hired then-New York Mets minor league director Whitey Herzog to replace Ted Williams as manager after Williams resigned following the '72 season. Herzog had done a masterful job of rebuilding the Mets, the worst team in baseball.

But Short's financial situation continued to worsen in '73 as his woeful team sank deeper into the abyss of a 105-loss season. Short saw a flash of hope on June 27, 1973, when 35,698 fans crowded into Arlington Stadium to watch 18-year-old sensation David Clyde, just 20 days from pitching his last high school game, make his major league debut. Another 10,000 were turned away at the gates.

Herzog's plan was to give Clyde the two big league starts his contract called for, then send him to the farm for proper seasoning. But when Short saw what Clyde could do for his gate, he insisted the teenager stick around for the rest of the season.

Never mind that Clyde would only go 4-8 with a 5.03 ERA over his 18 starts in '73. The more important numbers for Short were these: In the 12 games Clyde pitched at Arlington Stadium, attendance averaged 18,187; without Clyde pitching, it was 7,546.

Short's long-term plans went out the window.

Herzog was fired and his development plan abandoned near the end of the '73 season when quick-fix artist Billy Martin suddenly became available.

"I owe it to the fans to give them my best shot, and I am hoping that in time people will be able to say this was an excellent decision," Short said.

Not so much.

It's true that Martin's 1974 "Turnaround Gang" brought heightened interest in the team as the Rangers gave the world champion Oakland A's a run for their money in the American League West. The team drew more than a million fans for the first time.

But Short wasn't around to see it, having sold the team to Brad Corbett and a group of DFW investors early in the '74 season. The success the '74 team enjoyed turned out to be both a boon and a curse. For most of the next quarter century, the Rangers would start each season with high hopes and inevitably settle into mediocrity or worse, never realizing they were on a fool's errand.

Future big league stars like Bill Madlock, Dave Righetti and Ron Darling were traded in the futile search for the one piece that would finally put them over the top.

The Rangers would be into their sixth general manager and 12th fulltime manager before that would finally happen more than 20 years later, but only after a soul-searching change in philosophy.

The '80s

As tough as the team's early years had been, it was the '80s that turned into the lost decade for the Rangers.

Only three times in that 10-year span did the Rangers finish the season with a winning record. They were a combined 119 games under .500 for the '80s.


Pat Corrales, Don Zimmer and Doug Rader came and went in the Rangers' dugout, before Bobby Valentine settled in for a seven-year run early in 1985. In the front office, Eddie Robinson and Joe Klein took their swings as GM before former Rangers outfielder Tom Grieve, the team's farm director, stepped in to try and right the ship.

Good players dotted the Rangers' lineup in the '80s, All-Stars like Jim Sundberg, Buddy Bell, Mickey Rivers, Al Oliver, Larry Parrish, Ruben Sierra, Charlie Hough and Jim Kern. There were flashes of hope. In '86, Valentine's first full year as skipper, his rookie-dominated team went 87-75 and finished second in the West.

But it wasn't something that could be sustained. Nothing seemed to quell the tide of losing.

Nothing, that is, until December 1988, at baseball's annual Winter Meetings in Atlanta.

Grieve and Valentine engineered two key trades to land big bats in Julio Franco and Rafael Palmeiro, but the biggest shocker was yet to come.

Before the meetings had ended, the aggressive Rangers had landed the biggest-name free agent on the market.

Nolan Ryan agreed to sign with the Rangers.

Ryan brought instant credibility to a woebegone franchise whose biggest contribution to baseball previously had been the introduction of a tasty ballpark snack called nachos.

Now, no one was laughing at the Rangers anymore.

Ryan was 41 and taking things a year at a time, but there was no doubt he could still pitch.

"This is the one most important transaction the Texas Rangers have ever made," Valentine said of the Ryan signing.

Not even Valentine, though, could have imagined what was to come of the five-year relationship: Ryan's 5,000th strikeout, his 300th win, two more no-hitters, a club presidency and a minority ownership.

If that wasn't enough of a "defining moment" for the decade, one more biggie was still to come.

On March 17, 1989, Eddie Chiles announced that he had agreed in principle to sell the team to a DFW ownership group led by George W. Bush, the son of the president, and Dallas businessman Rusty Rose.

In the span of four months as the dreary '80s drew to a close, the Texas Rangers had added a future Hall of Fame pitcher who would help change the way the rest of the world looked at the franchise and the most stable and successful ownership group in its history.

Things were finally looking up.

The '90s

They say it takes real adversity to form character. If that's true, it's no wonder the Rangers of today seem to be so strong and resilient.

It's easy to point to the franchise's defining moment of the '90s, because that's when the Rangers finally got over the hump, winning their first division championship in 1996. But it didn't come without a lot of sweat, tears and fears in the season's final two weeks.

By '96 a winning management team was in place. The Bush-era ownership had put Doug Melvin in charge as general manager, and he in turn had brought in the steady-handed, brilliant Johnny Oates to manage the team.

By the All-Star break in '96, the Rangers were 51-36 and had a four-game lead in the West race.

But could they hold on?

It looked spectacularly good on the morning of Sept. 11, when Oates and his team woke up with a nine-game lead over the Seattle Mariners and only 17 games left on the schedule. Done deal, right?

Not quite. The ghosts of Rangers past weren't through with them just yet.

Over the next 10 days, the Rangers lost nine times. Especially painful was a four-game sweep by the Mariners in Seattle, including a pair of back-breaking one-run losses in the series' final two games.

By the time the Rangers staggered out of the Kingdome on the evening of Sept. 19, their lead had been whittled to two games, with a three-game series at Anaheim and a two-game set in Oakland still remaining on the most excruciating road trip in team history.

At the same time, the four-game sweep of the Rangers was fueling a 10-game winning streak for the Mariners.

Things looked bleak when the Rangers blew three leads in the opener against the Angels and lost 6-5 in 10 innings while the Mariners were winning again in Oakland, slicing Texas' lead to a single game.

Always wired tightly anyway, Oates was a nervous wreck but still trying to present a sense of calm for his team. He'd been saying for weeks that the Rangers' toughest opponent was their own history.

What the team desperately needed was a stellar performance from a starting pitcher to take the pressure off. John Burkett finally stepped up and delivered just that, holding the Angels to a single run over eight innings on Sept. 21. Juan Gonzalez, Rusty Greer and Dave Valle each hit solo home runs and the Rangers won 7-1.

The Mariners matched them with their 10th straight win, so the Texas lead remained at one game.

The real linchpin moment, arguably the most important game in franchise history to that point in time, came on that Sunday afternoon, Sept. 22, when Ken Hill took the mound for the Rangers.

He one-upped Burkett's effort with a complete-game 4-1 victory. The Mariners finally lost and the Rangers' lead was two games again.

Hell Week was finally over.

They would go on to split two in Oakland and ultimately win four of their final five games of the season to clinch the division championship, the first of three they would win in a four-year span.

A new era of Rangers baseball was beginning.

It would be another decade and then some before they would take the next big step.

2000 and beyond

There would be another down period for the Rangers as the 21st century began -- four straight last-place finishes in the division -- and the managerial revolving door would continue, from Oates, to Jerry Narron, to Buck Showalter.

The Tom Hicks ownership era was foundering as his financial empire began to crumble, but not before Hicks made three key management decisions that would ultimately help the franchise reach its ultimate goal: the World Series.

The first came in October 2005, when Hicks promoted assistant general manager Jon Daniels to GM, replacing John Hart, who may already have been on the first tee when he got the news.

There would be growing pains for the youngest GM in baseball, naturally, but Daniels learned from his mistakes and convinced Hicks that the franchise's best strategy was to build up the farm system and upgrade its international scouting.

It didn't hurt that two years later Daniels made the baseball equivalent of the Herschel Walker trade when he sent first baseman Mark Teixeira and reliever Ron Mahay to Atlanta for catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia, shortstop Elvis Andrus and pitchers Neftali Feliz, Matt Harrison and Beau Jones.

That same winter, Daniels and Hicks made another surprising choice to replace Showalter as manager: longtime A's third-base coach Ron Washington, who had no previous big league managerial experience.

The Daniels-Washington exacta would eventually turn into an amazing trifecta when Hicks, in one of his last moves as owner, also lured Nolan Ryan back to Arlington as club president in 2008.

Once again, the right management team was in place, and it would result in the most stirring moment in Rangers history.

What Rangers fan will ever forget the Feliz curveball that froze Alex Rodriguez at the plate with two outs in the ninth inning of Game 6 of the American League Championship Series in 2010?

It was the moment that the Rangers became more than little boys with their noses pressed against the candy-store window. They'd busted down the door. They were going to their first World Series and they weren't just party crashers either, but legitimate champions, something they would prove by doing it all over again a year later.

Until something better comes along, the defining moment not just of the 2000s and beyond, but in the history of the franchise, is that Feliz curveball, the mighty Yankees falling, the Rangers and their fans in joyous celebration at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington.

The only topper will be that first World Series championship itself, the biggest defining moment of all.

Jim Reeves is a former

Star-Telegram sports columnist who covered the Rangers for virtually all of those 40 years. E-mail him at

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