Road Trip with Whit-Pit

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We waited until it was a million degrees outside and the Rangers were four thousand games out of first place, but Whitney and I finally made our annual road trip to Arlington to take in a game together this past Friday night. As always, we hit the Golden Chick in Childress, grabbed some chocolate covered pecans in Chilicothe, and enjoyed a huge dinner at Pappasito’s before the game. Cole Hamels went six strong innings, hit the showers with a 6-0 lead, and then Texas held on in a nail-biter 6-4. Thanks to the Rangers’ train wreck of a bullpen, the Astros brought the tying run to the plate in each of the last two innings. And, due to the above-and-beyond efforts of the staff at the pro-shop with their walkie-talkies, we tracked down the very last Joey Gallo t-shirt/jersey in Whitney’s size in the whole stadium!

We were treated to a wonderful bonus when Chuck Morgan announced that the actual Pudge Rodriguez Hall of Fame plaque from Cooperstown was available for viewing and pictures in the first base concourse. Apparently they very rarely ever take a plaque from the Hall of Fame. But with Pudge’s number being retired by the Rangers in an on-field ceremony Saturday, they allowed it to be brought down for the celebration and put on display the night before. We waited in line for a half-inning to see it up close. Very cool.

And this surprising revelation: I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s OK for the Astros to be in the same division with the Rangers.

When Bud Selig ramrodded this thing five years ago — MLB paid the Astros’ new owner $70-million to switch leagues so every division would have the same number of teams — I was more than a little upset. As a baseball fan growing up in Texas, you dream of a Rangers-Astros World Series. The Rangers are your favorite team, but the Astros are your second favorite team. You root for Houston. You want to see them do well. You keep up with their players. Bagwell, Biggio, and Berkman. Larry Dierker. The rainbow unis. The dreadful dome. Enron and Minute Maid Park. It was always good to cheer for the Lastros because, being in the other league, they posed no threat to the Rangers. And they were a Texas team. You always root for Texas teams.

That all changed in 2013. You can’t root for a team in your own division — you need them to lose every night. What do I do with these old Astros’ shirts and bobbleheads and ashtrays and commemorative cups? Major League Baseball claimed it would ignite a fierce inter-state rivalry. I didn’t see how.

Now, I do. The past four seasons, as the Rangers owned the ‘Stros and won division titles and dominated the Silver Boot, it felt kind of flat, kind of one-sided. This season, though, as Houston has run away with the West and put up football scores on all their opponents, it feels different.

It’s no secret that the cities of Dallas and Houston have a long and storied rivalry. People from both cities insult the people, the culture, the food, the music, and the sports teams from the other city. Coupled with the Rangers’ early dominance, this surge by the Astros has fueled some sincere animosity. Have you noticed? Rangers-Astros games get chippy early. It was so one-sided on the diamond for those first four years and the Houston frustration was so built up that now it’s exploding into something noticeable. The frustration is being expelled and expressed with an exuberance that causes players and managers from both teams to want to pitch inside and slide into second spikes-up. You can feel it.

There are enough people from North Texas who have transplanted down to Houston and enough folks from the Bayou who’ve made their way to Dallas-Fort Worth that, when the Rangers and Astros play each other, the stadiums are almost equally split between the two teams. Rangers and Astros fans work together, live in the same neighborhoods together, go to church together — they see each other all the time. So the rivalry is fierce, yes. But we all live in Texas. We all have our history and culture and love of the Lone Star State in common. So we can get really worked up during the game, and laugh about it, take pictures together, and wish everybody well when it’s over. I love that.

My Astros shirts have remained in the back of my closet for the past five years. I haven’t worn them at all. Not once. Not since 2012. But with the Rangers 16-games back and out of it and with Houston making a run for their first ever World Series title, it’s going to happen. I’ll be rooting for the ‘Stros all the way. And, yeah, their success makes the rivalry even a little better.



The Window is Closed

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I hate it. It makes my stomach hurt to realize it. My heart weighs four tons in my chest as I type these words. We could see this coming for the past two years but, now, today, the reality is sinking in. And I hate it.

We missed our window.

This eight or nine year opportunity for the Texas Rangers to win a World Series is over. The dramatic playoff wins were thrilling, the gut-wrenching postseason losses were devastating, the overall success for the Rangers in this current decade has been phenomenally unprecedented and a lot of fun. But it’s over now. The window is closed. We missed our window.

Yesterday’s trade deadline deals signaled the official end for this current group of Rangers and, just as certainly, for this current Rangers era. Yu Darvish, the spectacular but fragile ace, was dealt to the Dodgers; Jonathan Lucroy, who never came close to producing what we hoped, was sent to Colorado; and Jeremy Jeffress — who? yeah, I know — was shipped back to Milwaukee.

Give General Manager Jon Daniels credit: he goes for it all-the-way.

After the incredible Game Six loss to the Cards in the 2011 World Series, Daniels put the pedal down to get back to the championship level and finally take the franchise’s first trophy. He spent millions of dollars to sign Adrian Beltre and Yu Darvish and Cole Hamels. He brought in Prince Fielder, Shin Soo Choo, and Carlos Beltran. But since Nelson Cruz misplayed that ball in right field, the Rangers have won two division titles and zero postseason series.

And now it’s over.

Darvish was the team’s ace. It just didn’t work out. He worked 200 innings only once in his Rangers career. He made only two postseason starts, both losses, failing to get to the seventh inning both times. He spent four stints on the disabled list. And this year his record is 6-9 and his ERA is over four.

So, we’ll get ’em next year, right?

No. The window is closed.

The Rangers go into next spring with no outfield, no bullpen, and only one starting pitcher. The infield is this team’s only strength and it’s got a guy at first base in Gallo who might lead the league in both homeruns and strikeouts, a major question mark at second base with the inconsistency of Odor, and two aging superstars at short and third with Elvis and Beltre.

We missed the window.

I’m not sure why Daniels didn’t do more yesterday. Those three trades netted a total of just five prospects when this team needs about a dozen. I would have done anything to get Shin Soo Choo off the roster — pay another team part of his salary, whatever it takes. Could Elvis not help a playoff team in the National League? In my mind, anybody over the age of 25 not named Adrian should have been on the trading block. Maybe they were. The Rangers aren’t exactly in a position of strength right now.

My hope is that Daniels isn’t trapped in a place of thinking they’re just one or two players away, they’re just one lucky break removed, from being a contender. They’re not. And I think he knows that. This team is in for at least four or five years of some bad, bad baseball. We’re going to have to watch two or three 90-loss seasons. It’s going to be brutal. But it’s exactly what is needed.

Remember how fun they were to watch in 2010 and 2011? Remember the Royals from three or four years ago? Look at the Astros today. Young, homegrown, locally developed talent with a healthy mix of three or four free agent contributors. You don’t do that overnight. After chasing the pennant hard for the past eight or nine years, the Rangers farm system is depleted. There are no front line starters down there. No pitchers at all. It’s going to take some time.

The window is closed. We missed our window.



3K for Beltre!

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Pudge! From Arlington to Cooperstown

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Pudge Rodriguez has become only the second catcher in history to be voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame on his first ballot and the first true Texas Ranger to be eternally enshrined in Cooperstown. From the day Tom Grieve signed him as a 16-year-old out of Puerto Rico, throughout his extraordinary 13 years in Arlington, to his service now in the team’s front office, Ivan Rodriguez has always been in the top two or three of anybody’s list of all-time most popular players in Rangers franchise history. Pudge embodied the Rangers’ dramatic shift in the early ’90s to sign and develop their own players, becoming the face of the franchise and the heart and soul of the 1996 team that captured the Rangers’ first ever division championship and playoff appearance. Two more division crowns and an A.L. MVP award before the end of the decade, and Pudge solidified himself as an icon. His skills and stats are undeniable. But his fiery intensity, his electric smile, his feel-good story, and his devotion to the home-town team make it difficult to argue for anybody ahead of him in any list of all-time Rangers greats.

PudgeThrowsDuring his 21-year-career, Pudge was Johnny Bench, his hero, with a better bat. He hit .296 with 311 home runs and 1,332 RBIs. He won thirteen Gold Gloves, a record for a catcher. He appeared in fourteen All Star Games, another record for a catcher. He won seven Silver Sluggers and that league MVP award in ’99. He threw out the highest percentage of base-stealers in Major League Baseball history — he would absolutely shut down an opponent’s running game — teams stopped trying. And he started a record 2,543 games at its most demanding position — 44 more games than the original “Pudge,” Carlton Fisk.

I was privileged to personally watch and professionally cover Pudge Rodriguez from the rickety press box at old Arlington Stadium in the early ’90s to the champagne-drenched clubhouse under The Ballpark in Arlington during the late ’90s. I never used much of his sound during our sportscasts — his English never really translated. But I was always drawn to Pudge, like everybody, and wanted to be around him and talk to him.

His intensity was intoxicating. And unusual.

Pudge96Baseball is a 162-game marathon. Baseball players don’t get too caught up in individual wins and losses. You can’t afford to get too high or too low. Nobody can maintain that over a six-months season. But Pudge lived and died with every single win and loss. That infectious smile and laugh was especially ramped up after wins and his anger and devastation was evident after every loss. After a tough loss he would almost block his locker from reporters like he blocked home plate from opponents. He didn’t say you couldn’t come over, but the look on his face told you to think long and hard before you did. But after a win, there was nobody more fun to be around.

I don’t know if Rodriguez ever used steroids during those late ’90s championship seasons. His name does not appear anywhere in the Mitchell Report like his teammates Juan Gonzales and Rafael Palmeiro. Because the Rangers are my favorite team and Pudge is my favorite Ranger, I tend to believe he’s clean while, at the same time, maintaining a healthy acknowledgement that, maybe, he’s not. But he was so fun to watch, so integral to the team’s transition from laughingstock to perennial World Series contender, so talented.

Hall of Famers Ferguson Jenkins and Gaylord Perry spent some time with the Rangers late in their careers. Nolan Ryan was the first player and, up until now, the only player to don the Texas Rangers’ cap in the Hall. Yes, he legitimized the franchise late in his career and brought it much needed attention and validity. He’s legendary; a Rangers icon for whom we’ll always be grateful.

But when Pudge Rodriguez goes into Cooperstown on July 20, he’ll be wearing a red Rangers cap. And he’ll be the very first true Ranger — top to bottom, through and through — to do so.



Three and Done

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I expected the Rangers and Blue Jays to tangle for four or five games, I expected it to be a brutal series, I expected it to be a roller coaster of emotion all the way through. I believed the Rangers had the best top two starters among all the playoff teams, I believed they had the best young talent combined with the best playoff-tested veteran superstars, I believed they had the #nevereverquit mojo. I thought they would win it. I wasn’t going to be surprised if they lost it. But, either way, I thought there would be many incredible highs and lows along the way.

So, yeah, today I’m in shock. I’m still numb.

I wish I could blame one thing. I wish I could point the finger at one person, one play, one moment. I wish I could be mad at one thing.

But it was a total team failure. It was a complete meltdown from top to bottom. Pitching and hitting, baserunning and throwing, outfield play and behind the plate — it was a nightmare. The three starting pitchers gave up 16 hits, eight homeruns, and 17 runs in 10-1/3 innings for a 13.94 ERA. I have no idea what the Rangers hit with runners in scoring position, what their overall batting average was, or their on-base percentage, but I’m guessing it was just as bad or worse as what happened to the starters.

There was no roller coaster. Just one long four day cloud of dread and doom.

Pitchers and catchers report in 18 weeks.



Game One Links

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When the Texas Rangers are appearing in a divisional playoff series it’s always going to be a weekday afternoon start. For the team with the most division championships in MLB over the past ten years, including two World Series appearances, and the number four media market in the country, it would seem an evening prime time game would be in order. At least one. No, not for the Rangers. So, again, at work, we’re forced to start faking the cough during the mid-morning and then send out the vague email after lunch that you’re just not feeling right and need to go home. Hey, we’re all used to it by now (cough, cough).

I highly recommend that before the 3:38pm start, Texas time, you click here to read Jamey Newberg’s excellent preview of the Rangers-Jays series. I’ve always enjoyed the way Newberg writes, combining his expert knowledge of the game and his balanced observations with his unabashed love for the Rangers. He’s a real Rangers fan, no doubt. But his insights are just about as good as you’ll get anywhere else. Consider this from today’s Newberg post:

“We all want a championship here and, along the way, a knockout of the Blue Jays in a strictly figurative sense. But there’s no way any of us would want to skip ahead to the last page just to find out the result, right? The journey — as 2016 has exemplified — is such a huge part of the payoff. I can’t wait to see how this all plays out, whether it’s crushing or the best thing ever, but I have zero interest in finding out how it ends without embracing the experience of getting there.”odorpunchupclose

The Dallas Morning News has an outstanding preview section that includes a timeline of the intense rivalry between the Blue Jays and Rangers, with video, from the bat flip to the punch. You can find ballpark food comparisons and great player quotes about the series. It also includes lots of links to several national writers who seem split between picking Texas and Toronto to advance to the ALCS.

All of the previews include a heavy emphasis on the bad blood between these two teams. Sports Illustrated is picking the Blue Jays in five games. ESPN focuses only on the rivalry and doesn’t even predict a winner.

Personally, all the statistics through the grueling 162-game season favor the Rangers in any series they might play this month. Their historic winning percentages against winning teams and in one-run games, the 35-innings scoreless streak for the Rangers bullpen down the stretch, the high-powered offense, the best 1-2 punch at the top of the rotation in team history — all of these factors give me tremendous confidence going in. Who would be shocked if Texas takes this series in four games, breezes past the Indians or Red Sox in the ALCS, and wins their first ever title with relative ease? At the same time, Darvish has a tendency to give up early home runs and Hamels looked better in April and May since he’s looked since the All-Star break. And the Rangers offense is capable of going ice-cold for two or three games in a row. So, I don’t trust ’em. I love ’em, but I don’t trust ’em.

Let’s Go, Rangers!

Clap, Clap. Clap, Clap, Clap.