[by Vincent Getz, New York]
GENE UTLEY SETTLED deeper into the comfort of his worn easy chair and took a refreshing gulp of his ginger ale, silently indulging in the moment he had waited for his whole life. He couldn’t begin to imagine what it must be like to be a Chicago Cubs fan. The Cubs, owner of the longest streak without winning a World Series (1908, 102 years), hadn’t even been to the Series since 1945. The Texas Rangers had penned a similar, though much shorter history, but it was painful enough. Now a new chapter was to be written. For the first time since their inception, the Rangers would take the grand October stage in front of the nation. It was a life-long journey for Gene and the Rangers, who shared the same age, 50. Wouldn’t a championship be a nice birthday present – and delivered by Nolan Ryan, no less?
Ryan, born in Refugio, Texas, was Gene’s favorite player and a state institution. He played the final 14 years of his career with the Houston Astros and the Rangers in Arlington. He struck out a likely untouchable all-time record 5,714 batters and threw an unfathomable seven no-hitters, the last two for the Rangers. On top of that, if it weren’t for Ryan, it’s possible the Texas Rangers would be on the verge of extinction.
In 2009, Tom Hicks and his holding firm Hicks Sports Group, then owners of the Rangers, defaulted on a half-billion-dollar loan. Hicks had to borrow money from major league baseball just to make payroll and in May of 2010 amidst debts including $25 million still owed to Alex Rodriguez from seven years ago, the Rangers filed for bankruptcy. After a year of legal wranglings that saw major league baseball threaten to take ownership control, a group led by Chuck Greenberg and current team president Ryan managed to finally purchase the team less than three months ago.
Gene remembered watching his first World Series with his dad in 1969, but was unaware at the time, as were most people, of 22-year old backup pitcher, Nolan Ryan. Before he was “The Ryan Express,” he won the World Series with the New York Mets that year. It would be his first and last World Series as a player in a career spanning 27 years.
Gene finished his beverage and quietly placed the glass down to the clink of ice cubes and watched the celebration. Centerfielder Josh Hamilton, the heart of the team, was just named MVP of the American League Championship Series, and was speaking before the raucous home crowd, thanking God and his teammates. He was once on the verge of extinction, too. Drafted in 1999 by the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, and later touted as the number one prospect in all of baseball in 2001, he lost his way for three years, succumbing to a drug and alcohol addiction that in 2005 found him suspended from the game and emaciated on his grandmother’s doorstep, looking for help. Today, he touts faith in God and the support of loved ones and teammates as essential to his journey back. After their Divisional Series win against the Rays his teammates showered Josh and themselves in a celebratory ginger ale deluge. They did it again after the ALCS, superstitious bunch those baseball players.
In 2004, the Rangers named Jon Daniels, 27 at the time, general manager. He was the youngest in baseball history, as the Rangers business model under Ryan looked to emulate champion teams like the Red Sox (Theo Epstein) and Yankees (Brian Cashman). Daniels was responsible for bringing Hamilton to the Rangers in 2008. Under his tenure, extremely likable player’s manager Ron Washington took the helm in 2006. And this year he added an additional piece to the pennant puzzle, pitching ace, Cliff Lee.
To Gene, Washington and Lee represented good old-fashioned blue collar baseball. Washington was an avowed traditionalist eschewing sabermetrics for intangibles and small-ball. He, too, battled drug abuse, but when asked if that were a bond between he and Hamilton, he said frankly, no, they don’t look at each other that way.
Lee exemplified the old adage that pitching wins playoff series, and backed it up with his undefeated postseason record, now 7-0. He is the postseason pitcher that has opponents buckling at the knees on off-days, and teams rearranging their pitching rotations in the hopes of shutting down the Rangers, perhaps eking out a run, or at least making it to the Rangers’ bullpen. Gene loved to watch this guy pitch. “Who didn’t?” he thought. He struck fear in the hearts of the Rays, Yankees, Giants, everybody.
Daniels wasn’t finished. He also brought in veteran rightfielder Vladimir Guerrero this season. Gene quietly got out of the chair, so as not to wake up his wife and went over to the computer. Is Guerrero a Hall of Famer? He checked Vlad’s career numbers: 436 homers, .320 lifetime, nearly 1500 RBIs, and an MVP. “Yup. No rings, though…yet.”
“Hamilton, Lee, Guerrero. Big-time players.” But Gene knew you couldn’t win the World Series without some hard-nosed role players and Daniels delivered on that front as well, trading for leftfielder Nelson Cruz in 2006 and catcher Bengie Molina in 2010, acquiring the latter from the San Francisco Giants. No matter who wins the Series, Molina will get a ring. “I’m pretty sure he’s not rooting for the Giants,” Gene laughed. As for Nelson Cruz, he smacked three home runs in the Divisonal Series against the Rays, then added another two against the Yanks. “Hopefully, he’ll do it again.”
All the same, though, like most fans, Gene took a special pride in those Rangers who played their whole pro career in Arlington. This was the case for the entire Texas infield. Mitch Moreland is a rookie first baseman, and shortstop Elvis Andrus is the youngest in the lineup, at 22. Third baseman Michael Young is the team-veteran fan favorite who’s played second, short, and finally the hot corner for the past 11 years. And five-tool all-star Ian Kinsler rounds out the infield at second base. While Andrus and Young were initially drafted by other teams, all four started their career after emerging from the Texas minor league system.
If the team could take a lead into the 9th, Gene was confident closer Neftali Feliz, who notched 40 saves this season, would be able to slam the door. He too has only played pro ball for the Rangers and broke the rookie record for saves on the same day they clinched the AL West.
But would it all be enough? Gene shuddered to think if, God forbid, the Rangers lost the Series, and how long it would take for them to make it back again. The mere thought made his heart thump and palms sweat. With Ryan and Daniels steering the ship, salty veterans with some left in them, and young squabs just starting their career, it should be a shorter wait than the last time. Still, you never know.
Gene went to the kitchen and poured himself another ginger ale, superstitious bunch those baseball fans.
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Thanks to Peter for the Vladimir Guerrero Hall of Fame chat. He runs VIDEOROOM, New York City’s largest, oldest, and best independent video store. Check it out!