Gil LeBreton

August 23, 2014

Tom Schieffer, ballpark have served Rangers well

Inducting the former club president into team’s Hall of Fame was overdue.

Maybe you have to remember the old place, a baseball dungeon of sorts, to fully appreciate the new one.

Built in 1965, Turnpike Stadium was wind-swept and uninspiring. Even after it was renamed and expanded from 10,000 to 35,700 seats for the arrival of the Texas Rangers, it looked more like a Rube Goldberg attraction from neighboring Six Flags Over Texas than a major league baseball park.

Its predominant feature was … well … its parking lots, which encircled old Arlington Stadium like a steamy asphalt stain. And as the Rangers alumni who have gathered for Hall of Fame Weekend can attest, the artificial turf tunnel from the clubhouse to the dugout always seemed to be flooded and smelly.

“We knew we were going to have to build a new stadium,” Tom Schieffer recalled. “The old one wasn’t going to be able to sustain a major league salary structure.”

Nor the plumbing, as Schieffer and the Rusty Rose-George W. Bush ownership group would soon learn.

Schieffer’s induction into the Rangers Hall of Fame this weekend is a long time coming. The project that Schieffer was entrusted with, the Ballpark in Arlington, turned 20 years old this season.

It remains one of baseball’s best venues, distinctive in character but with its endearing tributes to the game’s past. Baseball snobs still occasionally disparage the ballpark for mimicking the Tigers’ old Home Run Porch and the frieze that ringed the Yankee Stadium roof.

But what would you have wanted otherwise? A swimming pool (Arizona), a fish tank (Tampa Bay) or a Chevy showroom (Detroit)?

Schieffer loves to recount the saga of the building of the ballpark, and I don’t blame him. The partnership that was forged between the then-ownership group and then-Mayor Richard Greene’s office helped to shape the Arlington and Tarrant County that we know today.

Circa 1990, Dallas, Plano and Irving all also wanted the Rangers to move to their cities. But Arlington had the land and the willingness to make the new ballpark happen. A record turnout for the January 1991 general election approved a half-cent sales tax increase by a 65-35 percent margin.

Now the city hosts the area’s two most visible sports franchises, a remarkable transformation for what was once just an amusement park turnpike exit.

It’s unfortunate in a way, however, that most of the attention this weekend has been showered on the ballpark that Schieffer built, rather than on the role he played in remaking the baseball club. The hiring of general manager Doug Melvin, who in turn hired Johnny Oates as manager, laid a foundation that elevated the Rangers to the postseason for the first time.

The opening of the ballpark naturally helped. Schieffer recalled a post-opening meeting where major league officials began to refer to the Rangers as a “big-market team.”

“Sandy Johnson [assistant GM] had gone to the meeting and said, ‘Why are they calling us a big-market team?’ ” Schieffer said. “I told him, ‘Because we’re getting ready to be one.’ ”

He built the ballpark. He helped to bring aboard Melvin and Oates. He made sure the team didn’t trade Pudge Rodriguez to the Yankees. He kept Van Cliburn’s piano dry so that Opening Day could have a national anthem for the ages.

Schieffer helped to organize the successful Rangers Foundation. And when his days with the club were done, he proudly distinguished himself as our nation’s ambassador in Australia and Japan during the difficult post-9/11 period.

He served his president well, just as he served the Rangers for nine years.

In his remarks Saturday night, Schieffer eloquently said, “You have to understand that you never really own a baseball team. All you can do is be a good steward of the game and its history.

“It becomes your duty to pass it along better than you found it.”

There can be no doubt that Tom Schieffer, Rangers Hall of Fame member, did that.

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