A year ago, Roger and Wanda Wilson of Pleasant Grove were 13th in line at Globe Life Park for the annual Rangers Fan Fest.
This year, no one was going to beat them. They were the first of a hearty crowd of several thousand fans that nearly stretched all the way around the stadium before the gates opened at 9 a.m. Saturday.
The Wilsons arrived at 2:30 a.m., with Roger, 50, braving the cold while Wanda waited in the heated car. The second person in line, Louis Ramsey, didn’t come on the scene until 4:30 a.m.
“I’ve been a fan for 25 years now,” Roger Wilson said. His current favorite on the team? New manager Jeff Banister, who has been doing his best to pump up the club’s fan base while preparing for spring training.
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“Absolutely it’s part of my job,” Banister said. “You’re coming off a season where the fan base was hurt, disappointed. They feel the sting just like everybody else.”
Banister’s upbeat, “never, ever quit” attitude, which sprang from his battle with cancer as a teenager and later after a broken neck in a home-plate collision in college left him paralyzed for 10 days, has been a theme.
His story has resonated with fans who hope he can help the Rangers rebound from a 95-loss season in 2014.
“I like his philosophy, never ever quit,” Roger Wilson said. “Yes, we can contend. We were contenders last year before the injuries. I’m very hopeful.”
Players, coaches and general manager Jon Daniels took turns signing autographs, participating in Q&As and taking pictures with eager fans. By all accounts, the attendance at Saturday’s fest was stronger than a year ago, an impressive showing considering the club’s struggles.
But optimism reigns at the moment as Banister, his players, and most fans expect a major turnaround when the season begins April 6 in Oakland.
“I hope they can go back to playing like in the 2010 season when they were in the World Series,” said David Lopez, of Fort Worth. His brother, Eduardo, 10, who was aiming to get the autograph of his favorite player, Elvis Andrus, said last year was “horrible.”
“I stopped watching,” he said. But both are ready to jump back on the bandwagon if a healthier roster lives up to its potential.
“All the money we’re paying for these guys, we should do something,” said Martin Barbosa, of Wylie. “If everyone is healthy we’re going to be good. We have a good core. We still got [Adrian] Beltre, Elvis, [Derek] Holland, guys that are proven.”
Along with those proven veterans, Barbosa said, players returning from injury-riddled seasons such as Prince Fielder, Shin-Soo Choo and Mitch Moreland should mean more wins.
“They should contend,” said Barbosa, who dragged his wife and 6-year old daughter, Sienna, 6, and her cousin Jaylee, 10, out of bed at 7 a.m. “If everyone stays healthy and you get in the playoffs, you never know what can happen.”
Curtis Foster and his son, Breon Lewis, 9, arrived at 10 a.m. Both are counting on another pennant.
“It’s a new team, it just takes time,” Foster said. “They’re starting over. They didn’t have their best players [last year] so hopefully they can turn it around this time.
Banister, who talked to the media after a lengthy Q&A with fans, knows the importance of a strong fan base.
“I understand just the synergy of what fans can create for a team. It’s extremely important,” he said. “My greatest challenge is kind of tempering my excitement of being in this role. I think there’s a reconnecting process of a fan base with this team. That’s a challenge also.”
That reconnection got a bolt of energy at Saturday’s Fan Fest.